Museum’s Gunderson exhibit goes ‘Above’ and beyond

An exhibition currently on display at the Vero Beach Museum of Art is to summer museum shows what the 700-page novel is to the beach: It will keep you occupied when nothing much else is going on, and despite its size (50 colorful art works), you can get through it in a flash. This Holmes Gallery pot-boiler packs enough sizzle, pow and “gee whiz!” to make you feel your vacation downtime was well spent.
“A View from Above: Dan Gunderson” is a color photography show featuring kaleidoscopic still-life arrangements that visually pop from their square black backgrounds. Seen from a distance, the compositions suggest fiery blooms on the Fourth of July, a Ferris wheel’s spokes twinkling at night, or a cathedral’s illumined rose window.
Upon closer examination, those organized dots and dashes of glowing color resolve into gaudy toys that the artist painstakingly arranged for each photograph. It requires up to a dozen or more individual Minions, Pinocchios, Shreks, Baloos and Simbas – among other familiar toys – to compose one photo.
If you are old enough to remember the June Taylor Dancers on the Jackie Gleason variety show (we are talking the 1960s here), you will remember the kaleidoscopic patterns, videotaped from above, of the dancers lying on the floor in a circle and moving their heads, arms and legs to create different patterns.  I was wowed by them as a kid. And we only had a black-and-white set.
That’s the same principle behind artist Dan Gunderson’s work. Of course, the toys he arranges in concentric circles on a tabletop and photographs from above can’t move their jointed limbs of their own volition. Gunderson has to do that for them before he snaps the picture.
“This one right here is from Monsters Inc.,” says Gunderson, as he points out a one-eyed green creature, 10 copies of which were used in one of the compositions.
“I can’t remember what his name is. He’s a good guy. He’s kind of an alien.”
There are also lots of superheroes, including Captain America, Batman and Robin, Spiderman and The Hulk. To fill in the gaps between the toys in his compositions, Gunderson has recently taken to using other novelty items – fake spiders, cockroaches, rats ¬– recreating them via the miracle of #D printing in the quantities and sizes he needs for the composition at hand.
As you may have guessed by now, Dan Gunderson is an avid collector of stuff.
Just ask his wife of 13 years, Astrid de Parry.
She says that before she married Gunderson, she lived in a spartanly furnished house with a four-car garage. The latter housed but one car – and “had a floor you could eat off.”
Smiling, she says, “And now, I have just enough room to park my car.”
Gunderson’s collections include vintage toys, American Indian handicrafts, folk art and contemporary ceramic art.
And that’s just the stuff he keeps at home.
A professor of art at Stetson University in Deland for more than 35 years, Gunderson has a private studio on campus that contains shelving units full of an estimated 10,000 toys, all neatly sorted into bins by color. He calls his bins the “palette” from which he selects the hues he wants to predominate in any given photo set-up.
Gunderson began his art career as a ceramic artist with an M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin. An early influence on Gunderson’s work was Clayton George Bailey, aka “Dr. George Gladstone,” a California Funk ceramist who first gained notice for his offbeat sculptures and performance art in the late 1960s, alongside the likes of Funk founding artists Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley and David Gilhooly.
Gunderson landed a job in the art department at Stetson just two years out of graduate school, in 1976. He has been there ever since, teaching classes in ceramics, drawing and sculpture. As the director of Stetson’s Hand Art Center from 1991 to 2012, he exercised his talent for collecting by building a fine collection of contemporary ceramics for the museum.
As an artist, Gunderson has evolved over the decades from making pedestal-displayed ceramic sculptures, to installation artworks, to his current series of color photos.
In the mid-1980s he created a series of sphere sculptures; simple orbs of hollow clay that Gunderson painted with glazes to suggest complex architectural perspectives that negated the sphere’s round surfaces.
Since that time, having enough of the right elements on hand has been key to Gunderson’s creativity.
Around the turn of the millennium he collected brooms. “And until you get enough of them, you can’t really do something with them.”
In 2004 Gunderson knew he had collected enough brooms to create a sculpture from a section of downed telephone pole. He drilled 365 evenly spaced holes into the pole for the placement of as many red, green, blue and yellow broom handles (sans the bristled ends). The telephone pole, which is held off the floor in a horizontal position by the leggy broomsticks, “looks like a wooly worm,” Gunderson says.
Gunderson next found that he had collected enough injection-molded happy-meal type toys (from flea markets, yard sales and resale shops) to begin forming sculptures with them. He would drill and then skewer toys onto metal rods, like beads on an abacus, before assembling the rods into 10-foot-high stick figures or house shapes.
According to his wife, this series took an emotional toll on Gunderson.
“It just broke his heart to destroy the objects,” de Parry declares.
“So Dan started to think, ‘Maybe I don’t need to do that. Maybe I can just assemble and reassemble and reassemble, and never use the toys up.’”
And with that, Gunderson “kind of fell into” arranging intact toys to be photographed and shown as prints, says de Parry.
Gunderson agrees that his catch-and-release technique “just came natural.”
“Once I got enough of the toys I started lining them up. I liked the repetition, the toys lined up like rhythms in music,” he says.
You might ask yourself, why use toys? Why not arrange seashells or cicadas or steak knives into rhythmic compositions?
For Gunderson, it’s been “a very interesting thing” to take someone else’s creativity (those artists who originally designed the characters the toys depict) and use them as a starting point for his own art. Because most people will already have a relationship with the cartoon figures he employs, they will be able to connect with an idea that Gunderson has taken into the abstract realm.
“It’s a lot like a mandala, too,” he says.
“A mandala does the same kind of thing: When you are drawn into it into it, you can lose yourself – your physical self” in his photographs.
And that’s why “Dan Gunderson: A View from Above” is just like that page-turner you simply can’t put down.

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