An exhibition organized and circulated by 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art, New York, October 3 - 31, 1987
Concordia Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montreal, February 17 - March 19, 1988
Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, September 18 - October 23, 1988
Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, November 4 - December 11, 1988
From the exhibition catalogue
[ 8,347 words ]
Although 49th Parallel has been a project of the Bureau of International Cultural Relations of the Department of External Affairs of Canada and of the Department of Communications of Canada and has operated as an extension of the Canadian Consulate General in New York, it is currently in a period of transition toward non- profit corporate status. The gallery will continue to present Canada's finest achievements in the visual arts to the New York public as it has since 1981. As a result of its recent eligibility for the Canada Council's Program Assistance Funds, 49th Parallel has been able to bring this important new work by Will Gorlitz to a larger Canadian audience than would have otherwise been possible. 49th Parallel is primarily concerned with nurturing a foreign audience for Canadian visual art. We have, however, chosen to circulate our first such exhibition in Canada with the intention of demonstrating a new and useful aspect of this growing institution.
The work of Will Gorlitz is well suited, in its erudition and in its pleasure, to the philosophy that guides the gallery's program. Since its inception, 49th Parallel has brought the most compelling of contemporary art from Canada to New York with a confidence that the uniqueness and distinction of the Canadian scene can effect a larger audience. Born in 1952, Will Gorlitz provides us with outstanding examples of the engaging work being done by the new generation of Canadian artists. Combining traditional art forms with those intellectual currents in contemporary art that define our age, he has forged a hybrid and strongly personal body of work that goes well beyond the craft he has mastered so well to say something more.
49th Parallel is especially happy to present the work of this challenging artist to its international audience since it can complement the exhibition with a fully illustrated catalogue for which it is also largely indebted to the generosity of the Canada Council.
I would like to express my appreciation to the Canadian galleries participating in this project, the Concordia Art Gallery in Montreal, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. The directors of these important institutions have all been exceptionally generous with their encouragement. I would also like to thank the Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto both for their collaboration and for their unswerving amicability. We must all thank the lenders to this exhibition who parted with these wonderful paintings, and for so long, so that more people could share in their pleasure. William Wood gets my warmest congratulations on his excellent written contribution to the catalogue. Again, I thank the staff of 49th Parallel for their dedication and patience. And, finally, I am grateful to the artist, to his unceasing enthusiasm for every aspect of the exhibition.
I have seen this myself proclaims the title of one of Will Gorlitz's paintings, attesting to what in particular? On a basic level, the sentence turns back upon itself, proving the painter's labour, although that was never in doubt. The picture displays nothing all that unusual: a pair of brown-bulbed, green-shooted onions sits under a bare light bulb. The bulb shape is echoed from top and bottom, in a black, ill defined space with white stained highlights indicating the reflected light emanating from the obvious source. One source, one shape, ridiculously repeated; the painting seems to answer its own declaration with little more than a banality — from bulb-source to bulb-subject the rays are traced, the single, smooth, transparent bulb contrasting to the crisp, vegetal, illumined pair below.
This morphology is a basic of composition, lending purported symmetry along the split of nature (onion bulbs) from culture (light bulbs). Yet, with that feigned symmetry, other forces enter to sow doubt into the scene. Equally artificial is the context where this still life resides. The dark walls and bulb are the most bare conditions for sight and the onions are down near the most common items to see — their vulgarity matches the featureless room, the naked fixture. Gorlitz has reduced his representation to focus on its constituent parts, as if to suggest some type of urgency in portraying the basic, the reduced. And, in the reducing work of interpretation, we must recall that sight is referenced in the title — the painter / declarer Gorlitz having 'seen' this and no doubt wishing to pun on 'scene' as well.
What is seen of the painter in this? Gorlitz simply certifies the representation, but the simple can easily become complicated by his declaration, what else does the painter do but certify and extend sight in order to echo an experienced time of viewing? Is the declaration coy or commonplace, trope or tautology? Gorlitz toys with the banal; the painting is not about bulbs, or at least only in the limited sense that the bulbs repeat a shape contingent upon the shoots and the wires, the light radiating from the vacuum filament and the bulbs developing from wasted shoots. We could say the picture is about forms of energy, radiation, growth, depletion. However the onions are, unlike the light bulb, once living now dead. They've been selected, plucked out, re-placed. In this they mirror the selection of subject matter in the making of pictures — they have been acculturated in order to be made visible to our eyes. Like the spectator in the exhibition space, the onions have come to be subjects of painting as a practice, and representation as a discursive process.
