For a long time I have had a real enthusiasm for April Gornik’s painting, and not only because she was the subject of the very first interview that Barbara MacAdam asked me to do for ARTINFO in 2005. There is an unwritten rule over at ARTINFO that artists don’t get interviewed more than once, and I always found that rather frustrating because an artist’s comments often raise as many questions as they answer, and also – and this is a case in point – if artists are worth talking to in the first place, then their ideas are going to change along with their work.
April Gornik has clearly enjoyed an enormously successful career, but I still have the sense that her painting is widely underestimated, even by some of her enthusiasts. When she first emerged on the New York art scene at the beginning of the 1980s, her paintings – like Two Rocks (1980) – featured obviously invented or manipulated imagery. But as she has matured her pictures have, rather curiously, taken on both more naturalistic appearances and moods that are increasingly enigmatic. Clearly Ms Gornik is far more than just a landscape painter.
On Saturday a splendid small-scale retrospective of her work, “The Luminous Landscapes of April Gornik,” opened at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, NY, just an hour’s LIRR ride out of Penn Station. The show has been curated by the Heckscher’s Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Dr Kenneth Wayne, and runs through July 5. I went along to Saturday’s walk-through of the exhibit that Ms Gornik did for the museum’s patrons, and followed that up with a few questions about her work.
April, a question I’ve always wanted to ask you is how does any serious artist come to be painting landscapes at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
When I first started painting landscapes, way back in 1977, I actually wasn’t planning on painting them, but I’d gone through a long art-educational experience where I’d tried to make abstract paintings, and I’d tried to make conceptual art – really badly! – and I tried to make all sorts of other things. At some point I became interested in the idea of making something that had light in it. How could you make something that holds light in it. I was doing things like gluing metal on to pieces of wood, and trying all kinds of experimental things, and then an image popped into my head and I realized that in order to make it, I needed stuff like paint, which I hadn’t been using for a while. So I made this thing and I stepped back and it was a landscape, which was totally unexpected, and I thought, “Now how did that happen?” But that’s what propelled me into this 33 year study, or meditation, or contemplation on light and place and space, which all involves landscape for me.
So what are the fundamental characteristics of landscape as far as you’re concerned?
It’s an unpeopled environment in which the viewer (and I) can enter a world and experience it – or project on to it – whatever emotions, or reactions, or ideas, or prejudices we bring to it. My paintings are not meant to give you an idea of anything in particular, but they’re built so that you can contemplate the world, or understand some emotional things, and that might be more about you than the paintings. Also I want them to give you an experience of light. That’s where it started, and that’s something that’s always been essential.
You use that word “unpeopled”. Why are there never any figures in your paintings?
It wasn’t something that was intentional when I first started painting landscapes. I just never considered putting people in the pictures; never even thought about it. Then when people asked me about it, I thought, “Jeez, I don’t know.” It took a while for me to realize what the pictures meant to me, and what they were doing for me. These paintings are a kind of animated reality for me. There’s nothing that’s so essentially abstract, and so essentially far away from us humans as the outside world of nature. If I see a person in a room, or even in an outside environment, there’s this ability that we all have to be able to say, “This is the space that this person occupies. This is the where the edge of the picture is.” We have a natural sense of where the perimeter of the image is. In landscape, there’s no such thing. It’s much more abstract and much more difficult to project where the logical edge of the picture is. That makes landscape an ideal metaphorical subject matter, because it gives you so much room for imagining, for association. If I put a human figure in any of these paintings – even a stick figure – you would know from its body language something about the person’s emotions and attitudes. You’d also know the scale. Turning Waterfall (1997) is a good example of this because I’m not – and never have been – sure of exactly how big this place is, but I know that when I look at it I fill it up in my own way. If there was a picture of a person included in this, you’d know how big it was, and you’d know how big you’re supposed to be in relation to it. Not having that restriction is an enormous plus for me.
