GUNNING’S BALANCING ACT
by Terrington Calas, THE NEW ORLEANS ART REVIEW
Arthur Roger Gallery
New Orleans, LA
In a manner of speaking, Simon Gunning has become our John Constable — two hundred years later, celebrating the singularity of the place where he chooses to live. Of course, in lieu of the Englishman’s idyllic sparkling fields and famously studied skies, Gunning, an Australian transplant, focuses on our local waterways. And he does so with something of Constable’s fervor, something of his measured emotional charge. In the huge painting The Entrance, for instance, Gunning’s literal subject is the mouth of the Mississippi River, and it’s an astute composition, a canny asymmetry of forms. But the image, finally, is about majesty. And our response is not cerebral; it’s one of feeling. We are staggered. The work may be twelve feet of oils on canvas, but it’s also a fierce, shimmering thing that somehow arrests us, perhaps spiritually. Like those iconic images from the Northern Romantics, it’s less a painting than a religious event. It suggests one of those great vistas by Casper David Friedrich — pious, but without the genuflection.
Should we, then, read Gunning as a sort of neo-romantic? Well, at times, only at times. If The Entrance were all we saw, there would be no question. It provides the emotional succor we need now, provides it indelibly. With its mesmerizing and evocative glow, this work could remain with us as the essential post-storm image — a symbol of our proud and resolute hope. And, to be sure, it’s a romantic’s posture.
When we study The Entrance, such a sentiment is palpable. But, in his recent exhibition at the Arthur Roger Gallery, Gunning affirmed that, in the main, he is still the even-ranged painter he has been for many years. He manages this with sheer pictorial intelligence. He seems devoted to formal issues — that is to say, spatial structure, brush technique, color. These are the qualities that, if punctuated, can hold a romantic in check. And that is precisely what we sense in this show.
Consider Southeast View from the Ship’s Bridge. Initially, what strikes us is a veritable feast of greens and blues. This is a color-and-brushwork painting: simplified gestural bands of cool chromatics that just happen to signify a wetlands expanse. The picture verges on the purity of Monet’s most cursory water gardens or perhaps Seurat’s gravelines. But not quite. Gunning does not venture so close to abstraction. His forms and surfaces remain persuasively, if gingerly, intact. He seems to betray an abiding traditionalist bent, even in a piece as condensed as this. He insists that we see beyond the technical maneuvering, that we also see the marshy reality — and, emphatically, that we grasp the atmospheric tone of the moment. Here, that means a pervasive calm. The calm is almost shattering. It’s the sort of affecting episode we all recognize, and Gunning conveys it with sketchy undulations, vague olive reflections and his own indefinable way with light. And it all results, arguably, from mindful experience, from time spent. One envisions him plying the lower waterways as unremitting as Constable in his beloved Suffolk. The consequence is a kind of realism that operates from the viewpoint of tradition but understands, and seizes, modernist convention. A realism nourished by the modem.
In the Arthur Roger show, certain other works made this aesthetic intersection even more apparent. Gunning’s various depictions of wrecked boats place him at variance with America’s oldest landscape tradition. Our own 19th century Romantics — say, Thomas Cole or Asher Durand, especially the paradigmatic Asher Durand — would never have considered such subjects as Heron’s Wreck or Blackwater. Nor would they have cottoned to the freewheeling way they are painted. Indeed, for them, even the relative polish of Constable would not do as an example. Claude Lorrain was more their speed — picturesque, lovely and certainly not real. And, patently, the American Romantics had their way with the real. In fact, their enterprise called for pictorial falsehoods Claude would never have dreamed. Theirs was an art of amplified Romanticism linked to patriotic fervor. This was “God’s country” and its landscape had to be perfect, Edenic, breathtaking. The preferred locations were the most dramatic-benumbing heights were ideal. After all, if you bought a Cole, the canvas was a metaphysical window and you could see the face of God. Paintings of this divine blessing should be a visual text that might declare it. And declare it they do — in a clamorous rhetoric. Such works offer a sermonic spectacle of America, but scarcely a real one.
Gunning, with all his painterliness, deals straight-on with the real. Without clamor or rhetoric. His Blackwater #2, like much of this exhibition, has to do with isolated scenes closely observed, everyday reality in the waterways. Often, they feel like portraits. This one presents fragments of an engulfed wooden boat, just yards away from a rusted, disused platform. In the center, a bird sits on a dock post, almost invisible against a dark reflection. Beyond this, on the opposite shore, there is further evidence of the storm’s passing. Of course, this is an image of destruction, and yet nothing tugs at us. We are given the facts, but the only hint of easy sentiment is effectively muffled.
What really matters here is the way Gunning has taken these harsh elements and transformed them. As always, there is his facility with the brush. He uses a characteristic squiggle— for waves, for foliage, for reflections — that is both effective and fascinating. The composition is a classic Romantic one, like a Delacroix, with all shapes looping toward the framing edge and returning to the center — where the bird seems hunched like a diffident actor on a crowded stage. I say diffident because he is clearly upstaged by the rich cerulean blue of the foreground boat. This is a problematic color, so intense, easily cloying. But Gunning uses it often and well. In this instance, it’s somewhat muted, but strong enough to provide the perfect jolt in a picture filled with near-complementary browns and murky greens. We get to savor that blue. And it mitigates the truth of this sad vignette.
The cerulean appears again in Blue Rigolets, this time in full strength and, again, as a complementary foil. The Rigolets bridge is rendered like an emblematic portrait — explicit, immediate — with its twin likeness seen as a reflection in the water. Orange-tan against all that blue. Gunning’s penchant for line comes into play here. He exploits the spidery graphics of the bridge in order to produce a design-like motif, a motif almost as flat and aggressive as a pop image. This painting turns the bridge into something of an icon. Certain earlier Gunnings come to mind in this connection, and they shed considerable light on the new work. In paintings such as the well known Cypress (1990) and Twilight in Barataria (1995) the effect is similarly graphic. Perhaps more so. And the water reflections tend to dominate; they read as deep, ghostly silhouettes. Indeed, the pictures themselves seem ghostly, evoking Charles Burchfield’s haunted, wavering watercolors. These were Gunning’s way, it would seem, of subverting a tired tradition, just as his current work appears to subvert another.
In those 1990s pieces, he confronted directly — and perilously — our perdurable cliche, the Louisiana swamp scene. He promptly tossed out its drippy kitsch persona. All those glossy cypresses and cotton candy mosses had to go. In their place he submitted a metaphorical take on what he saw and felt. He simplified colors, he heightened contrasts, he played mannerist with shapes. And ultimately, he offered the swampland’s true overtone: an aura of fearsome surreality.
In Gunning’s new work, there is hardly a hint of the surreal. These paintings constitute a frank, unequivocal kind of realism. And, as I say, they challenge a long tradition. A tradition with academic authority and a wide audience. Any representational artist who insists on depicting the American landscape must face this. Our history of overstating natural beauty, the uber-romantic impulse, reaches from Cole & Co. to photographers such as Elliot Porter and even, at times, Ansel Adams. It’s stored in our consciousness. For many viewers, those florid dawns and bombastic views are a guilty pleasure they choose to indulge. For others, it’s the hyperbolized truth they want to see, believe that they actually see. The same situation holds true for the sub-category, cityscape, a genre overrun with sentimentalized shacks of every description.
In any case, it’s a question of art as overstatement (as Tocqueville nods from beyond). And a large public is waiting for it. The temptation for artists, obviously, is enormous. Certain of today’s realists take the polar opposite course — a leaf-for-leaf transcription after nature, a kind of latter-day photorealism. Little chance of excessive beauty there. But, as with the original school, over twenty years ago, the work they produce is typically inert.
Gunning’s mode of frank realism seems unique or, at least, it results in something unique. He pursues some of the same themes we have seen in countless kitsch interpretations of landscape and seascape — usually burnished salutes to the utter gorgeousness of nature or artily impressionist guises for sheer technique. His own aesthetic posture is something different: a canny balancing act. He acknowledges both nature and form. On the one hand, he seems gripped by his subjects. Note, for example, the careful selection of details. Only a few details are ever singled out — a perfectly formed metal element on a wooden boat, the just-right ruffle of a flag. And, on the other hand, no artist was ever more enamored of his own painterly manner. He clearly has fun with the brush and with the physicality of paint itself. At moments, his approach invites comparison to various abstractionists — somebody brusque and forthright like Sean Scully, say. In one of the smaller Blackwater canvases, a wrecked tugboat is contrived with heavy tracks of laid-on color — bluntly laid on but modulating just enough to suggest volume and presence. Its pale ochre shape barely intimates “boat.” But, significantly, the image also asserts itself as some animated geometric form, vivid and autonomous.
It is this striking vividness that distinguishes most of Gunning’s new work. He is able to separate and clarify certain chosen shapes — little pictorial gems — within a composition, all the while maintaining absolute unity. It might be a tiny red boat near the center of The Entrance. Or, perhaps, an exaggerated gold reflection in the same work. Such small details are coaxed, enlivened by dense paint and, ultimately, they enliven the whole painting. This means that these paintings have broad areas of smooth sailing then, suddenly, there is a stressed moment — thickly painted and often in startling contrast. It delights the eye. It keeps us engaged. Ultimately, it works.
We noticed something similar when Gunning presented a series of Bywater street scenes a few years ago. Those narrow houses and jostling kids looked familiar, felt authentic but, at the same time, they exuded a novel and separate energy. Not the energy of activity, but the implied energy of dense pigment on canvas. A patch of clothing, a punctuated street sign. It worked then, too. Today, in the new pieces, a charged version of that energized vividness fairly holds sway. In The Wreck #3 and Blackwater, we are drawn to piles of paint as much as we are drawn to piles of fractured boats. A torn sail becomes an expressionist gesture; a portion of the dock becomes an antic calligraphic sign. To say the least, these are gratifying images.
It says a great deal about Gunning that his minded technique does not decline into obsession. Nature remains the focus. If there is an obsession, it may very well be some immoderate fascination with the environment. He seems drawn to the physicality of our region, whether lovely or not. And he brings to it his own aesthetic physicality.