For that matter the onions resemble human eyes — their consecutive layers and shoots repeat the relays of eyeball and optic nerve; their pairing opposed to the light source equals the pairing of binocular vision opposed to the singular source of light and order in perspectival rendering. In this way the painting proposes itself as an analogue of sight uprooted, as it were, like the onions, to become a transitive representation of 'natural' process become cultural product. Following the metaphorical relation, it is time to recall that onions cause the eyes to tear; the acidity of tears is testament to the upset of the eye, and, down the relay, to the discontents of the subject constructed beyond. That subject, for Gorlitz, is the one who reconstructs the tender conceit of his sight-gag / painting, crying for its simple proof of painting's ways. Gorlitz has concern for the subject as witness to the doubling effect of representation. Before the picture we take a pose that compels us to accept the logic of representation; in order to recognize the picture we need to become a represented object, a body suspended before a conceptualized descriptive schema. The technique of perspective punctuates the spectator, placing us in the relation of an outsider looking in, an eye without a body, dead in sight. In order to 'see this thing' we must surrender our eyes to the disembodying labour of Western painting and accept being pulled up at the root, out of the time of viewing, out of the time of labour. (1) At the same time what Gorlitz offers is a further remove — a model for vision in the 'objectified' relations of painting's reduced particularities. We see, then, in metaphor, the lacuna we can never envision in our bodies; that is, our constructed and critical distance from what is before our eyes.
Much as his temporal and material labour took the painter away from the moment of vision, so the spectator participates in an ideal remaking of that moment and in the distancing relationship there inscribed. Thus displaced, in order to mark his investment in this construction, the painter presents himself in the 'I' and the 'my' of the declaration, he gives us no time for the observed event, no place where it took place. It is on faith that we take his word, the faith of a subject in relation to a motivated image. Yet the motivator is negligent — in this process of doubling he comes across only as indexical signature. No other power substantiates his eye-sight. Whereby, for all that labour, Gorlitz is an idiopathic painter, just one of a number of signs in circulation, another pair of eyes split from a metaphysic of presence.
The interpretative work described above concerns the two loci of Gorlitz's painting — the material practice of a specific craft and the rhetorical effects of representation. Both the linguistic and morphological play are figural, in the rhetorical sense, and discursive, leading to questions regarding the production of the signifying labour while demurring as to its propositional value. There is no verisimilitude problem in these paintings, only problems like those outlined above — problems about the way painting represents, the way painting acts as a practice, the way images in general are handled, circulated and held to be believable. Gorlitz is not a problem solver, however — his work, as in the example above, occupies the problematic position of the rhetorician. It does not undo the knot of persuasion, or reinstitute a new regime of belief in place of the schema employed. Rather he works at the crisis point where the skeptic denies the believer and the players upstage each other, where the game plan dissolves into infighting and the painter arrives to record the fraught after effects — about the same time as the onions start to sting the eyes.
The light bulb image occurred in a series of single canvases from 1985-86, but Gorlitz usually operates in the hybrid area of painting / installation. Given his interests, however, his installations assume a different form from much work in this area. Where painting / installation typically develops the conventions of the wall as a site for direct work, thus replicating the mural, or else sculpts support for the painted surface in order to emulate the tableau, Gorlitz occupies a space between. It is exactly Gorlitz's type of space, neither intrinsically temporary, nor particularly overt. Developing from this interval he uses the wall as a device by placing items other than canvases upon it, or else places canvas in specific configurations upon its surface. Sculpturally he choreographs viewing through these configurations, using the gallery as a space of representations that impose behaviors upon the spectator, using the canvas as the site for syntactically relating those behaviours to subject matter.
Thus, in the 1983 installation The Distant World, the painted elements are small canvasses of coffee cups whose black, oily surfaces reflect the titles and front pages of European newspapers. These are set high on the wall, jutting out and angled as if to pour down on the viewer. The wall itself is covered with grey wallpaper, and newspaper clippings, collaged under glass, lie atop the wallpaper. Off to the side, on another wall, is a framed photograph, at exhibition standard height, of a newspaper page with the wirephoto of a young boy with a large fish grasped between his teeth; lying on the paper beneath the boy is a teaspoon full of sugar. As the song goes, this is offered, as the framed picture is, to help the medicine go down. It is sweetener for the poisoned cup of frames and framing devices, signs of intimacy and distance that sport about the gallery. The multiple surfaces work to interfere in the growing ambience of invaded and content subjectivity, acting as ciphers for transmissions of spectacular events contained by the domestic scene of habitual brewing, percolating thoughts. The spectator is encouraged to become displaced from the site of the installation, towards the site of private experience, only to find the latter parodied in content.
This orientation foregrounds the installation as a production of a number of forces, as a particular situation developed for meaning and inscription. It proposes that the parts of the work — whether those take the form of paintings, photographs, collage elements, or objects — must be staged as relative parts, related to each other without any hierarchy of intention to determine value. There is no directed place to find meaning in a single or focused element; rather the process of viewing parts and interpreting relations becomes the task at hand, and the overall preconditions of viewing appear as subject matter as relative as the pictured imagery or text placed in the installation space. The elements operate upon each other as fully as they operate upon the viewer, and often they produce confusion as to linkages, problems of continuity which remain unresolved. By choosing such an exhibition manner, Gorlitz incorporates the discourse of reception into the work, cueing the spectator to the interpretative work involved and to the possible fulfillment of the work in viewing the piece as an active event rather than as a series of complete entities.
