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Going With the Flow


On viewing Simon Gunning's long-anticipated new work at Stern, it was hard not to think of the last Stern show, which focused more on the river and the surrounding arteries, including bayous and even the Industrial Canal. Now, it might be argued that much of this show also focuses on the river, the Industrial Canal and adjacent waterways, and that is true, but there is a difference. After all, it is one thing to focus on the forest and quite another to focus on the trees. This show, in a sense, focuses on the trees.

In fact, a few trees are actually in evidence in some of his street scenes, some of which, like The Church and the Old Bordello, mark the continued evolution of his streetscapes. Here the imposing if antiquated religious structures around St. Mary's Assumption church in the Irish Channel make for an interesting contrast with the equally antiquated but more derelict surrounding structures, as palm trees cast long shadows on antique brickwork, elderly gents shoot the breeze, stray dogs stalk pigeons and workers nap next to half-finished street repairs. But most of all, it's the vast, cloudy sky that sets the tone, one of those roiling, muddy slate and onyx skies that portends things ominous, unexpected and occluded. A sky not unlike the river as it appeared in Gunning's last exhibition: a wild, implacable, living thing with a will and spirit of its own.

The mighty Mississippi was the star of that show, and Gunning captured its primordially murky, oil-slicked essence in paintings that were psychological portraits of an archetype of nature. In this show, by contrast, Gunning elaborates and embellishes the man-made world that exists in, on and around the great river. For instance, Big Blue is a detailed view of a dry dock on what looks like the Industrial Canal. Here a big, blue freighter undergoes repairs amid a rainforest of towering industrial cranes as well as a chaos of chugging tugs, rusting, sunken hulls and scavenging pelicans. Busy, dense and meticulous, it recalls those eerie industrial landscapes by various British realist painters over the years. (Gunning is an Australian ex-pat, but his roots may be showing.)

The Red Dinghy is a different take on the same scene, a more abstract chaos of barges, derricks and industrial detritus punctuated by a crimson life boat atop the big blue freighter. All of which are intriguing for anyone with a maritime background, but you could almost get lost in all that detail. On the other hand, Yellow Tug #3 is a simpler, straight-up view of a traditional old-style tug with a water tower, derrick and some roofs of residential structures in the background. It is pristinely rendered, yet not unlike the traditional tug boat paintings collected by my uncle Harry when he owned a shipyard on San Francisco Bay years ago.

What we see is all the detail you would ever want and then some. What is missing is that sense of the power and spirit of the deep, especially the pervasive primal serpent power of the river that was evident in Gunning's last Stern show, and which, with its oddly psychological, almost expressionist brushwork, was its real strength. Without it, what remains is often static and pictorial, if generally interesting and nicely painted overall.

More water and rust turn up at Marguerite Oestreicher, where Drew Galloway's Collection of Quiet resides, only here the rust is built-in. In fact, Galloway paints on sheets of rusty tin roofing material that he nails together. On them, his realistic, if semi-abstract, impressions of the dappled surfaces of ponds and marshes appear as patterns of ripples and reflections of patches of sky, fallen leaves, water lilies and stalks of wild grasses. The patchy brown patina of the rusty metal mimics the murky miasma of the marshes in the countryside where Galloway lives, creating a natural ground for his subtly kaleidoscopic vision of earth, water and wild blue yonder intermingled in scenes that float as disconnectedly as clouds, or perhaps the lingering afterimages of daydreams. The results suggest a surprisingly decorative blend of Oriental art, baroque painting and Southern folk art derived from a studiously laissez-faire approach to the world around us.

You can be forgiven for getting a little lost in the detail of Simon Gunning's The Red Dinghy, with its abstract chaos of barges, derricks and industrial detritus.
  • You can be forgiven for getting a little lost in the detail of Simon Gunning's The Red Dinghy, with its abstract chaos of barges, derricks and industrial detritus.

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