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In conversation with April Gornik

Drawings, April Gornik, FigureGround Press, New York, 2014 | Sunday, May 18, 2014

In conversation with April Gornik

Lawrence Weschler in conversation with  April Gornik in her Sag Harbor studio about her charcoal and two pieces in particular August 31, 2013


Lawrence Weschler: With someone who is going to become so identified with landscape, I suppose an obvious first question is, Were you raised surrounded by nature? Where did you grow up?

April Gornik: No, I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, near Shaker Heights, but the poor version of that, in a post-war suburban development. And I had no real exposure to nature at all. I did seek it out: I was kind of a tomboy, I wanted to be a horse, I didn’t play with dolls. I liked to run really fast. And there was always a hankering after wildness—things like wild animals were always fascinating to me. I wanted to fly. And even as a kid I liked being alone: my brother is seven years younger than me, and I never had that, “Oh, Mommy, couldn’t you make me a little brother or sister” thing.

LW: So, in that case, how did you come to landscape?

AG: When I made my first landscape, which was from an odd and unexpected inspiration, I just considered it an environment for light.

LW: Which begs the question: Tell us about the unexpected inspiration.

AG: I was in my little studio in Halifax.

LW: You were in Nova Scotia at this point, studying at the College of Art and Design.

AG: Well it was after college, and I was making sculpture-like objects. Like I would make a trellis and try to make it look as if light were falling on it, gluing tin to it, painting it a little. I was trying to do everything I could not to paint, since it was 1977, and you just weren’t supposed to do that anymore I was trying to make what I was thinking of as primitive symbolic objects, which had something to do with making something archetypal. I was really confused!

And then one day I actually saw something in my head-- three or four sticks backlit against the shore of some water—and don’t ask me where this came from, I have no idea, but I immediately took to cobbling it together with the junk that was in my studio. I had some house paint and some regular paint, and I just made this thing, and stepped back…and it was a landscape.

LW: This was a flat thing?

AG: I didn’t have any canvas in my studio, so I glued one-by-fours together, I didn’t bother to gesso it, I didn’t have anything like that, but I was in a little fever, I was really excited that I had seen this thing in my head, and I just wanted to make it happen. It had to do with light all right. But then I looked at it and I just thought, “Oh shit, it’s a landscape.” And that just seemed verboten at the time.

At that point I’d graduated from school and was teaching “Painting 2” in the extension services of the Nova Scotia college, and I really didn’t have to impress anybody, so I could keep secretly making these things that I was secretly getting more and more excited about. So I just continued to make images. Landscapes.

LW: Had you made the transition to canvas or paper?

AG: No. For a while, I kept using the boards, because I thought if I kept doing that, it’d still be more of an object, and less of a painting. Eventually I switched to plywood, and I went quickly to full sheets of plywood. I needed a big surface, and then the big surface gave way into an even bigger surface. And that’s when I started using canvas, the first one of which was early 1980. And at that point I was resorting to canvas as a desperate attempt to get the right proportion.

LW: That reminds me of a great poem by Kay Ryan, our wonderful poet laureate. Wait a second, here it is: Kay Ryan, “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It.”

The first fear

being drowning, the 

ship’s first shape 

was a raft, which

was hard to unflatten

after that didn’t

happen. It’s awkward

to have to do one’s

planning in extremis

in the early years - 

so hard to hide later;

sleekening the hull, 

making things

more gracious.


AG: That’s just right, and in fact, lashing the boards together with some Elmer’s glue was exactly that.

LW: You were building the raft as you sailed it. 

AG: I was building the raft, and I surely thought I was going to sink on it. But, as I said, it was all in secret at the time.

LW: And then that didn’t happen. You began painting flat-out landscapes on canvas. Did you at any point think about including figures in these pieces?

AG: I didn’t give depicting other people a thought. It just seemed obvious that if I were painting landscapes, I was painting landscapes, and what did that have to do with people? That might seem an odd way of thinking to others, but to me it seemed normal.

LW: Makes sense, especially coming from a girl who’d have been perfectly happy for her parents not to have another child.

AG: Perhaps. I never actually thought about it till now.

LW: It’s interesting that for you, landscape is about light, but it’s also about consciousness, the light of consciousness, the light of looking out at the light of the world, and that just does not require other people. 

AG: On top of which there’s projection, and when any representation of another human being is in any painting, unless you have some terrible problem with your mirror neurons, you look at that other person and you can’t help but think, Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they lonely? A series of automatic questions come in, primitive questions: you identify the other, and decide, Is it friend? Enemy? Someone like you? Are they expressing the emotion you’re feeling at the moment? And all of those questions then influence the way that the landscape itself feels.

LW: But couldn’t you say the same thing about a landscape? I mean, I’m looking at this charcoal drawing over here--we’ll talk more about how we got here in a few minutes—but does this have a name? It’s this amazing deep forest.

AG: I can’t remember the name. Let’s just call it, The Woods.

LW: But, doesn’t one project onto it, Is this safe? Is this cold? Am I alone? Doesn’t the viewer project things like that here as well, even if in a different way?

AG: Of course, and project onto them without the interference or information of, for example, body language being present.

LW: A kind of barometric pressure thing starts to happen.

AG: Yes, an emotional barometric pressure, but also the scale of the place would be affected, because depending on the size of the person or the stick figure, you would also know how much bigger or smaller that environment is than you, based on the figure’s size. That’s something I really don’t want.

LW: I was talking to David Hockney a while ago, and he was showing me his most recent landscapes, and he said, “I call these my figure paintings.” So I took the bait and said, “But there are no figures in them.” To which he said, “You are the figure.” 