Let’s talk a little bit about your use of photography, and how you manipulate reality in your pictures. You very rarely present a single view of a scene, do you?
When I first started painting landscapes, I made a lot of paintings from dreams. I never even considered using photographs – I thought that was cheating! And then I was touristing around the American Southwest with a camera. Looking at that landscape I realized that it is more amazing and surreal and astonishing than anything that I could dream or make up, so I decided I’d start to use photographs. I soon realized that the photographs didn’t have enough information for me to copy them exactly, and the more I worked with them the more I realized that I could trust myself to interfere with my starting points in a positive, creative way.
Is that how a painting like Field and Storm (2004) came about, for example?
This was something that I actually took a photograph of outside my house out here on Long Island, and it was just this wild light towards sunset, but there was still a lot of rearranging in the final image. Often when I see something, or even take a photograph of it, I’ll have an almost alarming sense of familiarity about what I’m looking at. I’ll think, “Oh, that’s mine!” as if I know a place already, or as if – I won’t say that I’ve been there – but I’ll have this possessive understanding of it. And then lot of the alterations that take place in the painting are because I’m following this long quest to get back to what I perceived when I had that shock of recognition. It’s about trying to get that feeling that I thought was there, or the power that I felt was there.
What do you think is the mood of the finished picture?
I think it’s a very gentle painting in a way. But it’s funny, a lot of the paintings that I do can be interpreted positively by one person, but another person sees it – not exactly negatively – but as filled with foreboding. One person might see this as a lovely picture, but another person might be unsettled by the surreality. To me that’s all very encouraging. I like the idea that different people will have different interpretations of the work.
I’m sure that must happen with another of the paintings here, Rising Moon (1991).
That’s a really good example of a meditation on the curious light that you see at night in the Caribbean. It’s one of those evocations that I always thought was “strange but true”. It’s really so surreal that I was actually surprised when Ken[neth Wayne] said he was going to include it. I’ve always liked it but it’s a really wacky painting: it was one of those times when I was really pushing myself to an edge. I think that every artist has to do that. You go to your edges, and then you move around the middle and then you find another edge. So you stumble pinball-like through your artistic life …
You use words like “surreal” and “surreality” a lot. What do you mean when you talk about surrealism in your work?
By surrealism I mean an element of perceived strangeness that actually makes you question the expected reality of the moment. I’m not looking for extreme surrealism, more of a double-take effect that gives the viewer a heightened sense of the moment or place depicted. Something that startles the viewer toward a kind of unexpected truth.
Is that what you were after in Marsh Waterway (1998)? For me, that’s always been one of your strangest pictures.
The genesis of that painting was something that I saw in the marshes out here on Long Island. There was a water-filled cut in the marsh that reflected the sky, and I was just struck completely by how strange that was. It was a magical thing, like a reflection and at the same time like a hole in the earth that went all the way to China. And there was something desolate and peculiar about it that I wanted to put into the painting.
I think that sometimes the images arrive from a deep subconscious processing. They come from a place that takes me a long time to realize. Who knows how much my work has been influenced by being on Long Island, or from having gone to school in Nova Scotia?
The way you talk about the development of your work I get the sense that it’s less about you making deciding things in advance, and more about you discovering those things once they’ve happened.
Exactly. As you can see from this show there’s a lot of variety in my work. I’ll tend to paint one thing and then I’ll think, “OK, now I need to paint a desert” or “Now I need to paint a seascape,” but there’s no real consistency in the way that I move from painting to painting. For example, I find that different kinds of imagery will repeat themselves in my paintings. Oftentimes I’m the last to know, or to notice, that that’s happening. To give you an idea of how unbelievably retroactive an artist’s brain can be, most of the stuff that I say about what I’ve painted is stuff that I understand about it later. I typically understand my work after I’ve done it. It’s just one of those things: your intuition and your subconscious mind are so much more active in your studio that it takes a long time for your conscious mind, or your conscious sense of your own history to catch up.