Karen Gunderson: Nature and the Nature of Royalty
May 14 through July 2, 2022
By VITTORIA BENZINE, June 2022
Light dances off textured black surfaces at “Nature and the Nature of Royalty,” the latest solo show by New York-based painter Karen Gunderson. On view at Erin Cluley Gallery through July 1st. The Dallas-based exhibition space and creative hub introduce their storied creative community to the historic and ambitious practice of this Wisconsin-born legend, who came to learn from the likes of Elaine De Kooning and Sol LeWitt.
Though Gunderson has explored several notable chapters throughout her sixty-year artistic career, this most recent exhibition focuses entirely on her black paintings–a series that she began in 1988 and continues to work on through the present. With these works, Gunderson evolved from previous fascinations like her series centered around clouds rendered in acrylic paint and even Plexiglass by standardizing her technical approach over subject matter instead.
“She discovered her manipulation of purely black paint could capture light and movement in an unexpected and distinct way,” Kathleen Hefty wrote for the Brooklyn Rail back in 2016. This was around the time that Gunderson’s London and NYC representation, Waterhouse & Dodd did a retrospective of her work and hosted a book signing of the monograph published by Abbeville Press and authored by Elizabeth Frank in 2016. “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 works collected across “Nature and the Nature of Royalty” harness her area of acclaim to make provocative statements about power. The show pits her paintings of water, nature, and celestial bodies alongside portraits of popular monarchs and presidents. As Gunderson explained in a 2020 interview with Whitehot EIC Noah Becker, this particular subject matter sprang about during 2001, a response to the pivotal years of the war in Iraq. In response to the war, she raised archetypes of good leaders from history.
Here, portraits of Queen Maria Theresa, Marquise de Maintenon, and Marquise de Montespan from the very early aughts join brambles from the 2010s and brackish waves of just yesteryear. Maria Theresa was the only woman in the historic Habsurg lineage to occupy the role of reigning monarch herself. Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, Marquise de Montespan, was the most well-loved maîtresse-en-titre of France’s Louis XIV, bearing him seven children. The Marquise de Maintenon also laid with the Sun King, serving as his advisor even though she was never considered Queen.
Much like Gunderson’s powerful portraits of Barack Obama from 2009, which heralded his then-recent election, the significance of these portraits change with the progression of time and shifting historical contexts–much like Gunderson’s nature paintings dance under light.
Other series like “Moral Courage During World War II,” which was shown in seven different venues across the US and Europe focus explicitly on the virtue of moral courage. In “Nature and the Nature of Royalty,” that altruism takes more abstract conceptual shapes. “Gunderson chooses her subjects with an intention of drawing attention to them,” the show’s press release adds. “Mountains from Tibet have been included because of the devastation to the Tibetan monasteries – creating a reminder of their beauty and the hope of their continuing culture.”
In the artist’s own words, Gunderson said that “working in all black offers the biggest contrast to the light reflecting on the paintings. When the light shines on the brush marks it describes the process of painting the images as if feeling them in space. Imagine lightly touching and feeling the objects and following their forms with the brush. The energy of the strokes can engage the viewer with a haptic experience – a sense of touch.”
Gunderson also explained to Becker the perceived presence of haptics in her work. “When I paint the black paintings, I am aware of the touch of the paintbrush marks and the light reflecting on those brush marks,” she said. “There is a kind of synesthesia that takes place, where people look at it and they follow the brush strokes with their eyes and can mentally feel how it felt to make them.”
Her tactile approach to water embodies its own paradox through a complete focus on physical texture. The undulating surfaces perfectly captured with strokes of oil paint could never in fact be touched in real life. Here, she immortalizes with organic, earth-based media the impossible shifting surface tension that human beings can never really grab. These works are hypnotic, but also thrilling–they make danger stand still for a second. A ripple is like a moment–just when you think you’ve got the thing, it breaks apart completely.
“Nature and the Nature of Royalty” rounds out its presentation with “Flower Moon,” another work circa 2010 that operates like a cornerstone for this show. Not only does every artwork here appear as if bathed by the moon’s silvery light–the moon also controls water, the tides, and in reality harnesses the light of another body, the sun, to truly shine. “The moon makes an appearance because it is a universal symbol – seen by all humanity from anywhere on earth,” the press release adds.
In an extensive biographical chronology documented through the artist’s own site, Gunderson explains the nuanced way her upbringing shaped her as a creative. By the time she was twelve in 1955 she had an experience…“An ant crawled along, and suddenly, I imagined the scale of the ant and then saw the big maple tree in the front yard,” her chronology reads. “It was dizzying, but as I got up I noticed how the world changed with every inch I rose. Each different angle made the world a different place than it had been a moment ago.”
Only at this stage in her practice, backed by so much acclaim and good faith experimentation, do we see Gunderson’s lifelong commitment to breaking with tradition offered her greatest core competencies. Emulated by the likes of Gillian Carnegie. Gunderson was the daring soul bold enough to make physical texture itself a matter of a substantial, new conceptualization. Her show at Erin Cluley marks as much an accomplishment for the Dallas art scene as it does for the artist. In this notably digital cultural moment, Gunderson’s work famously still demands to be seen in person. Catch “Nature and the Nature of Royalty” yourself through July 1st. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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