The Secret Life of Flowers
Broad Street Review
The watercolor is usually a placid affair— and when you're discussing floral watercolors, it can be almost sleep-inducing. Then Guna Mundheim comes along.
The watercolors in her latest show at Gross McCleaf consist of both floral pieces and landscapes. Much of the work is set in New Mexico, but the show includes a few Vermont studies as well. The largest of the floral pieces, Blue Quartet, is (as its name implies) a suite, whose titles— Orchid and Lemons I, Orchid in Parts III, Orchid Reaching II and Orchid Restored IV— suggest a sort of loose narrative structure.
Mundheim's colors— blues, reds, purples and greens— are pleasing to the eyes, and her mild fragmentation of the image plain creates a nice sense of "business."
Her large floral pieces are never visually boring. But a closer examination of the surfaces reveals that even more is going on here than a cursory glance might have revealed.
Tiny sprite-like figures leap and gambol about. What they represent isn't immediately clear. Are they spirits of the plant life Mundheim has depicted? Are they ghosts of departed people the artist has known?
In any event, they certainly exert a presence, and they add a strange layer of immediacy to what might otherwise be dismissed as merely pleasant academic work.
Amaryllis and Jumpers is another multi-part work, only this time four images are stacked atop one another and presented in a single frame, almost like a strip of motion picture film. In this piece a pinkish color prevails, and the "jumpers" (as Mundheim's tiny sprite-like figures are now called) are brought much more to the fore.
The Tucson-inspired works are on the whole more traditional and a desert brown tends to dominate— although My Tucson II, with its colorful vase of cut flowers, offers a welcome relief.
The four small Vermont pieces are also splashes of color: hillsides covered in turning leaves and, in one instance, stark tree trunks set off by a vivid orange backdrop.
Sharing gallery space with Guna S. Mundheim is a group show, "Color as Directive" which is mostly comprised of landscapes by the artists Rose Naftulin, Karen Segal, Jane Piper (who is most heavily represented with four pieces) and Jan Baltzell.
Times and Places
Gross McCleaf Exhibition
The light and color we grow up with stay with us forever, informing how we see the world. For Guna Mundheim they are the color and northern light of her Latvian childhood, the palette we see in Christen Kobke’s paintings, the delicate tones and shadings in the film Elvira Madigan. These things go with her as she moves among her New York studio, Tucson retreat, and Loveladies. They permeate the spaces she creates.
Northern European light is soft and luminous. Painting in Arizona, Mundheim often starts out with it, using it in her initial background takes—double takes, triple takes and more—with their small, pale shadow people, then keys it up as she absorbs Arizona’s brightness and the tough exuberance of desert plants—bare, thorny shrubs, sage on the nearby mountain, the bright green of the mesquite, and the oleander branches outside her kitchen window. What she makes of it is unique and altogether different from those used to that light, that dried-out color. But these are also story-paintings. There is more than remembered light and color here: there is remembered life in surreal detail. We wonder about those tiny figures moving downwards from left to right, the leaping dancers, the bird we see in one, the face in another. These paintings invite us to make up stories.
In “Oleanders I & Mountain” we have a delicately evoked mountain, foothill, and adobe wall framed against a multiple of sinuous weavings of oleander branches with faint shadow beings—walking from left to right. Who are these people? Where are they going? The Tucson mountain scene in the center, is warm and free of ghosts.
The vegetables in “Parsnips in Arizona” are posed on a glass table set off from a wintry weaving of oleander branches by a severe white line. The foreground vegetables are at once risqué, cool, and formal while the three Western fruits are hot and slightly off balance—and then there’s the inset: a beautifully rendered blue sky, the warm tan animal back of mountain, green sage, and peach-colored adobe structures inviting us out and away from kitchen domesticity.
Mundheim’s multiple fractured framing reminds me of Lionel Feninger. It is part of her characteristic buildup along with the interweaving of branches and branch people as we see in “Pods and Bird”, “Pods Arriving”, and “With Gladioli”—the central images—magenta, red, and orange flowers—set in frames within frames, the original rectangle echoing lines and edges where she needs them to structure the painting surface. The long, twisted, floating wisteria pods have their own beauty.
These paintings invite deep looking. “With Sunflowers” gives us sunflowers sure enough, posed with wisps of blue salvia and a touch of deep carmine along with a dancer leaping into the watery foreground from the left while to the far right a woman in photo-negative outline observes the scene. Her face is pensive. We can imagine a story here.
Mundheim’s small Arizona landscapes have a different feel from the paintings done in her New York and Loveladies studios. Tucson outside is present in walls, mountains, houses, and chairs inviting us to sit down. Her studio paintings in New York and in New Jersey, on the other hand, offer no windows on city life or beach scenes. While the gentle northern light remains, it does not take us outdoors.
