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Beyond the Sea 

Let's face it, we're mostly townies around here. You know, urbanites, bon vivants and barflies. Beyond the occasional hunting or fishing trip, our idea of nature is taking the mutt down to Dog Beach on the levee and observing the elaborate ecology, which tends to be more social than biological. We like being close to nature in the form of oak trees, song birds, Confederate jasmine and all the other flora and fauna that adorn our leafy residential neighborhoods, but we don't like it when nature (heat, humidity, roaches, mosquitoes, tidal surges) gets too close.

That goes for most artists as well, but there are exceptions. A special few are inspired by tropical jungles, barrier islands or, in the case of Simon Gunning, the eerie, amphibious frontier where the Gulf meets the Mississippi. That is the setting for his most recent paintings, and while much of this is consistent with his work to date, there are also some new ripples in some of these canvases. The Entrance, for instance, at 4-by-12 feet, is like a movable mural featuring a rusty container vessel plying the placid waters of the ship channel at the mouth of the river. To its left, on tall, spindly pilings, is a metal industrial building like a warehouse on stilts sunk into the amphibious sand of the embankment. At first I thought my connection to it was personal. In college, I'd worked for a shipping company at night, mostly dispatching ships up and down the river, but one summer I rode a freighter to South America and back, which was an amazing way to see, among other things, the strange mix of industry and wild nature that defines whole, vast stretches of coastal Louisiana.

That was part of it, but I also began flashing on Donald Judd, the pioneering minimalist sculptor whose work still baffles some people. Judd claimed that space is not "found" but, rather, is "made" by a sculptor or architect. More precisely, "space is made by thought," he once said. He also claimed that "painting is dead," which while patently false sounded profound and made for a good punch line. Painting, in fact, is very much alive because, as the most plastic of the plastic arts as well as the original virtual reality, it can convey qualities of light and space that trigger mental synapses approximating a real experience. Judd was great because his work expressed space and color in ways that accentuate the viewer's role in defining how art is experienced. If your mind is closed, you won't get it. Throw away the blinders and it just might start to make sense.

In The Entrance, Gunning somehow approximates such spatial subtleties in the horizontal expanse of the canvas and the watered silk surfaces of its numberless shades of gray. In his pursuit of the infinite, Donald Judd ended up taking over a military base in Texas. But Texas is just too dense to be anything but Texas, whereas the mouth of the Mississippi, as Lafcadio Hearn once noted, is where land, sky and sea merge with the infinite, the space beyond our conceptions of space.

Another approach is seen in a series of paintings called Wrecks. For instance, The Wreck #3 depicts a fishing trawler sunk in shallow water, rotting under the searing sun and roiling thunderheads, its hull ripped open, spilling its guts into the sea. It was once a proud workboat but is now a ghost, a maritime corpse, a memory afflicted by entropy. As such, it is an artifact of time, and time, at least as much as space, is a mental construct. Or so Einstein opined. Very different is Blue Rigolets, a view of the Rigolets bridge open to boat traffic, its abstract form joined with its reflection on waters tinted turquoise by the sky, an arched truss stitched together with metal struts like a cat's cradle rendered in steel. A relic of an earlier time, it defines the space around it in a delicate equipoise of sea and shore. Australian by birth, Gunning harks to a British legacy of romantic realists that includes J.M.W. Turner and Frank Brangwyn, among others who looked to the sea for insight into the mysteries of the human experience.

click to enlarge Simon Gunning's Blue Rigolets, with its view of the - Rigolets bridge, presents a relic of an earlier time, defining - the space around it in a delicate equipoise of sea and shore.
  • Simon Gunning's Blue Rigolets, with its view of the Rigolets bridge, presents a relic of an earlier time, defining the space around it in a delicate equipoise of sea and shore.
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Speaking of Through April 22, Simon Gunning: Drawings And Paintings From The Gulf


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