In staging his imagery Gorlitz alludes to significant regions where images appear in contexts less daunting than the exhibition. In Genre, for example, a series of small portrait canvases are arranged in a single row abutting each other as a constant stream of images facing the spectator. The images are similar in that all are head-and-shoulder views of actors, but they differ as well. Some are single images selected from television programmes, painted in bluish tones with highly contrasting white modelling for the faces. These are all different, unique, but nondescript individuals, while several panels show the same face — that of Marie Falconetti in Dreyer's Joan of Arc — in different poses, in muted colours.
The division of imagery — same versus different, multicoloured versus bi-chromatic — is compounded with the secular / religious, televised / cinematic polarity of the source material; yet the installation levels these differences into the single stream of imagery, mimicking in part the framing of running film and the freezing of videotape. This miming traces a declension in media, from the mechanized camera to the handled brush, from the networked and reproduced product of mass culture to the singular, manual labour of portrait painting — but, in the structure of reception, this declension acts as a repository for the effective gesture of the human figure. Much as hagiography, in Joan of Arc's case, fell to the state, and the staple of television is the consumerist vehicle of the soap opera, so the painting of portraits is here declined to reproducing the relayed and atomized subjectivity of corporate mass culture.
Stilled, the actors become generic portraits, icons cut off from the movement and the language that qualified their image. Ambiguities of settings and of the actors' gestures heighten the iconic stability while disallowing any specific physiognomic reading to obtain. As portraits the subjects' singularity is retained in a manner antagonistic to reproductive mass media in the (potentially) affective gesture of the painter and the sanctioned 'humanism' that is the legacy of portraiture. However, the repetition of their poses and the identical treatment afforded each canvas in size and positioning reduces the faces to equivalent status; each is mute, excised, incommunicado in the midst of communications media. In this rendered equivalence, the installation registers its own competence as a representation of the collaged equivalence found in broadcast television and mass-distributed film. Yet, achieved through the manual, gestural, 'generic' craft of easel painting, there is the further implication that painting's facility lies in its reproduction of the signifying work of the broadcast media it simply offers faces open to ambiguity. In the same manner, the spectator is challenged to assume a coherent relation towards these products of corporate subjectivity troped by aesthetic framing. The result is a tumult of mixed reactions and roles. Genre becomes the analogy of media spectacle: the product of heads and hands working against each other.
Through this mix of mediated imagery and specific installation Genre addresses the fate of the subject in the midst of reproduction. Gorlitz paradoxically reinvests singularity through the recognition and display of equivalence. This, in a sense, replicates the reception effect of mass culture as it seeks to represent subjectivity within the objectively unfigurable power relations of late capitalism. Gorlitz's paintings as a group fall into the same paradox as collectible object, when, following initial exhibition, the paintings are sold off as individual products. Here, much as the receptive subject of mass spectatorship declines into addressed consumer, the picture declines as well into the deluxe commodity uprooted from its originary position in the group installation. Significantly enough, Gorlitz's production suffers its affinities to the human subject it pictures — both are considered whole at one point, only to be diluted, dispersed into the social formation. In the exhibition space, each is dependent upon the other for meaning, but then the elements of the event are carted off to be dealt away separately. To extend further, once the show closes the stage is struck and the stalls are empty.
This dispersion marks the melancholic limit of the installation work. It tends towards a sleight-of-hand movement, whereby the artist's labour executed in line with the commodity market plays at being the fragile victim of a process of anthropomorphic dismemberment. In the examples discussed above, the effects of this dissection wound the work; the collector is denied the behavior of the installation scene, and the artist denies the onus of completion towards his labour and its consumer. Genre and The Distant World in particular, exhibit this melancholia at the level of content. As both are explicitly staged within the domestic scenes of media reception, they take on the appearance of being both complicit with its regression and mournful of its consequences. They prompt an oddly romantic air of purgation in the very process of their willing degradation into artisanal piecework; they appear to cynically embrace the image market they spring from, while disavowing the manipulative tendencies of their dispersal. What they reveal by inhabiting the half-worlds of commodity and event is the intractable discontinuity of both worlds — the commodity must have a traced away component significant to its makeup; the event, for all its behavioural intimations, needs a material basis.
The plot thickens when Gorlitz begins to extend the types of models he uses. In the work already discussed, a fundamental analogy is explored — the spectator of the work is recognized as a personifying being, one subject to a number of experiences with imagery and with media, but one imbued with a faith in the image as persuasive experience, with identity in relation to its production of meaning. The artist works on this analogy by upping the ante and reproducing those other experiences, such as television-viewing, newspaper-reading — experiences of domestic life that presuppose a private space rendered spectacular by means of certain technology. The installations problematize the process of personification, disrupting the easy assumption of presence in the imagery experienced, miring the ideology of communication that lies behind the construction of private space. The installations act to disturb identity with proffered meaning — offering the distant as intimate, the generic as singular — but they succeed, finally, in replicating the ambiguity of personification because they disavow identity with the art of painting. The privileges of the 'humanist' portrait and the 'truthful' still life may be troubled by Gorlitz, but, at the close, the appeal is to a relief through ambiguity, a refusal to delve into the conventions of painting and the duplicities of its history.