The exactness, light, and delicacy of these images are an inspired fusion of fantasy, Mundheim’s northern sensibility, and her profound feeling for place—inside and outside.
The Ethereal Domain of Watercolorist Guna Mundheim
"Laiks" Latvian Newspaper
Entering Guna Mundheim’s (formerly of Philadelphia, now New York) exhibition of watercolors (and some color drawings) at the Phoenix Gallery in New York, one is overcome by the sense of having entered a realm completely apart from our rough everyday existence, and from a detached art world crowded with exaggerated and rough means of expression. But hers is not a world of personal fantasy, because in it one immediately sees a link to that which God has given us to enjoy: beautiful blossoms grown in the garden, tended by human hands, now arranged in delicate vases. There are fruits and plant tendrils set off against beautiful transparent vessels, arranged on the surfaces of tables glistening with an unreal light. In other paintings there are the trunks of trees, rhythmically intertwined bare branches. It is nature in its most harmonious manifestations that the artist submits to a poetic, at times surreal (unreal) view. This view, translated into large sheets of watercolor paper, is undeniably based on established and cultivated traditions of realism, but in unreal relations among objects, because the harmoniously arranged, complex “still life” compositions occasionally are traversed by lightly floating little figures, and the rhythmic compositions themselves are divided by white extra-real* shafts of light. The streaks of light give the compositions an unusual vibration and render to the paintings a pulsation that immediately rivets the viewer’s attention.
The watercolor streams are light and transparent, but the foundation for all is drawing based on observation of nature that is admirably “correct”, but not frozen, and which seems to melt into ethereal shapes. Colors de-rived from nature are gentle and fleeting, at times conforming to distinct tonal variations, for example a still-life ensemble painted in blue-green tonality, held together by repetition of supple tendrils and shoots of plants.
The arsenal of blossoms utilized in the complex compositions seems inexhaustible, from large assertive sunflowers, amaryllis and gladiolas to entirely small twinkling blooms: God-given beauty and manmade objects, bathed by unreal light, come together in a unified whole.
A flood of unreal light is also the dominating element in the lightly floating bare branch and tree compositions. A detailed landscape rectangle is painted in the center of some works, orienting the painting as if to some specific geographical environment, but in others, small figures (little men) are interwoven among tree branches, as if reminders that everything around us is merely illusion.
Examining this qualitative, carefully arranged exhibition, one can only admire the fact that Guna Mundheim has managed to maintain her artistic touch at the highest state of readiness and her mental capacity truly creative and active, because from 1978 until her recent “retirement” she has constantly served in a responsible and labor-intensive position as an Assistant Dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences, as well as teaching watercolor. Simultaneously the artist has always painted, and during this period she has had 23 solo exhibitions, not to mention participating in American group shows, in which she often received awards. She has also participated in Latvian artists’ exhibitions and has invested much work in the activities of the American-Latvian Artists Association, particularly in organizing its annual meetings. She has also served on the board of directors of the Global Society for Latvian Art. In recognition of the artist’s contributions to art and to Latvian culture, Guna Mundheim in 2009 received an honorary award in the field of art from the Cultural Foundation of PBLA.
Eleanora Sturma for Latvian Newspaper “Laiks” Sept.17-23, 2011, VolumeI.XII
Translated by Lelde Kamite, PHD, president of PLMS
Phoenix Gallery Press Release
In this exhibition of watercolors and drawings, Guna Mundheim investigates the relationships of plant forms, trees and everyday objects while placing them in a broader context of atmosphere and a space that becomes personal. Shafts of light streak through and around the objects, where small figures walk, dance and play. There is movement, change and transition. The colored pencil drawings point to an intimacy with the object represented, while the broad watercolor washes allow for larger rhythms and an ambiguity of space and time.
Her solo exhibitions include The Phoenix Gallery, New York, NY 2010, 2007, Yellow Springs Art Center, Yellow Springs, PA. 2007, Veiherte Gallery, Riga, Latvia 2004, Gross McCleaf Gallery, Philadelphia (1997, 1993); Rosenfeld Gallery, Philadelphia (1989, 1984), Burrison Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, 1984. Selected group exhibitions include National Museum, Riga, Latvia; Susquehanna Museum, Harrisburg, PA.; Reading Public Museum, Reading, PA.; University of Indiana Works on Paper Invitational and numerous other exhibitions.
Guna Mundheim taught watercolor at the University of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1986 and is represented by the GrossMcCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia and the Phoenix Gallery in New York.
Her public Collections include: The National Museum, Riga, Latvia; Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Phila.,PA.; Duane Morris&Heckscher, Phila.,PA.; Schnader, Harrison, Segal&Lewis, Phila.,PA.