AG: Right, and for me of course these are all self-portraits. They’re self-expressive. What I really love is the music of Bach, because of the complexity in that music. Major and minor constantly shift in the same piece. To me that’s some version of what I consider to be truth. So for me to give the viewer something like that means that I have to try to pack a lot of possibilities into it without directing the viewer in any particular way.

LW: So first of all, an important question is, Are these portraits of the world? Do you go to a forest and look at it and try to achieve your best approximation of the actual place? Or do you make them up?! !

AG: There’s always invention in them, even if they are collaged from photographs, and manipulated in Photoshop as I usually work now, but previously I used to only make up images or work from dreams. Once I started working with landscape imagery, I started to have really vivid landscape dreams, many of which were way too surreal and silly and Fantasia-ish to try and make into art.

But even with invented images, people immediately started saying things like “That looks exactly like Tuscahooga, Wisconsin! Have you been there?”—no matter how different the source. That painting over there is based on a scene in Africa and someone came by here the other day and said, “There’s this place in South Dakota that looks exactly... etc.” There’s always that kind of projection going on, which I love: the urge to possess. 

LW: But after you’d left Nova Scotia and moved to New York and really started landscapes, were those based on photographs you’d seen? Photographs you’d taken? Places you’d been?

AG: At first they were based on things I made up, and in those days my excuse for even giving myself the allowance to paint landscapes was that if I made it up, at least it had some kind of naturally poetic content because it was coming from my imagination. But then in 1980 we went out to visit my then-boyfriend Eric Fischl's parents in Phoenix, and Eric said, I have to take you up to the Grand Canyon. I had no idea what I was in for. As a person from Cleveland, I’d looked out over the lake, but the desert is a very different thing. We got up to the high desert, stopped the car, I looked out over that immense space, and burst into tears. I was so stunned that I could see space like that: it just seemed like a miracle.

LW: And talk about light!! !

AG: And talk about light. So actually two paintings came out of that trip that ended up kind of defining a binary opposition in my work. I have a lot of them, but one of the binaries can be seen in the fact that one of those painting was just about joy and light and has nothing in it, just empty space and a kind of inchoate beauty. 

LW: Is it just sky? 

AG: No, in that painting there’s desert at the bottom, and then there’s these kind of rushing thin clouds, but it’s mostly it’s about a shock of openness and light. 

The other painting that I did from that same trip was based on seeing two rocks sticking out of Lake Powell that somehow seemed meaningful to me, unlike the empty expansiveness in the other one. The rocks had a sort of metaphorical potential to explore. I took pictures because Eric’s dad had lent me a camera, and back in the studio, I felt I had to paint those rocks because they were saying something to me. And I still don’t know exactly what it is, but they’ve popped up in a lot of images since, also in some of the charcoal drawings. It’s a situation of there being two things that face you, a döppleganger image to me, like twins or like two hands saying don’t go further, and it’s also architectural, a portal inviting you to pass between them. 

LW: I thought you were going to say it’s about marriage.

AG: Well, one friend of mine who had been in Freudian analysis for a while came into my studio and when he saw one of the paintings of that ilk, said, “Those are clearly your parents.” It embarrassed me but he could be right.! !

LW: There’s that great passage of Rilke, where he describes that “Love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”! !

AG: And of course they stand tragically apart and companionably together, so yes, there’s that, too. It’s just one of those unplumbable things. But they do keep popping up. I have a need to revisit images in my work.

LW: How do you use photographs in your work? 

AG: Well, the first time I made a painting from a photograph, I thought, “Uh-oh, I’m going to be copying”. But for that first two rocks painting, I sketched it out several times in different proportions, then ordered the canvas when I got the composition right, painted it, and when it turned out so remarkably different from the photograph, I was profoundly relieved. 

LW: Earlier we were talking about the classic metaphor for consciousness in the western tradition being the light of consciousness. There is a light inside which seeks out the light out there, and rhymes with it, recognizes it. But there’s even a better metaphor from the Greek tradition: if you go back and look at ancient Greek, it becomes very clear that as far as the Greeks were concerned, the words they use for seeing were the same words they used for breathing, the point being that there was, for them, a breathing in and a breathing out inherent in seeing. And by the way this is true for more contemporary scientific conceptions as well: we feel that the world floods in, but one’s gaze burrows out as well. Beyond that, though, you can say that on the one hand, the world is coming into you and you’re responding to it, but there’s also all your projections that you’re projecting onto it. The very phrase we use, projection, like a projector, your consciousness is projecting out onto the world. 

AG: Wow, great thought. I don’t choose any of these images idly, there’s always something that causes an inhalation of familiarity. It feels like there’s a shock of recognition based on some sort of prior familiarity, something I already know.

LW: One way of talking about this is they’re portraits of states of mind in some sense.

AG: I think that they are, but maybe not just one state of mind.

LW: So maybe a state of presence? 

AG: Presence and mind. I want the work to have a kind of cohesion so that you can wander around and locate yourself in it. In some way I’m trying to identify myself outside of myself as a way of seeing where I am, seeing where my spiritual place is.

LW: So in one sense, I’m being invited now, as I look at this drawing we’re calling The Woods, to look at the world through the eyes of somebody who is trying to locate themselves in the world, that is, through your eyes. But in another sense, I’m being invited to locate myself in it. For indeed, surely part of the drama of this picture is that in the middle of their lives, someone is coming to themselves in a dark woods. It is imagining the person who would be seeing this world, and what their life would be like.

AG: Maybe it’s significant that I started doing a lot of forest drawings in my middle age? 