At this point, something gives way, and Gorlitz becomes more and more occupied with linguistic pairing as an identity problem within representation. As names and terms are assigned arbitrarily, in theory, they also bear the traces of the social relations and structure they proceed from. In effect, in the social milieu, the identity of word and object may appear to be a given, while they are actually split in order to mark the path of human communications and relations. The proper name is the primary instance of split identity as it serves as a representation of the subject, but not one proceeding directly from the subject. The proper name is a gift, ambiguous as that word is in the context, but one that marks its bearer as an entrant into the legacy of patriarchal culture. As an analogy seeker, Gorlitz spies a model for conflating two concerns, and develops works that deal with processes of naming and identity in two representational realms — history and painting.
While the history of painting as a practice is referenced in the complex punning on the portrait in Genre, the construction of identity and privacy is posited as a matter of media and position. In the home identity may be assumed and encouraged, but the home is the lair of the citizen; the painter, in the mythic portrayal, is a visionary analysing the citizen's misrecognition of identity. In that project, he is intimated as another spectator, not as another mediator per se. To become obvious as a mediator, Gorlitz needs to appear in the guise of something other to the work of painting. In one work, Certain Terms, he performs as a draughtsman and a purloiner, drawing in ink and wash over a book of historical terms. In another installation, he becomes implicated as subject himself, as his self portrait becomes the literal centrepiece in Die Laughing. Both works perform actions of identification and differentiation with regard to cultural production, but, at the same time, they yield further fields for implication in Gorlitz's work.
Certain Terms performs a meditation on the historical process of naming through its ambivalent reception of an historical text. The text is Raymond Williams's Keywords, a contextualized glossary of words pertinent to the formation of the modern state and culture. Williams, the social historian and literary critic, gives an etymology of word usage for his 'certain terms', outlining the social production of meaning through historical reference. Gorlitz draws over a photocopy of the text, using wirephotos and photojournalism for source material, and frames the lot into a sequential series of panels to follow the alphabetical order of the book. The charm of the work lies in the conjunction of text and image, as Gorlitz presents a fluctuating commentary on Williams's sequence by adding, altering and effacing the text in placing imagery atop it. The elegance of this operation is evident in a few selected pages: for 'Alienation' two men gaze at each other through a ruined brick wall; for 'Culture' a pair of uprooted trees fly across the page; for 'History' three sets of shoes are shown ascending in size from small to large, youth to maturity; for 'Labour' a phalanx of uniformed schoolgirls parades beneath the monumental bust of a leader; for 'Formalist' a Longo-like fallen businessman forms an attractive arabesque.
Each treatment initiates the conventional terms of illustration. The relation of text and image is that of a match, assuming the primary model of denotation leading to connotation, but then each veers away towards other readings. Again, the simple is complicated by the apparent free association of subject matter and the question becomes a matter of interpreting the conditions of inclusion. This process turns attention away from conjunction, to enact the work of the glossary as a format Williams's gloss of other texts and usages is subject to Gorlitz's gloss, another reading added on producing another meaning for 'gloss'. Where Williams interpolates a chronology into word usage, re-writing the text of history through the evidence of utterance, Gorlitz provides imagery that tends to perpetuate the secondary dictionary meaning of gloss as 'superficial lustre; deceptive external appearance'.
The deception lies in the source of the images traced. They have been produced by the subject of the text — the modern corporate state — at the end of its period of dominance. As they are contemporary, contextualized by their mediated availability for connotative purposes, these images constitute an alibi for the forces of history as they deliver history's lustre via the instrument that constructs superficial events for mass society. Thus the fallen businessman is an allusion to the callous disinterest in human affairs characteristic of formalist aesthetics, but it is also an example of how that complaint pulls up short — the splayed figure is neither as neutral as the formalist would desire, nor as potently 'human' as media critique would permit. It is more cliché than reportage as it sentimentally portrays suffering without context. Similarly, the flying trees of 'Culture' present a fragility that contradicts the collusive forces Williams sees at work in cultural formation, but this is in line with the ideological conditions that contain cultural production within the realm of the airy, insubstantial products of natural talent and inspiration.
