Three Painters: April Gornik, Freya Hansell, and Susan Rothenberg

by Betsy Sussler


Susan Rothenberg, Untitled, 1987, charcoal, oil, and graphite, 43¾ x 30". Courtesy of Sperone Westwater.

Freya Hansell I have brought us together to discuss questions I have been thinking about for some time now. We each span different times and places in our careers; but we dare to assert by the visual presence of our images the viability of painting, perhaps even the radicality of painting, against current opposition as the art world is, indeed, polarized. We are together to talk about our work and the context of artistic presence. First, what are your goals as an artist?

Susan Rothenberg To make good art.

April Gornik To make good art.

FH Do you care whether you reflect or belong to any tradition in painting, either European or American?

AG I remember being surprised when I realized there was a big, untaught, relatively uncelebrated history of American landscape painting lurking in my art historical background. It gave me a feeling of strength, although I had the impression of landscape being the black sheep of art history. I don’t personally love a lot of it, but some paintings of Heade and Church, for example, are great. I get exasperated with the superficial reading of mine and all old landscape painting as being first and foremost “Romantic.”

In my work, I am reifying light and reifying space. I am trying to make paintings that are powerful and charged with a certain sense of place that causes the individual looking at them to experience that sense of place. They are contemplative paintings, they’re not necessarily quick. I try to build a lot into them. And, of course, they can be read simply as landscapes, which I like. And I paint to find out why I paint, partially; so in a way, it’s hard to say what my goals are because painting is a way for me to find out what they are. I’m intuitively following this course of behavior. I think it’s pretty normal painting behavior.

FH When you say they’re not “quick paintings,” what do you mean by that?

AG Just that for all their graphic strength, and some are more aggressive than others that way, it’s not primarily immediate impact I want from them.

FH In my painting, I seek an immediate entry, an impact to draw the viewer further into the painting through the center. I want my paintings to be very aggressive, to recreate place and to construct action. I am interested in the way the paint creates content. As images fall apart they follow the creative/destructive idea in man-made things.

Betsy Sussler Freya, reconstruct what space, what action? The content of your work is elemental—fire, air, water, earth, circle, arc—images and forms that evoke very primal almost bestial emotions from the viewer. Are you saying all this comes from the forms the paint suggests to you as you paint onto the canvas?

FH Certain images which we would call primitive may evoke a universal echo response. The response expresses the connection with the inexplicable (beautiful) universe. The content of my paintings participates with a belief in that shared experience.

I present recognizable objects/places. That is my intention. There is the distinct option to see these “simple” presences as symbolic stand-ins for symbols of other places or experiences which are place-situated. That is psychology. That’s human propensity—to transfer meanings. We (I) may have analogues having to do with sex, transcendence, death, and the journey. A lot of traveling takes place in my pictures—the journeys may recall dreams or some unconscious or primal state. I’m interested in reactions to my paintings about these experiences. Jungian language describes symbols of transcendence—“taming the original trickster"—like the wildness of the native having a spiritualizing purpose in spite of the violent rites required to set the process in motion. Transcendence appears as the journey or pilgrimage. Pathways, entries, are such evocative images. I have a natural selection tendency around these choices in my painting.


Susan Rothenberg. © 1988 by Ann Chwatsky.

SR What’s mine?

AG I don’t know, Susan, what do you think it is?

SR In terms of goals—I used to want to make a painting that was a so-called “knock your socks off” painting. I wanted impact. I wanted a simple strong what they are anymore unless I tell them—I’m again searching for a certain kind of clarity, but I’m no longer looking for impact at all. And if I would use a word to define my current goals, after spending about two years trying to paint movement, light, and color, I have a desire for—diffusion is the word I want to use.

I want to make an image about a sort of multiple image, about separating out of one’s skin, which is a direct reflection of me always looking for some anti-gravity device. I think in almost all the paintings I’ve ever done there’s a desire for mixing it up, mixing the image up with space. And that’s a reflection of something I’m not terribly articulate about in myself, but is about yearning for a better integration with the space and the world around it. In fact, I’m beginning to think space is more important than the image now.

AG Recently, I want more and more complex space to move through. But I’ve gotten into that through painting light, not through movement, in fact using a kind of stasis. It’s more about the deliberateness of architectural space, rather than, say, wind and wave movement. I want the kind of heavy, simple, clear space you see in work like Piero Della Francesca.