LW: Coming back to the state of mind thing, though, sometimes the pictures kind of allegorize themselves, they have little theatrical things going on within them, such that storm clouds and rain and bent trees can’t help but summon forth all sorts of associations. But sometimes, at the other extreme, they are purely about being there, attentiveness, and not projecting associations onto them.

AG: That’s a binary.

LW: With me that comes back to an ongoing argument I’m always having with Robert Irwin: we have this hilarious relationship where I’m always free-associating, and he’s telling me to Shut the Fuck Up, and just be there. “It doesn’t mean anything, can’t you just be present?”

AG: I’m the worst at that. 

LW: You associate a lot? 

AG: I’m busy in my head all the time. But I aspire to just being.

LW: Is that part of what you’re aspiring to in the studio working on a picture?

AG: Well, the odd thing about painting is that it’s so trancelike. I mean, you’re working, but when you’re really working, you’re almost out of your own head. I’m

not really thinking, my mind isn’t as busy as it normally is; it is doing a different thing entirely.

LW: Describe that a little more.

AG: The act of drawing or the act of painting become so absorbing. I know this is true about music, too. Listening to or performing or trying to play an instrument—the same as with painting or drawing—I think that what happens is you’re letting your subconscious come up way way closer to your conscious mind than normally happens in waking life. So the closer it gets, the more tuned in to what you’re doing, the more innocent and relaxed you become. Not because you are relaxed, exactly: on the contrary, you’re super attentive. But I think that there is a sort of point of being that you reach, kind of by accident, by working itself. Man that’s hard to express.

LW: Let me try a few things out on you, by way of approximation. Here’s a poem from the late great Seamus Heaney, from his book The Spirit Level, which by the way, in itself is an amazing metaphor. The spirit level is that instrument carpenters use to make sure planes are flat and level, you know with the little bubble in that curve of glass. So in a way, the whole book is about trying to achieve equilibrium. And the last poem in the book is called “Postscript.” 

And some time make the time to drive out west

Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,

In September or October, when the wind

And the light are working off each other

So that the ocean on one side is wild

With foam and glitter, and inland among stones

The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,

Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,

Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads

Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.

Useless to think you'll park and capture it

More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass 

As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

AG: Ach! That’s so beautiful. Wow.

LW: What’s interesting about it, in the context of some of these images is: you describe dream images, for example, or your first experience of the desert, the way things come at you sideways, that you weren’t expecting them. And suddenly there they are. But a wonderful contradiction in this poem comes from how he says, “Useless to think you'll park and capture it/ More thoroughly.” And we know exactly what he means. And yet, having said that, the poem itself is one extended act of stopping and capturing it more thoroughly. 

AG: I think that sometimes those things that come blowing sideways from your unconscious, or when the light gets like that—I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but I think that when you get absolutely taken up by the transience of the moment, it’s a little too close to death. It’s so tender that the mortality of the thing just kind of blows you away. Then later to paint a painting that is about that moment, and the slowing down that requires, involves gratitude that I feel for the little interruptions of life as I’m doing that, because I’m just in my studio working,and that in itself is a real comfort. The immensity of mortality otherwise could just get to be too much.

LW: Does that same sort of moment come at you when you’re in the midst of creating, a moment when you as it were get a glimpse of what you are up to but from the side, and suddenly it’s there? And you can’t stop it, you can’t capture it exactly, but it has suddenly jogged into being? 

AG: Yes. And because these are large drawings and large paintings, I always have the situation of working on a slightly more myopic level as I’m filling them up. So there’s often a point in a drawing or a painting where it feels like I’ve made an encapsulation of the larger effect that I’m hoping for, and often that’s the thing that you have to lose, to rework, before the thing is finished, though less so in the drawings because you can’t erase with charcoal… But the surface really is a long voyage, and trying to keep it together somehow has its own revelatory satisfaction in that when I do get to the end—and it’s the same in drawings and paintings—there comes a point where once the thing is almost done, things becomes very trance- and dance-like. I’ll be going back and forth with a couple of different kinds of charcoal in my hand, shifting attention and changing detail. It becomes all about a kind of air and light and balance and gravity and weight and a kind of tempo of movement. There’s often a point at which the drawing or painting starts to close up, and I can’t enter it anymore. Sometimes there’s a really absolute moment where there’s no way I can get back into it. The door shuts, and it’s profoundly specific.

LW: The image has become super-saturated with seeing, there’s not room for one more….

AG: Well, it has become something complete, and then it’s like a post-partum situation. The piece really separates from me. I can’t go back into it because it has become a thing unto itself. And that’s really enjoyable.

LW: Diderot talks about the moment when the artist stands slack-jawed before his creation. Talk about the inheld breath! 

AG: There’s just a moment at which the pieces become poised and fixed and then it’s complete. And my interpretation can change over the years. I mean, looking at the same piece of art, if it’s at all successful, I think that your experience should shift because of the way that your life goes on.

LW: We were in your house a few minutes ago. You have all kinds of other people’s art in your house, as well as your own, and I’m sure if you’re like anyone else, one day that one such piece looks like this to you, and another day it looks like something else. How is that different from when your own art is involved?

Or is it the same thing?

AG: I think it’s the same thing, really, because there have been many works with which I’ve struggled too long and too hard and so by the end we’re just barelygetting along, even if it all works out. I’ll think, I’m not sorry to see this thing go. But then it’ll get sold and I’ll see it, maybe years later, and think, Oh, wait, that’s a good one. All is forgiven. 

LW: Diderot by the way at another juncture said, “The artist is merely the first witness to the completed painting.” After that there will be other witnesses, and what I had never realized about that line until listening to you just now is that even the artist who completes the work is not the same witness as the artist two weeks from now, and that all the vantages are equally valid. 