Here, Gorlitz glosses the split identity of the cultural producer, perpetuating the historical terms through a distrustful palimpsest that inscribes the intransigence of connotation as a 'naturalizing' force. All the images imply stereotypical connotations with 'natural' consequences, but each tropes that condition as well, disputing its adherence to the subject matter. The work belies the linkage of image to text, word to name, but also roots around in the processes that prompt such linkages. The gender split of the marching girls and the monumental male bust marks patriarchal power, the predominance of single male figures also indicates the significance of the concept of individualism to both the social dominance of men and to the development of image reception. And, in perhaps the most loaded image in the series, 'Racism' is portrayed through the image of a skull mask, alluding complexly to the death wish inherent in racist power and the incorporation of 'primitive' cultural artifacts into Western culture. Through these types of readings, Gorlitz manages to represent both the conflicted identity of word and image and the intimation of work beyond that divide. Such work commits the spectator to investigation of the undigested and ideologically determined present tense of mass media imagery. This work then plays to two houses at once, being a reminder model of the family. The basic black humour of the term 'die laughing' is turned into a pair of sick jokes carved into tombstones, placed beneath two pictures of aged and rotting trees, entitled Mother and Father. Also, there are six paintings of young trees, called Saplings, three to each side of a central, two panelled canvas. This is a self portrait of the artist laughing, well, laughing his head off would be an appropriate description, and it is titled I Die Laughing.
The ensemble alludes to the construct of the family as a semantic unit in any discussion of production. The work of art is analogous to the issue of procreation, and is dealt with under paternal proprietal rights, yet Gorlitz has extended this concept along peculiar lines. He has taken account of his place within the lineage of painters, stressing the conflict inherent in any patrilineal legacy. First, the allegorical structure of his 'family', wherein the 'children' are the Saplings, those nippers on the soil, and the parents are dead, rotten, saturnine, details the canny incorporation of past achievement in the work of the present. The types of paintings display conventional connotations — the artist self-represented, the capture of orderly views of nature, the thematic of growth and decay in an organic cycle. The metaphoric resemblance to the orderly passage of tradition is dimly present. Yet that very 'naturalism' is sickened by the jokes, and any sign of legacy's benefits is erased with their morbid fatalism engraved in marble: 'A devout mother prayed that her son might be granted the greatest possible blessing. In perfect peace, he promptly died,' reads the text from Mother.
Gorlitz, intended as both son and father, influenced painter and authorized producer, appears as a grotesque lunatic at the apex of the triangle formed by the trees. He laughs with horrid glee at the scene of stillness he has produced — hardly the responsible procreator of the young trees, he appears to laugh at the simplicity of their decorum. Even the sentimentality of the Saplings is tarnished by their setting — bleak, suburban slopes where they require stakes and guywires to hold them up. Meanwhile the'parents' display the cast of catastrophe, where the rawness of nature is brought home in a confusion of branches and twigs, roots and ground thrown up in the wake of the large bolled timbers' collapse.
By referring to the family, Gorlitz has chosen another stereotype to qualify, but in this case he has removed the spectre of mass media from the issue. In its place, as the screen for this visionary structure, he uses conventions of painting. The most obvious allusion is the laughing self portrait with its restaging of a pose from Rembrandt's etching, but where Rembrandt executed a revelation of self, a portrait of the artist as a young rogue, it has been noted that Gorlitz appears as a madman, someone knocked silly. (2) This portrayal of a rupture in personality suggests less of a confessional revelation, and rather more of a feint, a play at parodying the conventions of the genre. This can be confirmed as well at the material level. The picture itself is a diptych and portions of the figure extend over the break in the canvas surface in a heavy handed allusion to the doubling act of representing oneself. Further, the portrait admits no setting or clothing as attributes; the head floats in black space as if it were unconnected to the body, frozen, Medusa like. This is hardly the way to display the self as a genuine article of a unit; instead a wholesale deviation is marked, a full-blown parody of the concept of the self present subject is enacted. Gorlitz gets at the root of the authority of his production by deliberately misrepresenting his figure, insinuating a crisis in accepting any part as symbolic and stable.
From here out to the family unit, the order of the nuclear nexus of self, authority, and symbolic coherence is shattered. The substitution of natural elements for the familial figures is tantamount to denying the possibilities of adequate representation, perpetuating the conflict of the family at the level of practice. Gorlitz opts for allegory and underlines the device with meretricious humour, destroying the relief of rhetorical substitution, reviving the divide of nominated item and pictured object. The equation of landscape with human relationships is available only to the most solipsistic consciousness, and, though the Saplings sarcastically parallel human growth, their isolation permits their relations to be perpetually estranged. The family line has run out with the removal of traceable likeness. Replacing it is the structure of the installation that passes on the conflict, stable merely in its perpetration of misrecognition. There is violence here, as the son and the father distribute the bile — black humour — of patrilineal and, perhaps, paintrilineal aggression to his family unit.
