Karen Gunderson

LINELL SMITH: The Evening Sun: Baltimore: Painting Pictures is the Clouds: Karen Gunderson Puts Life in Cumulus: Thursday March 19, 1987

Baltimore- For 21 years, New York artist Karen Gunderson has painted only clouds.  This month, she has covered the walls of Grimaldis Gallery with cumulous of 10,000 feet, the magnificent clouds you see for two minutes of a plane trip: going up and coming down. 

Gunderson paints clouds that seem ready to embrace you.  Many of them seem strangely powerful, perhaps because they contain the forms, figures and emotions of life on earth.  The wind is not born that could scatter these clouds.  You wouldn’t wish it, either. 

“I was always afraid of heights,” Gunderson says.  “When I flew in a plane, I would imagine that I could land on the clouds if something happened to the plane… I imagine people being able to stand on my clouds.  In my paintings, you’re up there.  And it’s OK for you to be up there.”

As fits the nature of the subject, Gunderson’s clouds change shape before your eyes and before her, as well.  She wanders through her 15-painting exhibit with wonder and delight.

“This is a whole revelation to me,” she says.  “The light and color are very different than what I’ve been using.  I’m letting images come through the clouds now that I would have knocked out before in order to be more abstract and formal.  I’m allowing the paintings to have their own lives that way.

“As I work, I know that there’s a secondary image going on and that it’s coming out of some kind of emotional place.  So I’m letting it be.”

One bank of clouds has absorbed a landscape she admired last summer on a trip to Cape Cod.  In another, she sees boats returning to a harbor.  “The Quieting,” two cloud panels that join at the corner of the room, is about her husband’s decision to change jobs.

“I was paintings, pulling images out of the clouds, and I kept thinking of a man crouching with this horse nuzzling him, saying that everything’s going to be OK,” she says.  “But then the painting becomes other images, too.  If you step back from it, it almost looks like a portrait of George Washington.

“I use clouds because I can handle them- like some people would use the figure or the landscape.  I can do anything I want with the clouds, which, I guess, means I’m reversing the creative process, aren’t I?  Clouds become other things for people.  I make other things become clouds.”

Gunderson, 43, grew up in Wisconsin and received her master’s degree in art from the University of Iowa, a place where the clouds and rapidly changing weather seemed the most dramatic elements of the landscape to her.  She began creating clouds in the late 1960’s, putting floating images of clouds into plexiglass boxes.

She moved on to other cloud forms, such as large sprayed enamel paintings.
And then she moved to New York to paint and to teach at an interdisciplinary class in perception at New York University.

“From 1974 to 1979 I only painted close value clouds, paintings where two different colors would be exactly the same lightness and darkness so that they would interact with each other, like Josef Alber’s ideas about color,” she says.  “A lot of times if you saw one of my paintings, it would just be a big piece of blue.  As you looked at it, though, you would start seeing pinks and oranges and peaches and greens and violets.”

Gunderson’s newest work captures the light of 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  It’s a delicate yet strong light against which most sunsets seem crude.  Gunderson began to paint this light two years ago in a painting commissioned by Bellevue Hospital for its sleep lab.

“I knew that the people who would see it had trouble sleeping, so my thought was not to do a sunset because that’s too direct a statement,” she says.  “It would be the wrong thing to do to the patients.

“So I used that golden time of day, the movie industry calls it ‘magic time.’  The wonderful thing is that as you look at it, the light starts to happen on you.  You feel this light flood you.

“I’m making paintings that I hope will not just make people feel good in a frivolous way but will reach them.  Like putting your arm around somebody.”