MARCH 17, 2006

TOP GUNNING
Gallery displays superb scenes of Louisiana's landscape by Simon Gunning


By DOUG MACCASH
Art Critic

 

Gunning's 'The Enrance' is a gritty glimpse of the industrialized mouth of the mighty Mississippi


Simon 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 of God.

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 rejuvenation."

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.