April Gornik Drawingsby Robert Berlind
April Gornik Drawings
(FigureGround Press, 2014)
This elegant book contains superb reproductions of no fewer than 204 April Gornik drawings from the 1980s, ’90s and aughts. All of them, many as large as 38 by 50 inches, are given a full page or double facing pages. There are short introductory essays by Steve Martin and Archie Rand as well as a long, informative conversation with Lawrence Weschler that explores Gornik’s process, subject matter, and aesthetic disposition. Weschler is an ideal interviewer. He not only probes Gornik’s early development and responds deeply to the work in question but also aptly introduces poetry by Kay Ryan, Seamus Heaney, Eamon Grennan, James Wright, and Lao Tzu. These excerpts implicitly make the case for poetry, rather than theory or art history, as the most fruitful resource for discussing visual art. Also included is an eight page, handwritten score for a sonorous cello and piano composition, “For April,” by Bruce Wolosoff, which is also offered via a digital download card.
Since her SoHo debut in 1981, water and light have been central to Gornik’s work. In her drawings, water takes the form of the placid reflecting surfaces of lakes and rivers, mists and clouds, unaccountable spouts erupting skyward or mysteriously plunging down. Tumultuous surf and waterfalls cascade forward as though addressing you directly. A wide range of blacks and grays negotiate precise tonal relations against the white of her ground. She sustains representational clarity and nuanced visual transitions by contrasting textures of the dry, granular mediums of charcoal and, in many cases, pastels. This oxymoronic interplay of materials and illusion—dryness signaling water—suggests the metaphorical character of Gornik’s art. I am reminded of the passage in Swann’s Way where the narrator is visiting his bed-ridden Aunt Léonie and describes the onset of a downpour:
A little tap at the window, as though some missile had struck it, followed by a plentiful, falling sound, as light, though, as if a shower of sand were being sprinkled from a window overhead; then the fall spread, took on an order, a rhythm, became liquid, loud, drumming, musical, innumerable, universal. It was the rain.
(Beyond the amazing acuity of Proust’s description, the flow of his language, even in translation, itself creates the sensation he is recalling many years later.)
The drawings evoke responses to unsettling moments of challenge. The earlier works, especially those of the 1980’s and 1990’s, are simultaneously elegant and fraught with danger. There is often an aura of menace as storms gather, blacken the sky or deluge the land. In a number of drawings, black smoke billows up from unseen sources.
Light in Gornik’s drawings gives life to seas, lakes, rivers, and flooded allées. It shines through woods and dapples forest floors, skipping forward toward the viewer while the remaining white of the paper is transformed into sheer luminosity. The viewer travels optically against the current. Drawings of the past two decades, on the whole, are less charged with dramas of weather, more with the viewer’s implied circumstance in the dark spaces of woodlands. Tree trunks and foliage amid forests are silhouetted against the light. Close-up vertical forms may function as repoussoirs or even prosceniums, accentuating a certain theatricality of her presentations. The viewer’s eye traverses from foreground to horizon and towards the initially blank page now a source of light. It absorbs a spectacle orchestrated to produce a lucid visual drama. The only human presence in Gornik’s oneiric images is you, the viewer, who is integral to their structure and meaning.
Light-filled landscapes may suggest to urban sensibilities a connection to the organic wholeness conventionally ascribed to “nature.” Because some of Gornik’s paintings and drawings resemble at a glance romantic scenes of unspoiled nature, you could fail to notice their peculiar psychological charge. Jaded contemporary tastes may read irony into her intentions where there is none. The risk she takes is in allowing her imagination, poetic vision, and her demanding procedures to direct and inform her art while not directly addressing pressing issues, such as global warming, the assault by oil and coal corporations on the environment, and populations living near drilling sites. Her abstaining from such political concerns is considered unforgivable to many in these times, but it may also be salutary in creating a zone of finely wrought pleasures.
This generous book is the next best thing to spending time with the drawings themselves.
ROBERT BERLIND is a painter and writer who lives in New York and upstate in Sullivan County. He has received the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Painting, the B. Altman Award in Painting at the National Academy, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and an Artwriters’ Grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.
He writes regularly for the Brooklyn Rail and has written for Art in America since the late ’70s as well as writing many catalog essays for various museums. He is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY.