Robert Gunderman’s current exhibition at AF Projects could be understood as both a meditation on the nature of time and an investigation into the elusiveness of memory. The title of the exhibition, This End, powerfully yet simply encapsulates and personalizes the idea of transition and death, how each of us, burdened as we are within our own physical vessels, must contend with the ever-impending notion that we too will pass. Gunderman sees this “passing” as an opportunity for self-awareness and exploration wherein the “end” might just become yet another beginning.
Gunderman approaches painting as an alchemist might attempt to negotiate the proto-scientific nature of all living systems, i.e. with extraordinary gentleness, curiosity and a painstaking attention to detail — to the living, thriving pulse of the universe. One might be so bold as to say this is a tall order, yet Gunderman rises to the occasion with virtuosity, and always at the heart of his practice, the awareness that we are the stewards, failing though we are, of this sanctified world.
Gunderman builds microcosms, entire universes blossoming within the confines of color and shape, yet the work stems from a fascination with how nature operates on a cellular level, how it tricks and seduces us while at its core, it is indeed merciless. Drawing on references as varied as Peter Wohlleben, a German Forester who recognized the behavioral characteristics of trees, and biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s proposal that states “Morphogenetic Fields contain inherent memories from previous similar systems and that genes simply house protein, and “form” is inherited by some other means,” Gunderman’s exhibition follows the same exacting protocol by visually proposing specific systems of understanding that are at once open and shut, seductive and maddening, loose yet contained.
In Untitled, an impressive work dominated by the color orange, Gunderman suggests the symbolism of 19th and 20th Century French landscape painting, specifically Redon’s famous work The Cyclops, where the central eye dominates the image, and could be viewed as a controlling and independent being, a symbol of the human soul and the mysterious unknown world that is our consciousness. In Gunderman’s painting, the eye is strangely averted as though preoccupied by some distant reflection.
Unlike Redon’s painting, where the object of desire is shown to be helpless and exposed yet protected by the very beast that desires her, Gunderman gives only the suggestion of the “other,” set somewhere off stage right, perhaps waiting to be discovered and adored. Yet we as viewers are not privy to that adoration and so are left only with the all-seeing “gaze,” fixed and penetrating. Thus, we as viewers become the object of interest and affection, and this fact adds further tension to the image and to our experience of it.
Across from this painting is another large-scale work titled Gate. The paintings operate like book ends, two eyes on either side of the gallery the give the viewer the sense they are being watched, or more importantly, seen. The eye in this painting is merely suggested rather than literally executed, as a multiplicity of colors define the surrounding space. Again, there is the allusion to Redon’s work, where images are experienced alternately as dreams or nightmares. Gunderman’s images, because they are not literal and do not obviously reference the body, appear more subtle and suggestive, and insinuate themselves into our consciousness slowly.
Though the paintings are largely conceptual and refer to narratives structures abstrusely, they derive power from insinuation and suggestion rather than any literal idea one can point to. Art historically, they could be said to fall under the umbrella of color field painting, yet I think that is far too reductive a term for this body of work. These paintings have much more in common with the luminous ferocity of William Blake or even Edvard Munch than with the more obvious association with artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Adolf Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt or Hans Hoffman. The stories Gunderman tells here are intimate and scary, and even some might argue sculptural. If you stand long enough looking at them, they begin to take on the shapes and attitudes of some of the sculptural works by Lee Bontecou, albeit in two-dimensional space. They possess a monumentality that oddly aligns them more with sculpture than with painting.
In the end, Gunderman relishes these beautifully fragmented narrative structures, shifting in and out of space and time, pulling us in even as his shapes draw us further out toward the edges and further still into the great beyond. He proposes a world where the viewer might momentarily, silently, slowly morph into these forms, perhaps take up residence there awhile to escape the perils of human consciousness, and wouldn’t it be lovely if we could stay there forever?