The Visual Gate: Entering the Place of Painting: An Interview with Will Gorlitz

Will Gorlitz doesn’t make anything easy, on himself or the viewer; nor does he make anything easily. One of the surprises in the following conversation is the ongoing uncertainty he experiences in a painting’s manufacture. He calls it, “a completely accidental process. Everything is trial and error; I’ve never made a good mark that I knew would be the way it is before I make it.” This admission is especially perplexing because of the evidence we are afforded in seeing his finished paintings. They look to be virtuoso achievements. Gorlitz is one of this country’s best and most indispensable painters, and the various bodies of work he has produced over the last 20 years–the “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” 1989, the “Road Paintings,” 1997-99, the Flower and Vase series, 2005, the Animals in Snow series, 2007-08–have been exemplary. The paintings he did using scattered flowers and broken vases were responses to the death of his wife, and they are among his most moving works. As he eventually realized, they were pictures about looking through tears; as a result, they are simultaneously measured and furious. But they were also about the ongoing conversation between painting and photography in Gorlitz’s practice. Wrestling with that practical angel in no way diminished the feelings of sorrow and anger that were central to their character.

As if the art of painting weren’t difficult enough, Gorlitz sets problems for himself that make it even more so. If the surprise he looks for isn’t present, he will create it by frustrating his own practice. These acts of self-directed sabotage can be as simple as selecting an unworkable colour, but the effect is to force the art of painting to become an act of troubled and conscious negotiation. He will adopt a compositional strategy, like pushing his subject so far into the corners of the picture plane that we abandon any conventional understanding of how a picture should look. By nature and practice, Gorlitz is something of a contrarian, and his instinct is to favour resistance over resolution, particularly if that resolution is a simple one. “I don’t want the traffic of images to be easy,” he says. “I don’t want an easy engagement.”

The following interview was conducted in Will Gorlitz’s kitchen in Guelph on June 3, 2009. His exhibition “nowhere if not here” was organized by the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery and will tour to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, mocca in Toronto, the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary through 2010.

Border Crossings: How do you decide what to paint?

Will Gorlitz: The concept is inspiration based, but I can’t speak very usefully about how ideas come to me. Retrospectively, I recognize a lot of compatibility and certain criteria shared by subjects I’ve worked with. But it’s not really an organic process; they just appear to me. That’s the one area of complete mystery in terms of my work.

You touch with your eyes. What is obvious is that your optical sense is highly talismanic.

And visceral. It’s something pre-linguistic. Even though my work is about language and about technology, it’s also about feeling. My scale is determined largely by that condition. I do a lot of trial and error to determine the appropriate size of something. It will often be close to but not exactly the size of the original thing. Certain subjects, like a tree, are experienced outside of that intimate context. A tree has a different enough physical feel that it becomes space but, as anyone who grew up on the prairies knows very intimately, space is tactile as well. It’s almost excruciating.

Do you do one image and that image tells you something about where you should proceed? The series, then, is generated out of each image?

Yes. I anticipate now that I will work in a set. It’s useful to produce a number of works which speak to each other through a shared thematic focus, as opposed to expecting one work to bear the weight of conveying an idea. By repeating it and by having slight variations, it becomes easier to engage the depth of the initial thought.

So do you simultaneously start with the image and an idea about that image? Is that connection an immediate recognition, or are there times when an idea and its conceptual frame will be your point of departure?

I have to think about that. I can say that it is extremely complicated, and it comes from all directions. Increasingly, I would place that moment outside of myself altogether. I think it begins in the culture. As soon as I get an idea that is conceptual, all the other parts appear in some form. There is a lot of revision that happens through trial and error. Sometimes I think something is totally clear, so I’m not sure what I trade off in the pragmatics of making an idea into a work. There is a great deal of surprise. I have a fair bit of knowledge from the years I’ve been working, but I can honestly say that there is just as much surprise in my process. If it’s not there, I make sure that I sabotage whatever course it’s on so that the surprise happens. It’s not a trick, but I hate anything that comes too easily in the studio. And that usually leads to a solution because I’ll shift gears and start on something completely different. I did that a lot with the Freud drawings. I would immediately take the wrong colour and smear something in that I’d have to correct. I don’t mean that my work looks like a Guston, where the evidence remains visible, but I know it’s there in the basis of the work …

Pick up a copy of Issue 111 to read the entire interview!