Critical Distance

Light / Shadow / Dark: Ron Gorsline
April 9 – May 16, 1998

a response to the exhibition by Derek Brueckner

Why Paint?
I would like to start this with a disclaimer. I do not consider this tex to be the initial charge of a long and lucrative writing career, nor do I consider myself to be a historian, critic, critical writer or any kind of competent writer for that matter. I am grateful, however, that Ace Art has facilitated a situation where a visual artist and studio teacher (or at least that is how I position myself) can have his say or little rant. Partly due to selfishness, I wish to emphasize some issues of painting that desperately need to be brought into focus, and it seems, after having taped an interview with Gorsline at Ace Art, that these issues are important to him as well. Also, Jennifer Woodbury has generously volunteered to write regarding the work in Light / Shadow / Dark and, I suspect, will do a far better job in ters of insight into the meaning of Gorsline’s paintings than I ever could. So here it goes!

As far as I have researched, it appears that Constantijn Huygens was the first of many to perceive painting as dead. Upon seeing an image created with the aid of a camera obscura in 1622, Huygens wrote, “All painting is dead by comparison, for this is life itself, or something more elevated…” Almost three centuries later, the invention of both the photograph and the moving picture caused more rumblings about the replacement of painting. Later movements sush as the Dadaists reiterated that painting was dead, and forty years later came the Happenings with artists repeating yet again that painting was dead. The start of the pluralist seventies blurred the definition of what a painting could be, and the end of the seventies brought Postmodernism as a defined entity in the visual arts and its supoosed ruptures from Modernism. After the Neo-Expressionist paintings of the eighties, art making culminated in the early nineties in an anti-aesthetic. In terms of my perception as a graduate student during this time, the anti-aesthetic emphasized and validated the political message (issues of gender, sexuality, multi-culturalism) over formal aesthetic issues. For some (and rightly so), it seemed that painting and any pure formal aesthetics were really ineffective for conveying any message for social change. Furthermore, painting was considered a by-product of the same sociopolitical and economic systems that many cultural workers were trying to change. Even more, painting just seemed outdated for the avant-garde (for those who still believed in the idea of an avant-garde). Recently, even greater evolution of new technologies communicating messages that historically have belonged to painting now reach broader audiences faster than any painting ever could and sometimes with less cost.

April, 1998. During the same time as the exhibition Light / Shadow / Dark by Ron Gorsline in Winnipeg, I also had the privilege to see two other exhibitions in New York. The first was Bill Viola’s extraordinary exhibition at the Whitney Museum, which consisted of working notes, drawings and a variety of installations with sound, video, sculpture and constructed environments which were all viewer-interactive on some level. The conjuction of the physicality of the materials in the installations with the strategic intersection of technology was one of the exhibition’s strengths. Moving to the second exhibition, I took the #6 train downtown to 51st and walked to the Chuck Close Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Of course, Close is known for his use of the mug shot photograph on a monumental scale. Here again, like in Viola’s work, the physicality of materials (paint, paper in Close’s work) are one of the exhibition’s strengths. I would like to point out that I see the physicality of materials as one of the strengths in Ron Gorsline’s exhibition. I see all three of these exhibitions having many qualities but I wish to emphasize the physicality of the artists’ mediums.

It is fascinating and refreshing to me that Gorsline needs to paint, especially since he studied at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design during what I have heard referred to as the school’s peak of conceptual art practice. As well, Gorsline, who like myself is fully committed to the ideas of art practice outside the parameters of painting, still has the desire to paint and make it valid for today, daring to do this in the context of the artist-run centre. I would add that Gorsline’s own personal art practice has involved video, computer manipulated images, found objects and sculpture (and let us not forget his involvement with Midcontinental magazine). A small number of Gorsline’s works are almost pure painting, in the sense that he almost dissolves images completely, causing the main source of contemplation for the viewer to be the physical and layered applications of paint and colour.

Whether Gorsline’s paintings use loaded Icons of the Quebec and Canadian Flags or depictions of church buildings breaking, or if he manipulates an image of a crucifix with a computer and produces it as a photographic print, no matter what type of a political or autobiographical message his work conveys he is always considering (in an intuitive way) the formal aesthetics. He always considers the optical and physical aspects of paint with whatever else is constructed pictorially and physically in, on, underneath, or through the picture plane. Gorsline has spent weeks digitally manipulating images in a way I would desribe as his own style of painterly expressionism. At the end of this long process, he felt it necessary to apply varnish to the final photographic prints of these computer manipulated images.

Most importantly, when I look at the work of painters such as Gorsline in Light / Shadow / Darkness. It reinforces my thinking that the physical sensation of material, including paint, on any surface can not be replaced by technology and most likely never will be. I applaud Viola’s work and the boundlessness of digitization he and many technologically based artists like him offer, but I think it si good to make room for painters like Gorsline. For me, it is about preserving the human eye’s unmediated view (a way of seeing) and touch (a way of feeling).

I would like to end this with three quotes by a historian that concur with some of my points and make some additional points as well.

“…(i) no monitor can begin to approach the limits of resolution of the human eye (ii) monitors have approximately ten times the range of values that paintings possess so whites are brilliant and pictures are too contrasty; and (iii) monitors have no texture.” ¹

“As a discipline [Art History] we have relatively little to say about the phenomenology of artworks, what it means to encounter them first hand, how they feel, how their surfaces work, what happens when we step up close, how individual passages are structured, how slightly different colours play off against one another, how the picture works inch by inch. We care much more about what the pictures represent and how they manage iconography-…”²

“Rather than working to make digital images more accurate, it seems more significant and challenging to ask about what counts as accurate in art history. Why are we so concerned about some sources of inaccuracy, and so complacent about others?”³

1. James Elkins’ response to Digital Culture and Art History by C. Ryne, Art Bulletin, March 1998, page 194

Derek Brueckner is a painter, and art instructor who lives and works in Winnipeg.