SR I used to look for that, too. And now, after trying to paint quick movement, and harsh movement, spinning movement, I want triple images, I want . . . Space is becoming more and more important, and image less. That’s a present goal. And I can’t think of any long-term goal. My goals are donkey’s carrots. It’s what I can’t do and haven’t done yet.

I would like to make some “unbelievable” images seem extremely believable, whatever the contextual issue or construct, in some realm of the senses.

FH The gravity issue is interesting to me. I still have a kind of historical gravity to the way I create an image. And perhaps April does, too.

AG What do you mean by historical gravity?

FH The way one historically sees gravity in painting, that is what falls down, where the weight is in the painting is generally at the bottom. I’m not just talking about the composition in the formal sense, but in terms of content, say dealing with landscape or dealing with architecture which I work with. My images tend to be grounded in the way images were perceived in painting and also the way we look at them realistically as they are in the world. Susan brought up the issue of gravity. These paintings that she’s working on are anti-gravity, and anti-gravity to me would be a way of diffusing the base, the weight of an image. In other words, like Newton, where does it fall, how does it rest?

SR That’s the fun of painting. You don’t have to have any real base or any real governing laws like you do in sculpture. That’s a place you can truly be anti-gravity.

AG All the references and none of the limits.

SR It’s one of the most fun things about it. It’s a floating space. It’s the way I choose to interpret it to myself when I try to find the words.

FH I don’t like the plane. It’s too flat . . . I would like to succeed in uniting a simple illusionist perspective with a very physical or concrete identity with the object. Like a rock is a real rock, but the wall is painted to represent a wall. I probably am at risk here, but I am fascinated with these synthetic possibilities and trust the viewer’s ability to put it together with me.

I don’t know, never knew, and probably never will know where I am. And the fear and desire to find a place in the world—the figure (me) in the context (place) is my work. Layering to find greater volume. How far can you go to destroy/find the image? This dualism is the illusive/seductive nature of all things. How secure or insecure is an image? How much can it be blown up (or away) and retain its pictorial or experiential identity? Daydreams, memories and dreams are always shadowy, in and out of focus. They are often identified with fear because they keep slipping away. That’s part of the kind of experience I describe.

BS How do you refer to the abstract? How abstract is your work?

SR I looked up “abstract” in the dictionary. I would have said my work is not abstract, but I read these various definitions: to draw away from; expressing a quality apart from an object; insufficiently factual; disassociated from any specific interest; BUT also: having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation. I guess one might say the paintings are fractionally abstract.

AG Painting to make something look “real” demands a long and very abstract process to arrive at that. I would say that my process is essentially rather “abstract.” The things that interest me most about my work, its architectural aspects, its phenomenological, emotional/psychological interpretability, are all abstract things. But it looks real, and I like that directness. I like that “abstract” in my work comes after real, but is an essential thing for those for whom painting is important.


April Gornik. © 1988 by Jimmy DeSana.

BS April, your paintings have an otherworldly quality to them, as if this reification of light and space have taken us into a dream land, a land of another dimension. It’s ironic because your sense of place, in fact, displaces the viewer. One loses their foothold in this world. Does this loss of balance have to do with memory?

AG I always feel that I’m building, and building up to, a painting when I paint. I’ve been interested in evoking a sense of architecture in my landscape images that relates to the impulse of making the immense intimate. This is a phenomenological concept of Gaston Bachelard’s which describes the way the mind poetically scales large spaces to a possessible size, and poetically inhabits it. The space the viewer enters in the paintings is hermetic and somewhat detailed, although not in a specifically realistic way. It’s real, much as reality is in fiction, for example, and takes some adjustment time on the part of the audience.

FH Freud speaks of displacement. Longing for and fearing unnamed states and evincing those states in some other form. Those subjects aren’t what they seem. Do you think your work addresses displacement?


April Gornik, River Alée, 1988, oil on canvas, 86 × 65". Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery.

AG By this definition, certainly. Why I am drawn to landscape imagery surely comes from a longing for a reification of these states of displacement.

SR Since I work mainly with the image of the human body and attempt various combinations of interaction between the parts and space to produce some sort of mental or physical resonance, there is some displacement involved, literally and perhaps psychologically.