The extension of the family model to the realm of aesthetics suggests that art faces its own state of meaning gone astray. With its residual confidence in historicist quotation and in the authority of self expression, as well as its recall of national identity as justification for repressive practice, the regressive tendencies of recent painting can seem too comfortably Oedipal, doing it the bad old way. In a similar vein, against the ambiguity of the domestic stagings of Genre and The Distant World, the insistence and semantic density of Die Laughing acts almost as revenge upon the system that supported that work. Gorlitz has taken possible ironies latent there and applied them directly to the practice of painting, questioning his authority along with the archaic credulity of the viewer. He has picked upon aspects of historical reception as a buffer for repressive structures, and annexed art's discontent within representation to the overall crisis of representation. With this admission, different regions of affect open for Gorlitz's work, regions tied less to 'experience' as the appeal to a receptive subject and having more specifically to do with the problematics of represented entities and the legacy they entail.
Five large pictures of a forest grove, tall trees arching over towards the sky. An exaggerated sense of inclusion and also exclusion, for the pictures take a position on the ground to orient the perspective, and the spectator stands up to view them. Also, occluding the view, objects float between ground and sky, not necessarily supported by the trees. Odd things: dead birds still apparently flying; a snatch of newspaper caught on a branch; a wooden carton blocking the light; the moon at mid-day; a massive wreath of bare twigs. The floating and the deep recession interrupt each other, but hardly confuse. Rather the pictures propose a dislocation in perception, an oneiric field familiar, suspended, confirming an order of power.
Axis Mundi — Centre of the World takes its title from the mystical notion of a line connecting the earth to both Heaven and the underworld. As such a concept suggests, attaining cognizance of this abstraction would permit the knowledge of the cosmos to become accessible, mingling temporal and spiritual spheres, rendering consciousness superfluous to being. Gorlitz displays other canvases along with the forest scenes, smaller images of tightly cropped heads bowed in meditation within cultivated rows of smaller greenery. The inference is obvious, as the features and gender markings of the individuals are ambiguous, they serve as ideal models for the attempted attainment of the intimated vision. Yet such a programme neglects one salient difference between the series — the somatic suspension of the figures defies the open eyed gaze of the spectator before the forest pictures. The vertical and downward trance of the figures indicates the limits of representation as the axis shifts from the suggestion of subjective states for entrance (in the forest) to the portrayal of a subjective state through inferred transcendence (in the figures). With this, we again find similitude where vision is split, in the connotations of the meditative state, and the Axis Mundi becomes not an effect of meditation, but one of oneiric possibility. It runs not through its designated zone of possible worlds, but is located at the point where the desiring subject assumes a problematic, transcendental wholeness. And that wholeness is both an effect of faith and a condition of representation.
The determined exaggeration of perspective provokes a dichotomy in the installation. On one hand, it intimates transcendence of the picture plane, the possibility of entering the represented view through kinesthetic simulation. This mental work would involve forgetting the body and projectively accepting the dictates of an ideal placement before the depicted object. At the painted surface the cone of convergent spatial rendering projected within the canvas meets another cone ending at the eye of the spectator. This geometry, with its appeal to logical order and ideal vision, is primary to Western perspectival rendering, particularly with regards to its initial development in the city states of Renaissance Italy. As a device, perspective could initiate simulation of the gospel mysteries, following the putative axis mundi in order to ideally represent the theological figuration of Christ's passage through the world. At the apex of the cone lay the power of God, and the spectator was implicated as subject of His gaze. Politically, perspective lent the same type of space to the princes and nobles, situating their dominion under the same transcendent source. As spread and developed throughout Western art, the transcendental suggestion became an aspect essential to the aesthetic and ideological functioning of oil painting — it filled the lack of presence with the illusion, constructed without the body, of plenitude and order.
It is precisely this illusion that Gorlitz seeks to both reproduce and disable in Axis Mundi. The aura of transcendence is not an effect of reproducing the sensate experience of the forest floor; it is contrary to that model, as the trees curve too severely, and the illusory space looms too closely not to mention the objects' uncanny presence. Rather, the effect is one of seduction, where the image apparently offers such distances for subjective fulfillment just when they seem denied as an effect of life. The retreat is into the conjuring of a power to confirm projected entrance into the scene; yet the grove opens on to sky alone, the still blue of eternal space and eternal estrangement. The dreamy ambience is not one of romantic merging with the natural world, but a dream of the forest comparable to Die Laughing's shattered world of the family — it is a violence of displacement and loss. But it is not the sublime nature prompting fear and bliss. The human projecting in front of the canvas is too pointedly taken into account for the view to fully exclude human presence and become 'the unrepresentable'. (3)
What Gorlitz delves into is the residue of human subjectivity in the conflict between the projection of desire and its perpetual deferral in representation. This residue is the oneiric possibility potentially unleashed in the installation. Not the confirmation of the place in the world via illusion, but the falling back, back to the ground where we would lie to take part in the reality of the scene. Indeed that prostrate pose, implied but denied in actual exhibition viewing, is the locale of the sleeping, the injured, the dead. Each of these possible models can be assumed by the spectator, for all are illusory projections away from the discomfort of resolving the pictures and their implications. In the implications of death, somnambulism and trance that model the ideal viewer of these paintings, we encounter the fading of that subject constructed by, and receptive to, perspectival illusion. This is the subject guaranteed by views and models, sustained by effective connections with the surrounding world, mastering its components. But, in proving that mastery, the subject fails to satiate desire except by shielding it away, holding it in schemes like perspective, like the aesthetics of the sublime, in symptomatic and fetishistic disavowal of the loss of mastery itself.
