By MARGAUX GALLI
It is rare experience when an artist can immediately pull a person into a painting and not only hold one’s attention but also continue to seduce us long after the image has left our presence. I had this exact experience at a group exhibition through the Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea. Through the swarm, a pair of eyes had caught my attention. It was the very specific gaze of one of James Gortner’s figures. The painting was “Carolina, The Hanged Man” and featured a dark haired, ethereal woman totally submerged in the environment and the movement of the painting, a patchwork of heightened color and texture.
“Art cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed” is James’ personal thesis that sums up his work. Transformation is an important element in Gortner’s projects that points to his interest in utilizing found objects and old paintings to collaborate with his own mark; figurative work of intense narrative and emotive quality. He transforms these materials by cutting them into abstractions within the painting field, creating a mish-mash of styles and a new kind of energy that was once dead and now has been revitalized by Gortner’s intuitive touch.
Found objects have been an integral genre in the art world as a means of commentary on pop culture and among the questioning Dadaists but Gortner’s found paintings and objects tend to implement color and emotion as the main staple of their usage. He considers these found paintings to be collaborations and is mused by the elderly quality of them. On the inherently synergetic elements of his pieces that make up the texture of his backgrounds, Gortner explained his concept. “If you think you’re alone in life or that you’re making your work alone, you should check your facts. Art is a sort of continuous, malleable thing that goes over time and history. We’re contributing or building into that collectively.”
For his most recent collection, The Lovers, a series of female figures whose titles and concepts are based on a tarot card reading as well as the gaze of Gortner’s life partner Carolina Palmgren. Using Palmgren’s photography as subject, Gortner seeks to capture both their relationship and the essence of Carolina through his interpretation.
“It would be an excerpt of a photo she took, something to me that really looked like it was a reflection of her, sort of bouncing back through the lens.”
Gortner’s figures are without stagnation as they weave in and out of the abstractions on the canvas, pulling you in with their gaze. The women make you wonder but the artist’s work never hits you over the head with a particular message. The work moves James, not the other way around.
“It’s less about my process or what I’m doing. It’s more about what I’m pointing to or the language I’m trying to develop. The idea being that the art isn’t actually these things that we make; objects. But it’s more the ideas; it’s more the feeling. It’s more the situation around the artwork being created; the larger space around the piece. An artwork is not made by someone; it’s made with them.”
Much like the abstractions and patchwork of his paintings, Gortner likes to explore versatile and contrasting concepts. For his previous works, which differ vehemently from The Lovers series, are the Darkside Portraits and Exit Strategy. These two series of portraits immortalize the residents of a section in East Bushwick, New York; a poor neighborhood nicknamed “Darkside” in the 1970s and located near a conglomerate of cemeteries. Gortner lived there for two years documenting the faces of the derelict cemetery building that he took residency in under the watch of Brenda, the madam of the house and the neighborhood’s local Santeria shaman.
James has an interest in revitalization and collaborating with the realism of life to bring together a social mirror that reflects his perception as well as what surrounds us as a whole. His work often combines synchronistic yet juxtaposing ideas that hold together and ground the viewer in the abstraction. Death and rebirth are prime examples of the artist’s contrasting themes. He is mused by transformation and the collaboration of the objects that others have touched, creating a texture of interplaying ideas that relate to people and communities.
James Gortner’s work can be seen at Lyons Wier Gallery in NYC where he is slated to present a new body of work in a solo show in May 2015. Also, look for his work this fall at Art Miami, and solo exhibition in Elizabeth Cathedral Berlin care of Kunstagent Berlin.