Continuing though, I wanted to read you another thing here. This is Nathaniel Hawthorne, of all people, making more or less exactly the same point that Heaney made a few second ago—this from a journal entry, from 1850: 

I have before now experienced that the best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature at unawares, and see her before she has time to change her aspect. The effect lasts but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed, and, after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.

Useful to stop and think you’ll catch her more thoroughly, it comes at you sideways.

AG: Hmm, lovely. I like that a whole lot, how you sit down to read a poem and perchance look up…

LW: ...and suddenly you see it. But there is a quality to these charcoals of yours as well, as in the case of this one of The Woods in front of us, this quality where it’s as if you’ve just been walking along, unfocussed, oblivious, your thoughts yammering along inside your head, and you’ve just looked up when suddenly your eyes come unveiled, and there the world is, if only for a second. ! !

AG: That’s there, and also, to me, this drawing has to do with the apparent direction of your life suddenly being called into question.! !

LW: Because there are many ways you could go?! !

AG: Yeah, because it’s so architectural, the way thoughts can be.! !

LW: Well, I was about to say it’s also conspicuously Bachlike, with its chords and its pauses. It’s a very musical thing: you could almost imagine the puddles of light being the notes, and the trees the rhythm. 

AG: Yeah, I think of the puddles of light as being bass notes: even though they are light, they anchor, they hold things down and they kind of hum at a low key.

LW: But again my experience of this is of just having noticed, “Oh my god, I’m on earth.” 

AG: Good. Great! That’s all I’m ever really looking for.

LW: I was thinking of all this other stuff when all the sudden, “Oh wait a second, here I am.” Which is that Hawthorne moment.

AG: You’re profoundly present and you’re just being.

LW: I’ll give you one more that I think you’ll like, which is again the same poem, but told in a different way. This time by way of Eamon Grennan, another Irish poet, who has a book called Still Life with Waterfall. He too writes a lot about birds, and this one is called “Detail.”

I was watching a robin fly after a finch—the smaller bird

chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent 

in light-winged earnest chase—when, out of nowhere 

over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens, 

flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn 

scorching the air from which it simply plucks 

like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three 

cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence 

closing over the empty street when the birds have gone 

about their business, and I began to understand 

how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small 

elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth 

strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off. 

AG: That’s so gorgeous. Fantastic, brilliant.

LW: But as you can see, it’s almost the same poem.

AG: So true.

LW: Let’s turn from The Woods here to the charcoal of what I’ll call The Waterfall over there (since that last was from a book called, Still Life with Waterfall). But does it get to be like that when you’re drawing, that you can be pursuing a little detail like that when the truth swoops in at you from the side? Maybe I’m pushing things too much. 

AG: That just seems true about making art generally. To me it’s reminiscent both of why you would be inspired to take on an image in the first place, and then of the creative activity thereafter. You think you understand something about it, but then as you’re working on it, whatever direction it takes you is never quite what you expected. And it can get to be that you’re just fighting it tooth and nail, when you find yourself kind of delightfully surprised by what it knows. 

And the white of the paper is such an important thing…

LW: That certainly seems true of this drawing of the waterfall, where the white of the stream is just the white of the paper, right? 

AG: Yeah, it’s always that way in the drawings.

LW: So the thing that’s so funny about this is that what we think you spent a lot of time portraying—the cascading stream, and the rush of the water in the stream—that’s the one thing in the picture you didn’t actually portray at all. 

AG: There’s a little bit of shadow in the white, but yes, it’s very, very minimal.

What’s wonderful about drawing is that the white of the paper gives you light and gives you air and breathes into and against the charcoal in a certain way. So that corralling it and trapping it in such a way that it can do that, letting it do what it can do, is such a critical element, and that’s incredibly different from painting. In one sense my process is not dissimilar because I’ll take a lighter, harder, dryer charcoal usually and work out the image like that. And then I’ll take a softer, blacker charcoal and continue to fill it up. So it’s not unlike having an underpainting and working against that initial surface. But with drawing there is that hugely important and unbelievably generous element of the paper itself which, if you treat it properly, gives you all this light, and space, and air. You just have to not abuse it.

LW: There’s a great passage in a poem by Lao Tzu, this if from the Tao, the beginning of the eleventh entry, as translated by Stephen Mitchell, that goes, 

We join spokes together in a wheel, 

but it is the center hole 

that makes the wagon move

We shape clay into a pot, 

but it is the emptiness inside 

that holds whatever we want.

And it seems to me that that passage is very pertinent to this drawing of yours, because if you ask me what this is a picture of, it’s a picture of a waterfall, or a stream. And yet that’s the one thing you didn’t draw. 

AG: That’s a beautiful observation, and a beautiful way of putting it.

LW: Meanwhile, it’s also interesting to contrast these two—The Woods and The Waterfall—in that with the one of the forest, it feels like an arrested moment in one’s life in which one may be looking to the future to determine what one is going to do next, this still moment where you come to yourself in a forest, and so forth. Whereas almost invariably when you have an image of a stream, one projects onto it one’s biography: it suggests the life force across time, there’s movement, I hit that thing, great drama, I tumble forward, but then there is a pool, a period of calm, followed by more surging, and so forth. It also suggests that idea that you can’t put your foot in the same river twice. But to the extent that the image of a stream summons forth all those associations to the history of a life, what’s fascinating here, again, is that, that the stream is the one thing you didn’t draw. You drew everything that contains it.

