NATHAN GUEQUIERRE: Clouds of Witness: 1996
Painting and church have long walked hand-in-hand. An ironic footnote in the history if Western society is the fact that the Renaissance, the high point of that relationship, arguably marked the beginning of the end of religion as the central focus of human life. The rise of humanism, of secularism, of faith in the scientific method that began with the Renaissance, is surely the source of the current marginalization of religion by the intelligentsia and the embarrassment of that body’s relationship to art with any outwardly religious function.
True, contemporary religious art tends toward thoughtless aping of received form and received content. A gentle lamb, whitebread Jesus, craft-sale spirit catches dangling from the rearview mirror. But it needn’t necessarily be so, and Karen Gunderson proves that. Her murals recently installed in the chancel of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Racine prove that the relationship between painting and church can be ennobling even now, after nearly two centuries of dissociation. There is an intense and quiet nobility to the project, so well are the paintings conceived, so sensitive are they to their space and their function of it.
Gunderson is a Wisconsinite who has lived in New York City for years. Our Savior is a historically Danish congregation. The sanctuary, built in the 1950’s, is inspired by the Danish tradition of church-as-ship, with polished wooden beams running like the ribs of a sailing vessel across the space and the entire structure coming to a point at the chancel’s prow, the focus of the congregants and the building itself. Here above the altar, surrounding it, re Gunderson’s paintings. The paintings, in content, are very simple: clouds, white and billowing, move through a blue sky, piling up at the very focal point of the church. The paintings are very large, and the overall effect is one of the roof being removed from a church on the most perfect days.
As formal exercise, Gunderson’s murals work as subtly as nightfall in the summertime. The color and quality of light modulates slowly, darkening as the eye moves away from the altar, away from the source of the church’s meaning. The individual clouds come together toward the front of the space, gaining majesty through accumulation, connecting the church itself with the experience of the worshipper. Sky blue is, of course, associated with religious painting, particularly the cloak of the Virgin Mary (and the sky-blue heavens in those crazy Mannerist ascensions). So the painting has its hints of history. But rather than focusing its way into the catalogue of religious art by mimicking the forms which that art also has always taken, Gunderson’s cloud paintings carve out a new niche alongside it. In this environment, they serve as both a metaphor, as an endpoint and a doorway leading to another, further endpoint.
The paintings are both entirely appropriate to their setting in a church and draw the viewer upward and out into the world. They point, literally, to the way church is related to its surrounding environment and the world at large. We are inseparable from that which surrounds us.
The paintings embody a meditative quality wholly appropriate to their setting. They also transcend that setting, as corny as it might be to use such a word referring to church art. The clouds achieve this goal not by a show of earthly grandeur, as has often historically been the case with church paintings, but rather the grandeur of that greater and more general creation we call the world. By eschewing regular conceptions of opulence—think of the rococo churches of Bavaria—and by bringing the sky inside, Gunderson points towards what we have already rather than what we might attain at some distant future. She shows, in other words, the promise of religion to be real and actual and—if we are open to it—within our grasp.
Karen Gunderson’s murals are on permanent display at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 2219 Washington Ave, Racine. The church is open for viewing weekday’s from 9 a.m-1:30 p.m (stop in at the office) and, of course, on Sunday mornings. Call (414) 633-2243 for information.