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April Gornik’s Landscape

Karen Lang

Big, beautiful, with ravishing color and seductive light, April Gornik’s paintings seem to recall the nineteenth-century romantic landscape. Charles Baudelaire described French romantic painting in similar terms. In “The Salon of 1846,” he reserved special praise for Eugène Delacroix’s “searching intimacy with his subject.” For Delacroix, he explained, nature “is a vast dictionary whose leaves he turns and consults with a sure and searching eye; and his painting which issues above all from the memory, speaks above all to the memory.”1 The same may be said for Gornik: nature (light, especially) is her artistic subject and memory is the condition from which her landscape arises.

Gornik’s works of art display her “searching intimacy” with her subject. She knows the sky and the earth—clouds, weather, light, land—inside out. She paints these not only as if she has seen them enough to be able to record them accurately, but also as if she has experienced them bodily. Yet, Gornik’s landscape is invention. Her paintings arise from conscious, and not yet conscious, memory. They depict the empirical world she has seen and experienced, and the psychological world—the world as it appears in memory and as it is intimated from beyond conscious memory. She is in her paintings and she is not. There is no telling the two apart, and no point in even trying. For rather than pointing back toward the artist and her personal, psychological world, Gornik’s landscape opens out onto psychological experience, broadly defined—the modern experience of loss without a lost object.2

Painted on linen, at human scale, Gornik’s landscapes present an aesthetic experience of intimate immensity. In nineteenth-century landscapes such as Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1809-10) and Thomas Cole’s Falls of Kaaterskill (1826) immensity, moody weather, and water serve an aesthetic experience of the sublime.3 As an aesthetic response, the sublime commences on a note of surprise or terror that robs the beholder of breath. The experience of intimate immensity begins, instead, with a sense of internal expansion. Gaston Bachelard characterizes intimate immensity as “consciousness of enlargement” or internal spaciousness.4 For Gornik, intimate immensity refers to the way a natural or invented landscape—at once human scale and vast—invites us to enter into it and to breathe, to expand our being in the aesthetic experience of that space.5 Perhaps this is why the artist eschews the use of the human figure in her landscapes. The human figure performs a necessary role in representations of the sublime in nature. The figure not only sets the scale of the landscape, thereby underlining the immensity of nature’s appearance, but it also stands apart from the scene of nature’s vastness or might, demonstrating that the sublime, as Immanuel Kant stressed, takes place from a position of security.6 In Gornik’s paintings, by contrast, we are drawn into the very heart of the landscape.

Footnotes

  1. Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” Mirror of Art: Critical Studies by Charles Baudelaire, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (New York: Garden City, 1956), 58.
  2. On loss without a lost object see Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis and the Unthought Known (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).
  3. Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809-10 (oil on canvas, 43 x 671/2 in., Berlin, National galerie). Thomas Cole, Falls of Kaaterskill, 1826 (oil on canvas, 43 x 36 in., Tuscaloosa, Alabama, The Warner Collection of Gulf States Paper Corporation).
  4. Gaston Bachelard, “Intimate Immensity,” in The Poetics of Space (1958), trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 184: “Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone…. In analyzing images of immensity, we should realize within ourselves the pure being of pure imagination. It then becomes clear that works of art are the by-products of this existentialism of the imagining being. In this direction of daydreams of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being.”
  5. April Gornik, “An Artist’s Perspective on Visual Literacy,”2004, http://www.aprilgornik.com/visualliteracyessay.html.
  6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (1790), trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 100-101. See also Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794-1795), trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 185, letter no. 25, pt. 3.