However, I don’t think any of us displace the viewer. We conjure or offer up various spatial conditions to which the viewer will make a point or points of reference, try and internalize the logic or illogic of the painting, and hopefully engage with it rather than feel displaced by it.

FH The kind of space I want to experience by others has to do with desire. Desire for entry and the object/place of desire. Projection. Diffused desire rather than the One. Acconci addresses the idea brilliantly in a “new” piece from the ’70s seen first now at Brooke Alexander wherein a place is photographed and the number of steps it takes to get there is estimated and written next to the photographic location.

I may fancy myself a little like the siren beckoning on (in). The paintings address desire, not for the Other, but for the other side of reality—desire for the sublime in order to attain the corresponding loss of ego. This has a sexual correspondence to the climax as complete surrender of conscious self. It also refers to the completely transitory nature of all things and life. Other psychological places that my paintings touch are the places of fear and loss of nesting place—getting in too deep, swept away, through air, sea, fire—then, too, adventurer states, forbidden places.

Do you find references to sexuality in your work?

AG My work is sensual and sexuality is part of that sensuousness; but I’d have to break down particular sexual references individually in different paintings. People have seen various paintings of mine and said this painting is sexy, or this painting makes me feel a certain way, and I know what they’re talking about. But it’s not the main focus of my work and not necessarily overt. How it plays itself out is specific to each painting.

FH Susan, is there any reference in your work to that question? Either in making the work, or looking at the work after it’s finished, does your work have a reference to sexuality?

SR Yes. I hope it’s coming from as deep inside me as good deep sex comes from, and goes to. I’m not in a state of physical excitation in the studio, but when the painting is going well, there is a similar kind of exhilaration, some of the same energies.

FH Do you think painting itself is sexy?

SR It is itself. And there is an enormous aspect of sublimation in being a painter.

AG Perpetual sublimation.

SR A lot of my imagery is otherwise inexpressible.

FH Would you say in terms of the paint, the formal aspects or the “juice,” the way it intermixes, that there’s any subliminal element?

SR Subliminal, yeah. Sure. That’s probably childhood muck. I love the smell of paint, I love the materiality of it, I love to put my hands in the stuff.

FH I am messy, too. I love that part of painting. And I find the great surprise of when I paint so actively, so bound into it, is to see later how specific it is. Has that ever been said about your work by others, Susan?

SR I believe so, but I can’t come up with anything specifically. I know when I made one painting that was directly about fucking, that had these two peanut shaped figures joined at the bottom, that was interpreted by someone as—it was called Asian Sex—as Nagasaki, Hiroshima. They thought it was after the bomb, because it was gray and misty and very sensual. I said "No, it’s Chinese fucking in the rain."

AG Sometimes when I’m working I’ll use a photographic reference, some photo I’ve taken or something, and as soon as I feel like I’m making it really look like something that was, say, a specific thing I saw, people will look at it and say, "Oh that is so unrealistic, that would never exist. That’s such a surreal picture." And then I’ll do something that I completely made up, and they’ll say, “Oh this is so real.” Sexuality, I think, is like the process of painting. You can try to make it real and it ends up being very abstract, and you can do the reverse. I think that happens constantly.

FH And because it is sexuality, it’s not something that is contrived to be sexual since by definition it’s “stirred” up rather than manipulated.

AG It can be contrived and sexual.

FH In terms of content, those choices, yes. But in terms of the way one experiences the painting, if there’s something abstractly sensual about this painting, or deeply physically erotic, it would be elicited by the gestalt of the work. You know, Susan says she is not in a state of physical excitation in the studio. I actually do get sexually aroused at times while I am painting.

AG Oh, really?

FH It is a reaction of physicality to my own work—just comes and goes. I see making paintings with this essential physical component. People say that they find my images to be psychosexual, because bridges, tunnels, and towers are read in a Freudian manner.

One hears much criticism about art which shows evidence of being “shaped” by the individual “fingering the tools.” They favor technological processes as the only valid interaction with today’s depersonalized synthetic culture.

SR Too bad for them. They’re missing out on a very self-satisfying adventure.


Freya Hansell, The Meeting, 1988, acrylic, oil, metalic paint, and tar, 4 × 3 feet. Courtesy McDonald Gallery.