AG: It’s funny: when I talk about the white of the paper to students, or if I’m doing a lecture or something, I always say, Just don’t wreck it, allow it to do what it can do, because it’s such a huge ally. But I really had not thought about it in those terms. My dealer says that light is always the protagonist of my work, and in a sense it’s like, yeah just let the protagonist do its work upon the stage. Maybe the protagonist of your life is actually the thing you can’t control about it.

LW: Which brings us to this whole question I wanted to get into in any case, which is the character of working in charcoal as opposed to in paint. Because It seems to me like it must be relatively easy to project light in paint—you’ve got all these colors playing off and against each other, and that’s light—but in charcoal…

AG: Though, oddly enough, it’s so much harder to do it in paint,. Because you’re concocting it from this oily goo, which is so easy to muddy and so hard to integrate. In the charcoal drawing process, your actual medium is helping you in the drawing process. Whereas with paint, everything has to be filled up anyway, there’s no room for open space, canvas won’t do that, it’s not brilliant enough. 

LW: So let’s just start biographically, when did you start doing charcoal? 

AG: Well, I used to love doing etchings in college, running the paper through the press with an inked-up plate. The ink fills the grooves that you’ve etched into the plate, and the paper is forced into those grooves by the high pressure of the roller on the press bed, such that the ink really gets embedded into the paper. When you pull the thing up and that embedding has happened, it’s really thrilling —you can get these really magnificent deep, depthless, absolute blacks against the white of the etching paper. I was always so compelled by that blackness, and so when I first started making landscapes, which initially were only painted, I missed seeing that kind of blackness in my work.! !

LW: And black paint doesn’t do it for you?! !

AG: No, not the same way. ! !

LW: Partly, I would imagine because the black paint is so reflective.! !

AG: Well, the surface on a painting has a really specific dimensionality, at least the way I work. There’s the under-painting, and then there’s the painting that ends up on top of it, but there’s a conversation that’s going on between the two and there’s an infinitesimal distance, almost an atomic distance, between the colors on top and the colors underneath, so you’re working out a whole kind of subtle world that shifts and changes and you get a dimensionality from that. But you don’t get the absolute kind of depth that you get with something when it’s black on white. And then, too, there’s the act of charcoal drawing, because I’m really rubbing the charcoal in. But judiciously, because if, for example, you look at the leaves in the forest picture, the drawing underneath is a lighter kind of grayer color than you see elsewhere—same with the waterfall on the top, you can see that it’s an entirely different material than when you’re using the much blacker charcoal...

LW: I hadn’t realized that there are different kinds of charcoal.

AG: Yes, there’re kinds of charcoals that are dryer and no matter how hard you press, they’re not going to be that dark, they’ll be, say, a medium gray. It just depends on what it’s made out of and how it’s baked. So building up that surface, there’s a point at which I’m not only pressing the charcoal, but using my hand, it’s very physical. So that is an entirely different dimensionality: as if the surface of the paper is one plane, and then blackness is a whole other. 

LW: By the way, charcoal is burnt wood right? So we’re talking about burnt wood on pulped wood. A portrait of a forest made with burnt wood on pulped wood. 

AG: That’s true, Stop blowing my mind!

LW: How did you know that this forest and that waterfall would be charcoals rather than paintings? Does it happen that way? Is it like, There’s an image in my head, and should I do it as a painting or should I do it as a charcoal? Or rather is it that you have charcoal in your hand and something begins to happen?! !

AG: More the first. I see an image, something I’ve actually seen, or imagined, or cobbled together in Photoshop, and from imagining what it could be, I decide if it would make a better drawing or a better painting. The drawings will occasionally become paintings or visa-versa. But I don’t do sketches. I never do a drawing and think, “This would make a great sketch for a painting.” They’re complete in and of themselves.

LW: By the way, we’ve talked about charcoal and painting, do you do pencil drawings also? Or are they more sketches?

AG: Well, I do pencil drawings underneath everything I do, so pencil is sort of the bones for everything.

LW: But you don’t do pencil drawings that stay pencil drawings. 

AG: No, it doesn’t interest me so much as a medium. Although Holbein pencil drawings are among the great things on earth.

LW: So coming back, talk some more about the joy of charcoal. Can we get a sense of why one would enjoy doing this?! !

AG: So I was aiming for doing something that had the effect of etchings, and at one point I thought to use some pastels. And then I thought maybe I could combine pastel and charcoal, and then I could get the kind of black that I wanted, not really understanding that there were charcoals out there that could go that black, could be that absolute. 

LW: Pastel, if you’re comparing it to the charcoal, is chalk-based, right? And it’s pigmented, so it’s colored chalk?

AG: Yes, and it’s incredibly durable, it doesn’t fade, it’s actually a great medium. And quite beautiful, and quite versatile, and can be quite painterly.  As it happens, the charcoal drawings that I admire most would probably be like Seurat, those drawings. They’re so beautiful.  

LW: Aren’t they heartrending? How did that happen?

AG: I don’t know. I’m not really a Seurat fan generally, but when it comes to his charcoals... they’re inexpressibly beautiful. And they’re so complete.

LW: Did you know about them back in Nova Scotia? Or is that something you came to later? I only realized how amazing they are at a show recently, where I almost gasped, “Oh my god, where have you been all my life?”

AG: Oh no, I found out about them way later, after I’d started doing charcoals, or perhaps it would have occurred to me to try them sooner. But yeah, once I started doing drawings like this, I found it incredibly satisfying. And I like, very much, that it’s not like painting. I like that it’s a different material, a different medium that allows me to express a different thing. Drawing a forest is crazy-making because in order to get the balance, it takes supreme attention in order to not wreck the paper. So you keep maintaining the build-up and the balance of the thing, plus all of the details of what’s going on…

LW: And you cannot erase completely.