This concept of the mastering subject is disabled by the stilled consciousness, the deathly order presented in Gorlitz's installation. The Axis Mundi marks a line between the subject and the forces that compel desire — a line curved into the circle traced in the objects pictured. The diurnal motions of moon and newspaper, the dead bird suspended, the carton coffin bearing failing goods, and the wreath for the grave; each portrays a return through cycles that continually deny the 'life' of nature and promote the repressive investment of the fetish. We are given back to the discontents of misrecognition, to the trance-like state of culture grounded in parts elevated to wholes. What is grasped in this work is the infernal guarantees accompanying that culture — the resilience of desire as a projective force, the implacable panic accompanying the disavowal of mastering power, the dreadful process of being removed from the centre of the world.
From this vantage, it is evident that a different kind of subject is being addressed by Gorlitz. No longer the spectator of mass culture mesmerized by personification, but a projection of deep rooted processes in Western patriarchal culture is being put on the stage. This figure is difficult to picture as representation, because it is the construction of the political, social and aesthetic representations produced in that culture. Its origin is subsumed in the search for origins, for, as a concept, it has been granted rights as originary ground for the development of the modern state, modern art and the living space of modernity. Gorlitz's latest work seeks out the effects of its presence, the trace of its workings in the reception of images.
The perspectival malaise of Axis Mundi and the blatantly disordered family of Die Laughing provoke consideration of both the investments and the striking deficiencies of this figure. At the same time they do so almost exclusively at the level of discourse. The painted treatment is consistent enough for its properties as signifier to be subsumed beneath the allegorical and somatic shifts called for by the content. It is true that serious differences can be described in materials — the thin washes and mixed colours of the Saplings in Die Laughing, for example, are contrasted to the more gestural, ambiguous and urgent handling of the 'parent' stumps, yet this shores up their overall role in the rhetoric of that installation. In this case, and in much of Gorlitz's work, the material continues to resolve itself into 'background' of the painting's discursive order.
However, to reproduce this discontinuous, self dissolving, subject intimated in Gorlitz's recent work, attention is turned towards the simulation of its conditions on the painted surface. As the imagery it prompts is a vacuous revision of classical order, the picture will present traditional subject matter skewed to promote delirium in place of conflict. Wholeness will be suggested but still withheld. As a conglomeration of specific intensities rather than a whole personality, the subject's appearance will be blank — or better, erased — of affect. It will sport signs of this dissolution, and will multiply itself to avoid differentiation, using scale and seriality to compensate for its forced entry into space. It will appear coherent and whole at the same time as it confounds the notions of being both human and present simultaneously. The scene it takes, and it does seemingly absorb its surrounding, will hardly contain the person, but will instead work to expel the concept to context, simulating a scene whose meaning is evacuated, at play. Lastly, in consequence of the simulational paradigm, the result will chronicle technical shifts that bolster the reality-effect sustained throughout.
Precisely this sort of reproduction is figured in the installation Bad Faith. Again, Gorlitz uses a self portrait as the model, but the term and the theme of modelling take no 'organic' or volatile entity for its source. Instead of the conflicted family or the disembodied spectator — models that operate by analogy — this work enacts a process of simulation that denies the efficacy of analogy. It appears as an almost virtuoso turn when first encountered; Gorlitz has painted the same head on three self portraits. Each portrays a different setting, each reflects, in colour and subject, specific types of light and meaning, yet all bear the same face and the same attributes — with a towel or turban wrapped about his head shading one eye, the artist stares dead-pan out of the picture. This unaffected gaze is compounded by another installed element; surrounding the paintings on the walls of the gallery, the same face is multiplied in mechanically reproduced images covering where the paintings' don't.
The impression is that Gorlitz has processed megalomania, pressing his face over the exhibition, upgrading his role to that of the icon. Even so, repetition also is a regressive process, dulling the sense to difference, to effect. The regression insinuated by the lack of affect in the face suggests no projective personality behind its mask. If we look to the paintings for meaning, several things are apparent. Two of three scenes take place in nature and display the artist in shock, unreactive to some stimulus. In Blue (the paintings are named by the three primary bandwidths of spectral light), the artist sits on a stool at the edge of a forest clearing, while inches away, an owl approaches. In fact, the outstretched wings of the imminently attacking bird are what make the scene visible, as examination will demonstrate that the light source of Blue is the reflected light of the moon, hidden outside the frame. The figure, however, is unconscious of the bird; his features conform roughly to the rules of shading, so he is part of the scene, but exempt from the drama. Likewise, in Red's inky night setting, the figure is shown up to his chest in water next to the brilliant rosy flame of a partly submerged branch on fire. Fish swim to the light, but the artist remains unperturbed by their presence. Suggestions of forms of baptism or ritual passage would follow from the scene, yet the drama is diluted by the subject's comatose attitude. He is no more sensate than the yoghurt container that floats off to the side. In Yellow the light bulb image recurs, like the idea bubble in a cartoon, but it lights a scene of little consequence. Gorlitz's figure stands this time, in a garage or workshop, holding one end of a streetlamp fixture. It is not lit and its dimness is now the figure's attribute as well; part blind, perhaps injured as well. He seems not so much an objectified figure for the artist as an object in his own right, a form stunted in consciousness.
