Karen Gunderson

ARTNEWS: Volume 85, Number 6: Summer 1986: Karen Gunderson: Fischbach

For 15 years Gunderson’s paintings have been entirely of clouds and sky.  “I paint clouds as if you’re flying in the sky” is how she describes the vantage point in her work.

To walk into a Gunderson exhibition is to enter a world that seems at first not our.  In the works in her latest show, large white forms expanded, loomed, touched, climbed, parted and reached, against blue sky painted in broad strong horizontal strokes.  To adapt, to understand we must reinterpret everything we see.  Fortunately, Gunderson offers ample referents for reading her skies and landscapes that we can inhabit.  Her painting Beyond has foreground, middle ground and horizon line.  Her clouds, we see, are not atmospheric, as in Turner, but solid- built out of overlapping, piling forms and bluish, strong rounded contours.  Light, falling across the cloud forms, reveals their volume and, by its presence or absence, alters mood.  As visionary as they are meteorological, Gunderson’s clouds also glow from within. 

Gunderson’s intimacy since the late ‘70’s with Chinese landscape painting is apparent in the caressive energy of her brushwork and in the use of multiple perspective.  Over the mountainous cloud range in the 17-foot-wide Shared Light, for example, one’s gaze roams freely through pockets of space and startling shifts of depth, increasing one’s sense of immediacy and participation.

Gunderson’s cloud banks used to recede like fields.  In this new work they can also open into holes that are like the mouths of caves, or they can tower like mountains or appear both to tower and to recede, for the work offers liberating visual reversals.  Thus cloud and sky can also be read as white rock and blue water, with the fissure of blue between clouds in Sky Divide suggesting a waterfall in a mountainous gorge.

Along with the landscape imagery a dreamlike human one is recognizable in some of Gunderson’s new cloud forms: lips and chin in profile, a woman’s arm fling over her head in the attitude of Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave.”  The clouds themselves, articulately the vertical pairs, behave like figural presences, tensely divided or voluptuously united, their overlap suggesting the touch of naked bodies.  More than ever, Gunderson’s landscapes are about human feelings- of fear, desire, hope, release.

Through their visual reversals and spatial daring her skyscapes offers us alternative ways of responding, not only perceptually but also emotionally, in ways that can permanently transform.  For Gunderson the dark contour of one cloud silhouetted against a brighter cloud, at the center of shared Light, represents her shift from despair to hope over the relationship between two hostile nations.