AG I’m not at all interested in making art respond to "today’s depersonalized synthetic culture." Much of that culture I just don’t care about and I certainly don’t think art deserves to be subjugated to the job of responding to it. I paint the way I do to best realize the hermetic space I envision when I start a painting. I think everyone, like it or not, reveals their hand in the text of the paint. It’s inevitable, but not so interesting to me to make that the point of the work.

FH I love the connection between making the mark and seeing the mark. I think that the idiosyncracies of my hand give a definite life to the picture. The neo-cool artist cuts off the hand to spite the craft.

Machine as God. Machine “becomes” the Man. I suppose this is one attitude. That it has entered the art world in such a complete ring is another measure of the canon that art must reflect culture—a very traditional imperative. (By the way, the process—not image—of painting has never been reflected in the culture.) How populist could painting ever be? We may argue that it has never competed with the mainstream signifiers of any culture-time-place. Its existence has always been defended on entirely other grounds—elevation, meditation, the temple of learning, etc. Why should that condition be different now? I admit we are in a hard time—that of the material technocrat. Cynicism is the right garb. Art may be the emperor’s new clothes or a trick-of-the-mind; but in that case, if attitude dictates everything, why not be brave? I would like to sidestep cynicism for faith and guts and believe in the creative act not as new, but continuing from its sources. The creator is usually not the cynic. (Cynicism, the voice of attack, is the commentator, rarely producing invention, always safe from attack himself.)

What do you think of the dominance in the last few years of media, object, and photography?


Freya Hansell. © 1988 by Jimmy DeSana.

SR It reminds me of all those little paper umbrellas stuck in the cherry and other small toys stamped ‘made in Japan’—mass produced, anonymous, sort of cheap and charming. I think many of these statements will become old fast, faster than hand-mades.

AG Much of this work that I’ve seen lately seems to me, in fact, to be somewhat shy—by this I mean that the artists making it rely on objects and images culled from the general culture-video screens, photos, found objects, and manufactured-looking processes—that are meant to give the work a kind of hip currency, but which the “hand,” the actual ego of the artist, hides behind, does not authoritatively project itself. But for me, dominance is whatever I am interested in. For instance, if the culture hypothetically were to depart some day completely from painting that would not change its dominance for me.

FH I like a lot of this work. I love photography. The work generally seen out and about (everywhere) is cool, distant. Some of it is too detached, too blank, expressionless and not all that smart for all its worldly looks. I wish this new art was as interestingly sleazy as Times Square billboards—(media deliverance!). The muteness frankly disappoints me and often apes rather than transcends its sources. It is clever and annoying in the way it steps aside from critique by being critique. The insistence on the importance of this work when based on the principle that there is nothing new to say makes you wonder—why bother? I don’t believe that.

AG It’s the nature of invention not to seem to have responded to its particular cultural context, or episteme. In a more particular way, for me, invention enters into my transformation of something I’ve seen, dreamed, photographed or simply made up into a 2-D image that I can paint. There’s also a constant internal invention going on when I’m painting that’s a kind of attentiveness that has to be maintained throughout the entire process of making a painting, and remains resonant when the work is finished. This of course is a different invention from new styles popping up, replacing obsolete ones, that can be interesting, and is as a cultural phenomenon, but is usually not very interesting nor very new. I think Demoiselles d’Avignon is the most radically inventive painting of the century. Striving for inventiveness in and of itself seems peculiar to me, somehow impersonal.

FH I am proud of my identity or profession as painter. Painting is of course a tradition. It doesn’t get the new form prize. But since painting circumscribes the largest vocabulary in the plastic arts, painters can of course invent, taking freely from existent traditions. Painting is like a spirited wandering, kind of like being on a dig. One hunts for pieces that put together, create the gestalts of meaningful integration. "Modernism in its orthodox revolutionary progress made a fetish of the limits of art."

My position is, rather than to agree with a modernist endgame, to ascribe to the variant or mutant possibilities that derive from synthesis—it still requires the explorer’s touch! My work isn’t timely or untimely. It has a continuity with past presence and a “present” presence of its own. Certain contents persist and the culture changes.

SR Any style anyone now paints in has a precedent. Invention is always available in re-combination. I do believe it is still possible to come up with a painting that is “different” from any other painting you ever saw before.

Tags:
Abstraction
Landscapes
Desire
Sexuality
Subconsciousness
Space
Displacement (Pschology)
Painting
BOMB 23
Spring 1988
The cover of BOMB 23
Share