Karen Gunderson

ARTS MAGAZINE: March 1984: Karen Gunderson

Karen Gunderson’s paintings of clouds are mirages of the mind where everything shifts and alters as the wind moves.  This is the way it has been for the last sixteen years although her paintings have changed considerably in style and approach since her early three-dimensional constructions, followers by paintings of clouds which look like animals in the sky.  All her paintings belong to the world of perceptual experience which means that they are quite different from the skies in the backgrounds of paintings by Old Masters, even though Claudiam skies are often beautiful.  She is not particularly interested in Constable’s rapid notations as his brush tried to keep pace with the movement of clouds across the sky, yet she is closer to him than she would care to admit.  Actually the only painter she has ever felt any real affinity with is the Norwegian J.C. Dahl, well known in his own country.  I think of her as having a spirit like that of a Chinese master.  Her paintings are works of the imagination.

Gunderson thinks of the sky not as a vault above our heads but as a great cosmic void through which we soar like eagles.  Her pictures have a rapturous glow.  In the life of real clouds this glow would come from light reflected from the earth.  Clouds are darker above the sea than over snow-colored land.  Nansen, in his diary, describes the “ice-blink” or “water ice” in the sky which warns the explorer of the approach of pack-ice.  Nansen described this as being like the reflection of a huge fire, ghostly white in a land of ghosts.  Actually everything on earth colors the clouds: the sands of Egypt, the green waters of the Indian Ocean, the roofs of New York City.  Even a small lake reflects light on a layer of clouds.  We sense all this in Gunderson’s paintings.

The present series overlaps an earlier series consisting of beatific long, narrow slices of clue in very close value with the edged of cloud-forms modulating into rippling movements like the ink paintings of Sung masters.  In this show several remind me 0f these earlier paintings, including one long work entirely in gray showing the crests of cloud-waves which peer out of valleys filled with vapor and mist, like standing at dawn on the top of a solitary mountain.  In Clouds Dividing, the painting itself seems to divide into two levels, a cloud-sky and a cloud-land, the two receding to a meeting place at the horizon.  One vertical painting, Sky Fall, made me think of an egg’s surface which (under the power of scanning electron microscope) resembles a vast field of broken ice.  A closer view of a hairline crack in the shell appears dramatically as a fissure dividing two great snowy walls, yawning into a deep canyon of transparent liquefied blue.

Circles or half-circles figure significantly in the present series of paintings, either as a kind of rain-filled cloud doughnut, as the form of a devil’s punchbowl in the sky, or as vapor floating by itself.  Gunderson said she had been thinking about the circles as an eye through which the scene passes to tine intelligence; but then, almost as an afterthought, she said that her ancestors included Sioux Indians, for whom the circle was a deeply significant.