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In her first major retrospective, the landscape painter April Gornik reacquaints us with the aesthetic sublime, a concept all but forgotten in contemporary art. Both nostalgic and postmodern, her depopulated scenes of forests, prairies, mountains, and oceans, all under brilliant and ominous skies, are occasionally based upon actual locations, but for the most part they come from the artist’s imagination. Organized by Dede Young, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Neuberger Museum, this touring midcareer survey presents twenty-nine oil paintings and thirteen charcoal drawings from 1980 to the present.
Although trained in conceptual practices at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Gornik became fascinated by perceptual effects in art, especially the long-standing search to capture nuances of natural light, an exploration that has occupied artists for centuries. Her large-scale paintings recall the grand tradition of nineteenth-century Romantic landscape, especially the German painter Casper David Friedrich as well as American artists such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. But she differs in significant ways. Unlike the latter two, whose attention to detail is crucial—one can identify the exact species of each plant and flower they depict—Gornik’s scenes lack definition. Moreover, she doesn’t use impasto for emotional effect, as Albert Pinkham Ryder did, but instead leaves her facture minimal and her colors matte—these seas, marshes, and skies are all smoothly blended, if not slightly blurred. Lastly, unlike the religious overtones of Romanticism and the Hudson River School, Gornik’s work is spiritually mute—that is to say, it expresses only what the viewer brings to it.
It is in her monumental paintings where the sublime surfaces most. These canvases command an awe of and a reverence for nature: dark skies threatens in “The Fall” (2001), clouds hang peacefully in “Gulf Light” (1994), and trees stand majestically and waters sit still in “River Alée” (1988). Each painting offers a different compositional viewpoint, a different time of day, and a different atmosphere and mood. Light fills paintings such as “Sun, Storm, Cloud” (2004) so much that they seem unreal. The cascades of “Turning Waterfall” (1997) are pure white, not the foam of whitewater rapids, contrasting the rich browns and slight greens of the moss-covered rocks. “The Three Graces” (1988) and “Expanding Storm” (1990) are also nearly all sky. (Notably, the artist never signs her works on the front; doing so would only shatter her illusionary spaces.)
Gornik’s early paintings are eerie—indeed, in his convoluted catalogue essay, Donald Kuspit calls her work the “most discreetly Surrealist paintings ever made.” This is true of “Changing Sky” (1980), “Two Rocks” (1980), and “Pulling Moon” (1983), all of which depict deep, psychological, dreamlike spaces. Yet one work from this period, “Light before Heat” (1983), resembles not an imaginary locale but instead seems to reference specific scenes done by the nineteenth-century Luminist painters Fitz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade.
Whereas the large paintings explode with expressiveness, the small works personalize their subjects, much like devotional Renaissance paintings. Most impressive is “Bay at Sunset” (2001), where the fiery sunset behind a silhouetted mountaintop nicely contrasts with the placid lake at lower right. From across the room, her charcoal drawings look like photographs, but up close we see the artist’s stunning achievement of naturalistic blending and shading. Gornik’s evolution in this medium is apparent: the later works have higher contrast and stronger back-lighting, but in all of the drawings the artist uses the white of the paper as a source of pure light.
A lone voice in the wilderness, Gornik has avoided art-world trends during the past twenty-five years. Because she makes only landscapes—a genre that some may consider retrograde, academic, and passé—the work may be easy, if erroneously, dismissed. Yet the paintings in this exhibition demonstrate both a mastery of the brush and a critical awareness of humanity in relation to nature and to itself to be written off. April Gornik: Paintings and Drawings is an exhibition that painters, and lovers of painting, should not miss.