Henry Gunderson: House Painting and Various Odd Jobs


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Jul 02, 2023

Henry Gunderson: House Painting and Various Odd Jobs

Early in the pandemic Henry Gunderson moved into a run-down building in Red

Early in the pandemic Henry Gunderson moved into a run-down building in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In exchange for renovating it, he was allowed to live there without rent for six months. The place became Gunderson's home and studio, where he created the "House" series now exhibited at Perrotin Gallery alongside other new paintings that follow the same thread as much of his previous work. This work in the show is varied, featuring a few recognizable motifs, like doubling and mise en abyme compositions, as in Daisy Chain Reaction LP (2022) and The Temptation of Gerri (2023). Gunderson's paintings show an extremely high level of technical skill, with different mediums and applications overlayed seamlessly to create startlingly accurate trompe l’oeil effects. Just like his most obvious contemporary, Jamian Juliano-Villani, whose hyperbolic, hyper-realist style and innovative use of mediums mirrors his own, Gunderson drifts between light and deadly serious in his subject matter. There is something unnerving about The Temptation of Gerri while it's also fairly amusing. The same can be said of Marathon Woman (2023) and Marathon Man (2023) whose arachnid bodies are at once funny and terrifying. This is a common tension in his work, but it's mostly absent from the new House Painting series. With this series Gunderson is trying something new in earnest that shows a desire to work in series, using repetition of the canvas shape to hold it together.

The "House" paintings are all hung very low to ground their "house" shape, which resembles the outline of a child's drawing of a house, putting the viewer in a direct bodily relationship to the canvas. The positioning of the house façades painted to fill their frames appear like they can be entered. The strikingly realistic trompe l’oeil surface accentuates this experience. Taking a closer look at the surface one can see how it is constructed, with a wide variety of textures revealing the painterly quality behind the photographic effect which is seen at a distance. It's really a very clever way to paint, giving the viewer multiple distinct levels of engagement to move between.

The issue however comes with how the images in the series hold together. There seems to be no consistent pattern of subject matter other than the reproduction of variations on the same. Some houses resemble NYC houses, some don't, and there is a problem of infinite possibility in their repetition. It doesn't seem necessary that these variations should be in the forms they take; any other form might do just as well. This lack of finality or closure makes the series read as somewhat arbitrary. In Painted Bird House (2022) the motif of being a house is even drawn out to an approximation of a birdhouse, framing an enormous, exaggerated cardinal with a worm in its mouth. But a bird house is not a human house is also not whatever lives inside House of Ivy (2023). The types of structures and their relationships to their inhabitants are wildly diverse. As a result, the series doesn't have a unifying message. Since the house shape is the only consistent overarching element, any one separated from the others might just lose its impact, having no other referent of its own. Presumably, the series could go on forever in this way. The infinite variation afforded to Gunderson by this shape and with little thematic restrictions, opens up to a potentially endless series of possibilities.

While in a sense the house paintings do beg the question "who lives here?" my immediate impression, and the one I still hold to, is that this imaginative exercise is maybe irrelevant. There is too much variation between the houses, their absurd sense of scale—see Dandelion Den (2022)—for there to be a perspective that could ground speculation about who lives behind these façades. The only façade interior that is visible from outside is Night Shack (2022) which is an outlier in the series along with Home Explosion (2022), because of its slightly askew framing. The beams of light that shoot out from between the wooden slats make the painting very exciting to look at.

Had the series only been composed of old, mysterious, derelict houses, then Gunderson might have avoided the feeling of arbitrariness in this series. The house paintings seem half finished, as if something caused the series to continue in a variety of irrelevant directions. It comes off as sillier, and for that reason less believable as a deeper contemplation of a changing neighborhood than it otherwise could be. And yet, 57 Sickmo (2023) and Rainy Day Real Estate (2022) succeed at representing the dilapidated yet generative environment the series might have arisen out of, and the pathos of run-down neighborhoods. We’ve all seen places like Rainy Day Real Estate, and 57 Sickmo is the spitting image of a generic house, with that familiar iron work casting an ominous shadow over the soon to be priced out occupants’ home.

In Home Explosion I see an opening for something else. It successfully undermines the formal device of the series while remaining essential to the series. Instead of filling the shape of the canvas, the canvas becomes a stand-in for the absence of a house. This absence puts an end to the series in a way, were it arranged in a chronology. Its comedic elements, like the flying brassiere, turkey, asparagus, and People magazine make the painting cartoonish, reviving some of Gunderson's usual dark humor. In this sense Home Explosion has its own set of characteristics that could be pushed even further. But being an explosion of possibility, it can only happen once, otherwise it might succumb to gimmick.

Nicholas Heskes is an artist, writer, and translator.

Perrotin Gallery Nicholas Heskes