If representational figures exist in Robert Gunderman’s evocative and often playful new series of abstract paintings, “Never Let Us Go” (at Desert Center Los Angeles through March), they generally fall into two groups: “garage spiders” and mollusks. The latter are muted vestiges of childhood summers spent on Catalina Island, where the artist’s parents first met. The former make their home where Gunderman makes his, Rancho del Sapo in Heritage Valley along the southern rim of Los Padres National Forest, near a condor sanctuary.
“It looked like a mouse crossed the floor,” Gunderman tells L.A. Weekly of his first encounter with the “garage spider,” a term he came up with after listing all the species it looked like. “Then I saw him on the edge of the counter. I think he was emboldened. He came walking out.”
While some works are abstract studies in texture, shape and color, others are vaguely representational images of stays, used for tying off watercraft on a pier. Others are approximations of familiar creatures — a multi-eyed cat caught in the act of scratching himself with a bouquet of legs, a cartoonish rendition of a verdant ancient sea creature called a coelacanth, a bug-eyed bee and a gloomy-faced sun afflicted with bubbles and fingers.
“I sit down and start on it. I don’t sketch,” Gunderman says of a process guided by spontaneity, which can sometimes lead down a dead end. “There’s the crap and the scraping and the frustration — ‘This isn’t working. Fuck, I just spent the last 12 hours, the whole day, quarts of paint, the time’ — that’s aggravating. But even in scraping paint off the surface, sometimes you’re left with something that’s a jumping-off point. I like that it’s unusual but ideally I would want people to spend time with the work and not find it off-putting.”
That’s all well and good but it’s not the way they taught him at Otis College of Art & Design. After serving in the military, he enrolled at Otis briefly in the 1990s, studying under Joyce Lightbody, Ralph Becerra, and Meg Cranston, who he says told him the best thing he could do was get thrown out. For one project, he placed a chalkboard stripe on the perimeter of the school’s gallery and filled it with the word “formula,” then stood facing into the corner by a table of refreshments.
“Some of the faculty does push the idea that you need to develop a signature style in the type of work that you make. I don’t have any interest in doing that. I think it’s inevitable there's going to be a tone to the work that you make, finding a palette that works,” he says, explaining one reason he left the venerable institution. “For me, I suppose the work is enjoyable, working through things, the uncertainty, trying to find your way to some place you haven't been.”
A site-specific piece he made at the time for a friend in the physics department included a pair of false legs from the knees down, clothed in shoes and socks and pants around the ankles. “I was thinking of it as a piece about the uncertainty of what things seem to be. Even what you’re looking at right there in front of you is not always what it seems,” he explains, describing how he placed it in the building’s only bathroom stall, which his friend was accustomed to using after their coffee together. Finding it occupied, his friend returned and checked regularly until, after two hours, the fire department was called.
“They show up and look over the top of the stall and I wrote across the top, ‘Gunderman.’ He goes, ‘Hey, Gunderman!’ And my dad’s a chief in that area,” laughs the artist, whose father was an art-collecting fire chief at the time. “So, all the firemen start cracking up laughing, ‘It’s fucking Gunderman!’
The gag in the stall leads back to his paintings of mollusks and spiders. Once told what they are, the images come into focus. But left alone, they remain abstractions, perhaps cartoonish monsters, finding a path of their own through the viewer’s psyche, reflecting one’s personal moods and associations.
One of Gunderman’s own “cartoonish monsters” appeared in the early days of his career. Herbert Swartz of the Bess Cutler Gallery was the subject of a piece authored by Gunderman titled Why Aren’t Ill-Mannered Dealers (Directors) Beaten, or Even Killed? It details the killing of an art dealer and was viewed in the context of Gunderman’s background as a military-trained arms expert. Needless to say, it landed him some trouble with the law.
“They sold a bunch of works and didn’t pay,” he says of Swartz and Cutler, who later faced charges for similar crimes as well as bilking a blind man out of $11,500. “I told the cop about my military background. He goes, ‘You can’t be doin’ this shit. You want a fucking restraining order against you?’ I said, ‘This asshole owes me money.’ He says, ‘OK, chill.'”
Gunderman is perhaps best known as co-founder of contemporary art gallery ACME, which opened in 1994 and closed in 2017 after having made a profound impact on the L.A. art scene across a transformational generation. Since then, he and his wife, interior designer Sarah Walker, have moved from the Hollywood Hills to the ranch where he paints as much as he can, which explains his prolific output over the past eight months.
“I had two or three hours a day to paint. That never seemed quite that satisfying. After closing the gallery, it’s been amazing,” he says, imagining the skies where the condors fly and the corners where the garage spiders lurk. “I’ve just had nothing but time.”