Studio as Portal : Musing Carrie Gundersdorf’s summer 12×12

October 26, 2010 · Print This Article

I know it was a long time ago. We’re nearing the end of October, already, and for my tardiness I apologize. It’s just that this show has stuck with me for a couple months now, I’ve been doing some writing about it here and there, on scraps of paper or loose napkins–sites for thinking that get lost, wilt, tear or bleed. I wanted to take this opportunity to compile what I remember of those thoughts. I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ve always been the sort of person to write at a distance. It takes me a while to process things and put them in perspective. Perhaps for that reason, I have been unable to let On The Make go.

Studio as Portal:  Musing Carrie Gundersdorf

a summer 12×12 at the MCA

by Caroline Picard

We have not only traversed the region of pure understanding and carefully surveyed every part of it, but we have also measured it, and assigned to everything therein its proper place. But this land is an island, and enclosed by nature herself within unchangeable limits. It is the land of truth (an attractive word), surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner, on his voyage of discovery, a new country, and, while constantly deluding him with vain hopes, engages him in dangerous adventures, from which he never can desist, and which yet he never can bring to termination. – Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Gundersdorf’s show at the MCA this last summer included abstract drawings of planetary bodies. These works simultaneously point to the limits of human perception while embracing the uncertainty those limits provide. Such a philosophical position is difficult to occupy, for it confounds one’s preferred sense of security. Likely for that reason I was totally smitten with the show. While investigating a conceptual perception, Gundersdorf aligns herself with the history of painting, stepping off from Modernism’s abstract platform while incorporating contemporary tools for research and celebrating the very literal limitations of human understanding.


Months ago I heard a program on the radio about stars and galaxies. In that program a woman called up in order to ask if the images she’d seen of planets and stars were accurate. She wanted to know in order to anticipate what her world would look like when she died (and went to heaven). The ensuing conversation was remarkable as the host tried to answer her question. “Will it look like those pictures when I die, that’s what I want to know,” she said. “What will I see?” Although unruffled, he nevertheless paused. “It could look that way?” he said. “At the same time all of the images you see in books have been manipulated to highlight different data. It wouldn’t be as colorful, although I really don’t know what your eyes would be like and how you would see, so you might actually see a whole host of other colors. Or perhaps you wouldn’t see anything. It might be completely dark.  You might only feel the universe.” I believe the caller hung up unsatisfied.


The Cosmic Microwave Background is another illustration of the literal bounds of human knowledge. With a radio-wave telescope, scientists measure the microwave region of that wavelength. In doing so, it is possible to measure the Big Bang’s residual radiation. Because no one can explain this radiation without using the Big Bang as a model, it has become the preferred explanation of where “we” come from. Even with that theory, however, there is a ‘beyond’ to that microwave background. It is a conceptual beyond, however; we cannot “see/feel/measure”  it. We only posit its existence because the alternative would suggest a kind of Shel Silverstein drop off, where the universe ends as his infamous sidewalk. Just as Kant described the limits of understanding so the human being is incapable of going beyond certain perceptual bounds. Nevertheless there is a deep-seated impulse is to press past and conquer.

Not so with Gundersdorf.

She celebrates those boundaries in her work, using a combination of abstraction and lo-fi production (paper, color pencil) that seem so far removed from traditional celestial explications as to be unrelated. Her images, while based on scientific astral data, deconstruct that high-resolution imagery, breaking it down and simplifying it’s celestial character into blocks of color and thick radiating, parallel lines. Via that transcription, Gundersdorf destabilizes the assumptions of knowledge, pointing to an obvious post-modern subjectivity and pairing it with a limited ability. It is not simply that each individual is the center of his or her own universe (and thus create discrepancies in experience because of perception). It is also that our eyes are not astute enough to see  unequivocally. The customary images of outer space suggest an apprehension of that space, a mapping that conveys an impossible physical/visual experience. Consequently Gundersdorf’s work offers a more accurate depiction of my understanding of the environment outside the earth.


While referencing the language of modernism, she also undermines its self-assurance. As I see it, Modernism was an attempt to simultaneously dispute the previously accepted coherent universe (wherein the creator is a watchmaker and the world a watch, for instance) while celebrating the ability of a single individual to create monuments within an otherwise chaotic world. While Gundersdorf embraces and incorporates the impulse of abstraction, just as she is fully aware of the cannon she participates in, she nevertheless undermines the idea of a apprehension. While she interprets light, that light is artificial or illustrative. Even through the process of a single painting, during which time she no doubt studies a single image, she comes no closer to an objective “truth” of that image. Instead she develops a subjective relationship to her already interpretive source material. The light she works from is conceptual, intended to highlight certain scientific truths. The resulting work has a personal touch, creating a signifier of a faraway place.

In each piece her hand is ever present—this is not a slick photorealist surface, rather it is a surface that questions itself, borrowing naive materials to illustrate the naivete of our assumptions. It admits some deep insecurity, one perhaps endemic to present times, where the footing of an individual and his or her beliefs is unstable, shifting, subjective and flat. Nevertheless the character of her line, the painstaking way in which she colors the entire surface, is endearing to the subject and evidence of care. While it may examine unapprehendable distances and imperceivable phenomena, this work is not about alienation; perhaps it’s most important feature. It demonstrates, by of example, a way to deal with subjectivity, a way to deal with historical precedents and dialogues, without feeling overwhelmed. Because this work is  unapologetic–large scale drawings, with large, unaffected blocks of color– Gundersdorf shows a way to embrace the unknowing, to celebrate forays into intuitive and immeasurable spaces—to consider the space beyond one’s ken as a place for inspiration rather than fear.

Astral systems have always been fascinating places—almost inconceivable landscapes through which the earth sails. Rife with different phsyical properties and laws, outer space is bold and full of myth. It is a place we go to examine philosophical questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? It is also a space of hypothesis and conjecture, for outer space does not speak our language directly. It does not afford concrete answers. That’s why On The Make was so compelling to me, even relieving–because it began to talk about translating that space and gently soothing the out-of-focus-ness of existential answers. The answer, after all, is in divining those answers and putting them to paper. Perhaps those modernists were right about monuments after all?