AG: No, you can’t really erase, you can blot a little bit of the charcoal off with a kneaded eraser, is about the best you can do, but you cannot go back down to paper. 

LW: So you have to be really on, what we call, tenterhooks. 

AG: You have to be awake, really super awake when you’re working. Building up the surface like that is fascinating and really challenging.

LW: So it’s not surprising that when I look at this drawing of The Woods, I feel like I’ve just woken up to what’s happening, because there’s so much wakefulness in it.

AG: Yeah, there’s a lot of wakefulness. You can’t really sleep through any art that you’re making. You can trance out, but that’s very different.

LW: But continue talking about the process.

AG: So getting it to that point where the black not only dimensionalizes, for instance a tree trunk, but also meets the paper in this kind of absolute transformation is in part the very subject of these pieces, I guess. In terms of material. Making something transformative. 

LW: By contrast, what is it like to paint trees? How is that different? 

AG: I’ve only just started doing some serious forest paintings, I’ve done two so far, and they’re really difficult. Again, the problem is that the canvas isn’t giving me any light, so it all has to sort of be concocted out of pigment. I wouldn’t just paint them black and white. So how to reduce the color enough so that the strength and the beauty and the simplicity of that much information get corralled into a manageable space and yet it doesn’t end up looking like a photograph, or looking completely stylized—that’s my challenge. In a sense I owe the drawings a lot, I’ve done a lot of forest drawings and very few forest paintings. I didn’t even think I could do a forest painting, but then I did end up managing to wrest one out of myself last year, and then another. I had done one other one in the late 90s but it was very very stylized. The condition of what a charcoal drawing presents is just beautiful to me. And yet, every so often, I should mention that someone will come into my studio, and say, “Oh, is that a photograph?” Which I just think is mind blowing because you can so see the hand in it, it’s so specifically drawn, to me. The awkwardness of the charcoal—because I’m not one of those people that makes perfect little fine lines, I don’t follow exactly what the leaves were really doing, there’s lots of little abstracted things going on in them—to me, all of that’s so apparent, and such a big part of it and shows evidence of the hand. Charcoal drawings look so unlike anything else in the world, they have their own light, their own density. I mean, I know what those people mean because everyone uses the photograph as a common denominator for success for visualizing realism.! !

LW: Which is a problem in itself. But speaking of photos, Is there a place out there in the world that roughly corresponds to the forest as depicted in that drawing of The Woods? A place where I could take a comparable photograph? Or is the scene mainly made up? 

AG: This particular scene is drawn from three or four photographs that I took out in the woods behind our house, though those were then blended and manipulated in Photoshop, so I ended up with a new forest.

LW: And are there parts where there were no trees in any of the source photographs, or places where you felt there needed to be a line right here and there wasn’t, so you just put one in yourself? 

AG: Yes, sure, lots of that. Because I do a lot of the composition in Photoshop so that I can start with something specific, because you don’t work on something this complicated—I don’t, anyway—without some kind of a map. I’m the opposite of an abstract expressionist in that kind of caricatured notion of starting with a blank canvas or a blank piece of paper and proclaiming, Today I shall draw! or,Today I shall paint! and we will just see what happens when I express my inner self. I’m just not that person: I need to recognize something and then convey it in whatever medium I choose, in this case drawing.

LW: In other words, rather than express yourself onto the blank piece of paper, it’s almost as if you’re drawing your inner self out of the paper as you proceed. 

AG: Exactly, and all the changes that happen when I’m painting and drawing are about that, about allowing that to happen—and staying calm as it invariably does is a big part of the process. It’s crazy, I didn’t intend to make the leaves of these trees like this, I didn’t necessarily intend to make the trunks...

LW: They are by the way very Seurat-y, a little Corot-y.

AG: Thanks, I’ll take any likeness from those two guys. I can tell you that when I was thinking about the trunks of the trees, for instance—the actual trees that are in the photo have a lot of detail, and a lot of crenelations in them–for me to get them to have just a suggestion of that but mostly to be these things with weight–those are the kinds of determinations I’m making!

LW: And also textures. I mean: You could have easily made it completely black, and you don’t want that.

AG: No, I don’t want that. I want the black to really work so that when I get an even deeper black, there’s that contrast. Because this whole thing kind of weaves together, and I need to be able to make air go through it. If you have absolute black, it just doesn’t really work, because it’s not black enough unless there’s a little contrast. And the same with The Waterfall, there are areas where it’s really, really dark, especially at the bottom with some of the mounds of, I don’t know what that is, moss or foliage. But that blackness is not really about the way the photo source looked. For me it’s more about carrying the weight of the charcoal, carrying the weight of the drawing down towards the water, so that the water runs against it and the water can run across it. So when you get the really black parts, right in the middle between the two waterfalls, they’re specifically black because for me it’s sort of folding in on itself, a motion that works with and against the water at the same time. Those kind of decisions are not really detail decisions, they’re not about, “What does this thing actually look like?” Rather, it’s “How do I want this machine to work?” Because I think of all the stuff that I make as machines that should...

LW: Machines for perception?

AG: Not just that, but machines generating reaction, they’re living things that have their own mechanics, and their own behavior, and their own respiration and checks and balances. And when the whole thing starts coming together, then you get, in this case, a certain kind of ultra-slow movement, of parts working with and against each other, creating a sort of dynamism. But all art that I really like has that, to me it’s all alive and has its own sort of specific rules and behavior.

LW: That waterfall one, to me, also feels like an allegory of its own making: in that the image itself started far away, and then came towards you, and finally pooled. It started in a foggy notion and became cleaner and clearer and more specific as it came to you. 

