Gunning's oil paintings at Arthur Roger Gallery are the best depictions
of Louisiana's watery coastal landscape ever made — ever. Better
than Meeker, Clague, Buck, Heldner, Coulon, Millet or anyone else who
ever tried to capture that impenetrable muddy water and endless vista
on canvas. His spidery steel girder bridge over the Rigolets is beyond
beautiful; it's hypnotic. His palmetto-lined bayous are strange, sexy
and scary. And his 10-foot wide painting of the mouth of the Mississippi
is so sublime it's disturbing. One onlooker said the aerial perspective
of the scene gave him a touch of vertigo.
If you've ever been fishing out where the tall grass dissolves into
the deep water you'll agree: Gunning really gets it. The 49-year-old
artist, who came to New Orleans from his native Australia in 1980, often
plied those waters in his small sailboat — before it was destroyed
during Hurricane Katrina. He's obviously immersed in the delta's great
beauty and its equally great blemishes.
"I describe what I paint as the character and nature of the deep
South," he said. "It's like a big back yard full of everything
I could want to paint."
And he has the abundant skills to paint his big back yard in a style
that's realistic without being literal and loving without being sentimental.
Though his heroes may be the romantic 19th-century landscape painters
of Australia, who compare to our Hudson River School, Gunning is no
romantic. He rarely picks the unspoiled, up-lifting wetland vista to
record on canvas. Instead, he always seems to find the fly in the ointment,
the sunken carcass of a shrimp boat in the channel, rusted debris on
the bank, an ugly sheet metal stilt house interrupting the horizon.
He seems always to point out the clumsy hand of man sullying the work
But he doesn't claim to have any particular ax to grind, no political
or ecological bent. Instead, he said the sharp geometry of those "disruptive"
foreign objects simply allows him to add sculptural depth to his otherwise
flat, horizon-to-horizon compositions. And, he hopes, their presence
brings to mind the timeless traditional mysteries of shipwrecks, abandoned
houses and such.
"There are large elements of abstraction in my art," he said.
"I use things in the landscape as excuses to let go and express.
When a boat or something is reflected in water, it opens up a lot of
corridors for expression, another way of looking at things.
"I'm just attracted to the industrial decay, the menace of the
swamp— no, not the menace, but the deep soulfulness… The
fallen down little shacks, the life and death, the destruction and the
Gunning said that the past two years he spent creating this suite of
paintings has been particularly difficult, bracketed by the death of
his mother and by Hurricane Katrina. He's called on the deep soulfulness
of the Louisiana landscape to express it.
"The shipwreck paintings are about my mother's death," he
said. "The blue Rigolets bridge came at the end of a very worrisome,
very troubling period of life. The subject matter is very symbolic.
I know it's a cliche, but they're about life and love and loss. I paint
my life, period — that's what I do."
Life. love and loss aren't cliches, of course, they're the cosmic concerns
that make Gunning's art great.