Karen Gunderson: Moments Past and Present
Waterhouse & Dodd | October 7 – 29, 2016
Karen Gunderson’s most recent large-scale, black works on canvas serve as a reminder that despite the growing shifts in internet and digital art, pure painting still has the capacity to animate a space with movement and vibrancy. For this reason, her paintings are best experienced in person, invigorated by interaction. The light catches subtle shifts in surface, flickering, reflecting, and mesmerizing as the viewer moves around the canvas.
In conjunction with the release of the first comprehensive monograph on the artist, titled The Dark World of Light, Waterhouse & Dodd’s exhibition highlights several periods and themes explored by Gunderson—and that she continues to explore—throughout her long career. The works in the show—aptly titled Moments Past and Present—range from the late 1970s to 2016, and reflect a diverse survey of Gunderson’s practice—from her early pastel-colored cloud paintings, to a collection of 1990s oil-on-photograph collages, to black paintings of the past decade.
Gunderson adopted a black palette in the 1980s, following a series of cloud paintings that layered pinks and blues on top of a black ground, which gave the clouds a more concrete appearance. She discovered her manipulation of purely black paint could capture light and movement in an unexpected and distinct way. Often depicting water, mountain ranges, and celestial bodies, her works take traditional painting subject matter—landscapes, for example, or royal portraiture—and transform them into modern and unusual imagery. The most recent of these on view is River Path (2016), a large, stunning, yet simple monochromatic painting of choppy waves. Because of the trompe l’oeil impression of depth when viewing the compositions in print, it is difficult to envision the paintings as they are in person—entirely flat with no impasto or relief.
This dependency on the absence and presence of light to achieve depth and form is a theme also exemplified in her serial paintings of the moon and its topography. Working from a National Geographic image of the moon’s surface, Gunderson copied each crater’s outlines onto contact paper, cut out the negative space, and transferred the positive onto an already-coated black canvas. Horizontal strokes create the curvature of the lunar form, and the subsequent vertical strokes applied over the contact paper create the pits and dents of its scape. Once the top layer dries, Gunderson coats one final soft sweep over the entire canvas to create a sheen that results in the beautiful shifts in light as the viewer’s perspective changes.
Much like the night sky with its simultaneous impression of flatness and depth, her constellation paintings that depict the positions of the stars on particular dates (like Apophis Near Miss (2009) or Ramadan (2010)) play with the perception of expansion and shallowness. Though this series is not included in the exhibition (but highlighted in the accompanying monograph), a number of these paintings depict astrological predictions of anticipated stellar alignments, and, like those, Gunderson’s works look to a forward momentum that comprehend moments past, present, and future.
KATHLEEN HEFTY is a writer based in New York City.