New York

April Gornik

Edward Thorp Gallery

A spirit of the sublime has long been embedded in American cultural identity. Various concepts of the sublime—outlined by Barbara Novak in her scholarly book Nature and Culture (1980)—may be traced from early-19th-century landscape painting to the idealism of minimal art, from epic Hollywood cinema to space technology. The catastrophic and the tranquil, the pagan and the Christianized, terror and transcendence: it is not surprising that the virgin horizons of the New World should have become the space against which Western man has mapped the possibilities and limits of existence. A 19th-century landscape of space, monumentality, and silence would seem to be the esthetic territory addressed by April Gornik’s oil paintings: burgeoning sunsets, baroque cloud formations, misty mountains, and calm waters. The version of the sublime described in these generic landscapes is not that of a turbulent unknown. Blue sky breaks optimistically through clouds as piously solid as rock and water; infinity stops at the horizon. This territory has long since been catalogued and pacified.

One cannot, however, invoke models from the past without also provoking the question of what meaning can be given them by a postindustrial culture familiar with mediated images of extreme occurrences. The conventional codes of painting no longer have the power to represent a sense of the sublime, and nature’s effects can no longer function as representatives of a divine law. This is not to say that we cannot experience the sublime, but that humankind’s means of representing such feelings are commensurate with the sophistication of its language and knowledge of the world. If the handcrafted image seems increasingly like an object of nostalgia and the traditional landscape an anachronism, it is because they cannot represent the subject of late-20th-century technology. Not surprisingly, therefore, after a momentary visual impact, Gornik’s paintings soon assume the impoverished status of not-very-special effects. Despite their pretensions to an art of grandeur, they are a use of the picturesque that carries hardly more meaning for a media-sophisticated culture than an Albert Whitlock mat for David Lynch’s recent film Dune, or than a natural-history-museum diorama: a false appearance masquerading as a truth.

Indeed, the cinematic mat is distinguished from Gornik’s work in that it understands that something takes place in front of the picture. As any cinematographer knows, the camera’s eye must not linger on a mat shot lest its fakery be discerned by the viewer. The seams in Gornik’s use of the orthodox codes of photographic pictorialism stem partly from her failure to address critically the viewing subject’s relationship to representation. Despite their reputed origin in the artist’s imagination, these generalized views each present themselves as a quasi-documentary “somewhere.” Light is used as it is in the conventional “scenic” photograph, as a locating principle—a means to illuminate objects, or to throw them into relief. Gornik’s painting does not describe light but unveils surfaces—rock, water, clouds. Its framing and composition are constructed according to the authoritarian rules of perspective; it adopts the fixed vanishing point of the camera’s monocular lens, which centers the subject, drawing him or her into a vicarious complicity with the pictorial space.

The work describes an imaginary ego relation that puts the viewer in place without admitting that it is doing so. Difference is concealed and perpetuated under the traditional oppositions of here/there, I/you, etc.—and masculine/feminine. The “hole” of the vanishing point, together with the symmetry of mounds and triangles in Gornik’s painting, congeal into a suspect reiteration of the repressive language that equates “nature” with the female body and something to be claimed: “nature” is displayed like a whore waiting to be penetrated by the consuming gaze of the viewer. As with coitus, however, what remains once consummation has taken place but the corpse of nostalgia? The work seems too assured of its material and historical location to accept the fact that representation is deathly. Its allure is that of the consumer product: it provides images for a disposable experience, for magazine and museum tourism. It is equivalent to the National Geographic photograph that domesticates and colonizes nature and what is “other.” Here, then, is painting grounded in the assurance of Modernism’s phenomenological “truth” of appearance; beyond its surface, however, little is discernible but the rhetorical conceit of the artist.

Jean Fisher