Karen Gunderson

LAWRENCE CAMPBELL: Art in America: Karen Gunderson at Fischbach: May 1988

Karen Gunderson has been painting pictures of clouds for more than 20 years. Although she may seem to have left her paintings of clouds set inside Plexiglas boxes far behind, in her latest work Gunderson has actually reached a point in space analogous to that of her early work, for now the spectator is, in a manner of speaking, placed inside the paintings, brutally enclosed by them. For one thing, Gunderson has hinged some of her new canvases so that they fit into corners of the gallery space. Even more enveloping are her long hanging scroll-type paintings that travel up the wall then onto the ceiling so that a [portion of the work faces down at the viewer from above.

Gunderson’s latest paintings can be somewhat ominous. At times it looks as if she had boiled the sky. Babylon, one of the hinged pictures, consists of two enraged buffaloes. In Glory Be, the clouds are like boulders tossed by titans. The forms in these and other works remind me of those bizarre rocks that Chinese literati in the 18th century collected I order to express their reverence for the eccentric shapes they found in nature. At the same time, the 19th-century American painter and architect Jasper Cropsey could have had Gunderson’s paintings in mind when he wrote the following about some cumulus clouds in his notebook; “Grand masses of dreamy forms floating by each other and then toppling over in deep valleys to rise again in ridges like snowy mountains with lights and shadows playing round them, as though it was a sprit world of its own.”

Studies of clouds have been painted intermittently since the end of the 17th century, perhaps earlier. There is something about clouds as a subject for art that makes of them paradigms of the art of painting. Such free-form elements of nature create a sense of freedom in the painter- until he wakes up to the fact that his own personality has its limitations.

For Gunderson the sky has a profound and cosmic meaning, and she continues to communicate her felling of awe before it. A large painting, titled The Source, is a departure for the artist: consisting of a cloudless curtain of light, it reminded me of the kind of sky baseball players call “high” and fear because of the difficulty they have discerning a fly ball falling out of it. In several other works, Gunderson seems to be saying that the meeting of two clouds is an event not only worth recording but also worth treasuring. It may be that the two clouds are red from the fire of a waning twilight sun and are about to squeeze the last drops of blue from the sky; or it may be that they together form a bay into which the sky pours with an irresistible force. I thought this was by far Gunderson’s strongest show to date. On first entering the gallery, I was reminded of the 1950’s when each season brought forth discoveries of adventurous and audacious art.