AG: Hmmm.

LW: Do you imagine this book is going to arrange the pictures in chronological order?!

AG: Not strictly, no. I think it’s going to jump around a bit.

LW: If we had it in chronological order, what would we notice?

AG: I think that my sense of detail in general in art making has changed a lot.

LW: How so?

AG: I’m more absorbed by the notion of it, but not in terms of detail for detail’s sake, but rather how to control complexity on the surface plane in such a way that it adds that kind of truthfulness I was trying to talk about before, that it adds a certain kind of meaningful complexity, not just to impress, but a way of charging areas with density so that other areas can have more release. Like in the waterfall picture, you can see there’s more detail on the top and then it goes more black and then it goes more white. And to me that’s a kind of functional way of describing something spilling, that it’s gathered up, and then it releases. That’s how a lot of detail decisions happen for me, and it’s become an increasingly complex and interesting meditation. 

LW: Isn’t it a mystery, now looking at the waterfall, that this incredibly black color can yet feel like there’s all this air between here and there. Well, it’s not a mystery, I guess, it’s a mastery.

AG: Well, thanks, but It’s a mystery to me too, because really the blackest part of the piece {she gets up to point} is right here. This is really black.

LW: And we’re talking right between the two waterfalls, basically.

AG: Right here, because there’s a little less here, it’s subtle but there’s a little less. To put the greatest black towards a potentially static middle point is to me interesting in itself. So then it’s not just the activity of the water spilling and cascading down and going in a certain direction, it’s the action of the whole drawingand the whole composition kind of circling around that blackness. 

LW: It’s also the way that the blackness and the whiteness play off each other.

AG: There’s checkerboarding, and spilling, and then there’s a kind of a wheel motion that happens around that one black middle spot, and so you get a number of different kinds of motion. And that kind of compositional complexity is something that really interests me a lot. It’s a way of having many exits and entries, like the way that the forest drawing has a bunch of entries and exits. And I don’t just mean, what path you could take. I mean how you could wander around, how you could be released more when you get to the leaves, and how you could be weighted down by the pools of light, which is some kind of irony. I’ve painted and drawn light on the ground where it looks more sparkly, but I particularly like this drawing because of the way that the pools of light feel slow, that they add weight, and that’s just drawing itself, holding them to a certain size and putting them in conjunction with the black so they anchor instead of running. There’s another one, I can show you… {reaches for laptop with a file of all the images in sequence} There: See how the light’s faster in this one? (Light in the Woods, 2006)

LW: It’s like a bamboo forest.

AG: Or a snowfall, it’s not really bamboo at all.

LW: But it has more of that quality to it.

AG: It’s faster, like a drumming.

LW: Percussive. 

AG: Yeah, it’s faster, more percussive, has a whole different tonality.

LW: Like a xylophone. If that first one is an organ, this is a xylophone.

AG: Yeah, could be. There’s more trouble, I think, in this picture.! !

LW: More mischief.

AG: It is more mischievous. And it’s more sparkly, but that doesn’t mean it’s happier or sadder, it just has a different kind of behavior. So how to detail this, how big to make these small lights, that changed many times as I was drawing it. I wanted them to act like this, but it completely changed from the photograph I was working with.

LW: Did that marimba one, as we’re calling it, did it start out looking more like the organ and then turn out looking more like that? 

AG: No, the intent always was to have this one have this more percussive quality, but I wasn’t sure how. You can see all the trees are thinner and finer too, and there’s more of them and more detail back in here in terms of the trunks, and then there’s more light left over in between. So the light kind of explodes through the whole thing, a little bit more, rather than falling, it’s…

LW: It scintillates. 

AG: And it’s almost as if the light is coming out of all the portions of it, it’s piercing it, it’s pierced through with light. They’re both tree drawings with pools of light, but to me they’re very, very different.

LW: Were they done soon one after the other?

AG: Pretty soon after, there were drawings in between. 

LW: A few last questions. First of all, the question of scale, I think people looking at this book may be surprised about the scale, I mean they can read the dimensions, I suppose, but you better tell them what it is, for these are fairly large things. 

AG: Well it’s funny, when I started doing the paintings, as I said, I started using full sheets of plywood pretty fast, and then got even bigger than that, and that feels right to me. I also make small paintings that are 18”x24”, 24”x32”, that sort of range, that to me are lap size, and the interaction with those is projecting into by becoming small. It’s that Bachelardian thing about miniaturizing yourself to enter the world of a work of art. But with the drawings, oddly enough, I early on got a piece of paper that’s about three by four feet, and loved it. I”m uncomfortable painting paintings this size, but for drawings it feels exactly right to me, and I can’t for the life of me figure out exactly why. I don’t know if there’s just a different kind of air because of the paper, but to me they feel right. Any bigger would seem gratuitously large, whereas any smaller would be too squeezed in. And there’ve just been many variations. The Waterfall is square, for instance, and occasionally they’re more horizontal, but they tend to hover around that dimension. It’s personal and intuitive.   

LW: Does it have something to do with intimacy, I wonder.   

AG: Everything that I do has to do with intimacy. There’s intimacy and immensity in the large paintings, another Bachelard notion, and then there’s intimacy in miniaturization in the small paintings. And for these the intimacy arrives... actually I’ve never thought of this, but I think it has to do with how the charcoal makes a mark, it’s really specific to the mark-making  that happens when you’re using a piece of charcoal, because it doesn’t come as wide as a brush, nor would I want it to, nor would I want to imitate that. But the act of scrubbing off the charcoal onto paper has a certain kind of physicality, and has a certain kind of hand information that is part of the intimacy of the experience.  