That concept of the subject performing as an object is central to the concept of 'bad faith' in Sartrean existentialism. There, the famous example is the officious waiter whose fastidiousness masks the fact that he resents giving service; by filling his role with dedication he overcomes the inferiority of service. In this, for Sartre, he acts in bad faith, forming himself as a split consciousness, one part passive, denying freedom, one part active, developing inauthentic methods for making the bad into good. Gorlitz is again glossing, for, while his Bad Faith deals with the split between the same subject being mastered object and mastering agent of representation, the entire issue of authentic is made invisible. The 'authentic' source for the multiplied head is impossible to locate, none of the pictures take precedence as model for its followers; the multiple images are a processed composite of all three, developed from photographs taken before the final application of paint. Gorlitz has effaced the origin of the image in layers of paint and technical process as a means of disrupting the concept of priority or authenticity in the image.
This is a deliberate move to work in 'bad faith' that is also met with in the specific handling of the painted surface. The fiery reflection of the burning wood departs into a heavily worked passage that belies its unreflected source. The figure in Yellow is cut off below the knees by foreshortening, and the feet appear displaced, off to the side. And the bird, with its piercing eyes mocks the half blind Gorlitz, but the glassy surface delineated points to the taxidermist's shelf for the bird, the photographic flash for the portrait. All is not given in its appearance, but neither is it elsewhere inscribed or accounted for. In producing one of its constituent parts without trace or lineage, Bad Faith exists at the level of simulacrum, being a copy without an original. (4) That Gorlitz portrays this category of sign, one without reference or substance, but capable, almost virulent in its strategic multiplication and attestation to possible realities, is testament to the stage his painting has assumed.
Ironically, this is a kind of first for Gorlitz — a work that produces one of its constituent parts without trace or lineage. Bad Faith exists at the level of Baudrillard's simulacrum, being a copy without an original, a work of imploded effect and vertiginous reflexiveness. That Gorlitz portrays this category of sign, one without reference or substance — but capable, almost virulent in its strategic multiplication and attestation of possible realities — is testament to the stage his painting has assumed. It demonstrates with acuity the collapse of the order of distance which legislated representation as a social instrument. Instead of indicating place, status and power, it dissolves into information and material, rhetoric and paint, forces alternately rigid and liquid — compliant to reformation.
That reformation is indicated in this work, because it is immune to description. Gorlitz tries no predictive exercises on its subject, but relies on the ruins of the representational system to inform his work. Within that realm, however, are unknown glimpses of crisis to be recovered and played out, opportunities where the potential and ambivalent power of imagery will serve up the effects of its assumption and privileges. His work has already provided some of these instances, rich and dark as they appear, but they are also surprisingly unnerving, anxious and disturbing. That effect is the sign of its depth, the note of suggestive habit souring in the spectator's field.
Toronto - Vancouver, May 1987.
'Excerpt' C Magazine #4 (Winter 1984 / 1985): 46.
Fischer, Barbara. Perspective 86: Will Gorlitz and Nancy Johnson. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1986.
Fones, Robert, 'Will Gorlitz: Sable Castelli Gallery' Vanguard 15 (December 1986 / January 1987): 29.
Grenville, Bruce. The Allegorical Image in Recent Canadian Painting. Kingston, Ont.: Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University, 1985.
Groot, Paul. Doppelgänger. Amsterdam: Aorta, 1985.
Guest, Tim. Late Capitalism. Toronto: Art Gallery at Harbourfront, 1985.
Lebredt, Gordon. 'After Affects: a small matter of some face (re)' C Magazine #6 (Summer 1985): 16-19.
Lypchuk, Donna. 'Mensonges Celebres & Deguisements Illustres' Parallelogramme (Fall 1985): 45.
McGrath, Jerry. 'Will Gorlitz: Axis Mundi' C Magazine, #12 (1986): 70-71.
— 'Will Gorlitz: Sable Castelli Gallery' Vanguard 13 (February 1984): 50-51.
Rhodes, Richard. 'Fractura Narrative Propria.' In São Paulo Bienal. São Paulo: São Paulo Bienal, 1985.
Sigurdson, Doug and Suzanne Gillies. 'Plug in Redux' Midcontinental (1985).
Wood, William. Fire and Ice. Zurich: Binz 39 & Walchenturm, 1985.
From the exhibition catalogue
Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.
Copyright ©1997, 2019. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.