Karen Gunderson

TOM STRINI: The Milwaukee Journal: Karen Gunderson’s Art Shines Through Her Clouds at Racine: Sunday July 7, 1985

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendant rock…
                                    “Antony and Cleopatra

Racine, Wis. --  Artist Karen Gunderson’s head is in the clouds.  Her paintings precipitate in the reverie induced by cumulus and nimbus and in the way they are shaped by our imaginations as well as by the wind and sun.

In many of the 48 oils, acrylics, gouaches and woodcuts of cloud and sky in her 10-year retrospective, on view through July 14 at the Wustum Museum of Art in Racine, Gunderson sculpts her clouds into echos of the more concrete world below.  This is especially true of the newer works, which are hung in the downstairs gallery.

The subject in such paintings as “Olympiad,” “Sky Figure” and “Shared Light” is not so much the cloud as the human body, in monumental scale and heroic attitude and strength.  One discovers torsos, disembodied limbs and heads in these exceptionally bright and glossy clouds after a moment of gazing, as one discovers images in real clouds.

But these are not accidents of nature.  Once perceived, they become remarkably solid and weighty, yet retain the roiling motion of thunderheads on the rise.  Figure, cloud and sky co-exist in counterpoint, with the tug between abstraction and representation roughly analogous to harmonic tension.

In some of the large paintings from 1984 and 1985, the almost blindingly bright royal blue sky, which one would presume to be the negative space in the composition, jumps to the foreground to become the active ingredient.  In “Sky Divide” and “Great Norwegian Sky Falls,” narrow channels of blue sky tumble like waterfalls between smooth, hard, sparkling whitenesses that could as easily be walls of ice or chiseled marble as clouds.

These large paintings, many of which are in slightly off-balance vertical forms, are imposing and somehow stern.  Most of them are tightly cropped – the whole cloud isn’t visible, just close-up parts that want to push out of the frame.  The cloud shapes are roundly voluminous, but hard and hard-edged; even the sky seems brittle.

By contrast, the earlier, upstairs work is gentle, meditative, almost retiring.  These are mostly panoramic skyscapes rather than close-up chunks of sky.  Their clouds are softer and wispier, and the range of color – pinks and lavenders along with the expected blues, whites and grays – is more subtle and naturalistic than in the newer pieces.

In the older works Gunderson doesn’t transform the clouds into something else, such as the human figure, but rather plays God with the sky itself.  She re-arranges it into rational compositions that could still conceivably be natural phenomena.

The best piece in this category is “Light Sources…N.E.W.S.,” a phenomenal quartet of small (21 3/8 – by – 21 1/2 inches) gouaches on paper.  A field of gray storm clouds seen from above covers each of these four variations on a theme.  In each, an off-stage sun illuminates only the upper reaches of certain clouds, which happen to form a circle over the undifferentiated gray mists below.

While a few of the upstairs pieces look dashed off and clunky in their paint application (see “Cloud Canyon” and “Blue Where Clouds Meet”), others show an extraordinarily deft touch.

The oldest work in the show, a big two-panel acrylic from 1974-’75 entitled “Sun Above and Sun Below,” is one.  It consists of receding horizontal bands of translucent clouds, again see from above.  Regions near the center are ever so slightly inflamed with pink.

There is no hint of blank sky and no central figure against a ground:  “Sun above and Sun Below” is an all-over field painting.  It recalls Chinese screen painting in its delicacy, misty ambiguity and in its invitation to calm and reverie.

In descending the museum’s stairs and thus moving from the older work to the newer, one discovers an artist who has become more physical, assertive and Western.  Karen Gunderson’s head is in the clouds, but her feet are more and more firmly on the ground.


The Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, 2519 Northwestern Ave. (State Highway 38) in Racine, is open 1-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, and 1-9 p.m. Monday and Thursday.  Admission is free.