LW: It doesn’t come out as wide as a brush, nor does it come as narrow as a pencil.   

AG: Yes, and somehow this feels like the right size for experiencing the drawing hand, and I think that’s also why it bugs me so much that people sometimes mistake them for photographs, because they’re all about the hand’s presence. The mark-making in charcoal drawing is so beautiful, the shedding and embedding of the charcoal.    

LW: Finally, I wanted to arc toward an ending by reading you one last—this classic little charcoal drawing of a poem by James Wright called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”:    

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,  

Asleep on the black trunk,

Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.  

Down the ravine behind the empty house,  

The cowbells follow one another  

Into the distances of the afternoon.  

To my right,

In a field of sunlight between two pines,  

The droppings of last year’s horses  

Blaze up into golden stones.

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.  

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.   

AG: Is that the end? Oh my god, that’s like...   

LW: It’s like Rilke—

AG: “You must change your life”   

LW: —and Wright is obviously very conscious of that. But what I always ask my students at this point after I’ve read that poem to them is, Is he boasting? Or is he sad? “I’m the kind of guy who who’s managed to get away with wasting my whole life lying in the hammocks of the world,” which you might think is the right reading, given the way earlier he says “The dropping’s of last year’s horses…   

AG: …blaze up into golden stones.”    

LW: The horsewaste blazing into gold like that. That would make you think it’s a boast: I’ve wasted my life  On the other hand, maybe he’s just coming to a terrible realization: “God, why haven’t I been lying in hammocks like this one my whole life, what have I been doing instead there in the city and of what possible value has any of it been?”   

AG: Of course, it could be boasting and sad. If it’s real art, it’s mostly likely both. The only really quotable thing I ever said was, “Great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation.”    

LW: Talk about that a little bit more.   

AG: Well, I think that all great art is interpretable in at least more than one way, and it doesn’t direct you to feel a certain way. I’m a little anti so-called political, goal-oriented art, because I think the greatness of art is the way and the fact that it invites interpretation, that it contains more than one thing, and that, to me, is so fundamentally what is true about life, period. And to be able to accept that seems greater than being directed towards some kind of behavior that’s deemed right action.   

LW: It strikes me that the most important word in that phrase is vulnerable, which means woundable: willing to allow oneself to be wounded. Which is to say that art that makes itself vulnerable to interpretation is the opposite of God, who is precisely invulnerable to interpretation.   

AG: So maybe that’s a little boastful of me to declare the greatness of man is allowing that.   

LW: The glory is in the capacity to be wounded.   

AG: Well, which means to feel, that’s all it really means. Of course you have to be able to feel pain in order to feel anything. 

LW: A rock doesn’t feel. Nor in a sense does a saint. I’m reminded of Orwell’s critique of Gandhi, how “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.” Which is to say, rendering oneself or one’s work vulnerable to interpretation.

Talk about that picture in that context, or either of them. How do they render themselves vulnerable?    

AG: Well, one way is that they raise that absolute question of Where am I? All of the charcoal drawings are a moment of light and darkness, and anywhere, whether it’s midway along life’s path, or whether it’s in youth or old age, you’re always fundamentally in a place of light and darkness. And to call that forth and face you with that, albeit from a safe distance, is a kind of gift I’m trying to make, I guess, to the viewer. Because it’s something that I myself am always struggling with.   

LW: Is a drawing a mirror in which you are looking for yourself, or is it a pane of glass through which you are addressing the other, on the other side of it, theeventual viewer?   

AG: Does it have to be one or the other?   

LW: No it doesn’t, but I’m just wondering how it is when you’re doing it. When you’re doing it are you saying, “God, I can’t wait for people to get this,” or “I hope they’ll feel this way.” Or are you saying, “What am I feeling right now?”   

AG: No, I just trust that I’m like everybody else, and everybody else is like me, which of course is probably incredibly not true...    

LW: But also incredibly true. Let me put it this way: Are you trying to communicate? Or are you trying to delve into yourself?   

AG: I’m delving, definitely. Delving, meditating, contemplating, I’m not interested in anticipating how people will respond while I’m working. I used to be: that’s what was so weird about going from trying to be a conceptual artist, which for me meant being able to explain everything I was doing, and having a good reason for doing everything I was doing, to all of the sudden finding that I just wanted to paint light and space, and realizing, “Oh my god, I will never be able to explain this.” I cannot tell you how uncomfortable I was when I started first making my work, except it just seemed so true to my real poetic self, whatever that means.

So for a year or so, I just worked privately, and then when I first showed my work to people, I was surprised that people had a positive reaction. I very much remember this one opening that I had, around 1986, when two separate people came up to the same painting. One person, who was a good friend of mine, said, “I like this painting, I think it’s really beautiful, but oh is it depressing, I would hate to have it in my house. I could never live it.” Two minutes later a woman came up to me and said, “Do you believe in the healing power of art? Because that painting makes me feel so whole, and so complete, and so happy.” And it was the same painting. And I thought, what the fuck just happened? At first I was kind of alarmed, I mean it took me a while to get to the point where I could think, “Oh wait, maybe this is part of the worth of what I’m doing”—that the same piece could do such different things to two different people—and then relax about that. Relaxing for me’s a real challenge.    

LW: One has to work, and to work, and to work, and then you’ve got to just let it go. Which, I suppose, is a recipe for, a definition of, grace.   

AG: Yeah, it’s not easy. Unlike with Eric, who really does think about an audience, or, say, Ross Bleckner who told us that he assembles a jury of his peers to see what they think about what he’s working on—I don’t focus on that, I’m just struggling to make this thing happen. To make this place.