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“Brenda, Crossroads” by James Gortner

It was the opening of the MIA in MIA group Exhibition at the Lyons Wier Gallery in Chelsea. It was deathly cold but the opening was teeming with people and as I made my way through the swarm, a pair of eyes caught my attention. I immediately was drawn toward a painting of an ethereal woman with dark hair. The beauty of the piece became apparent as I admired the heightened color and intense patchwork of texture…the gaze. The gaze of the woman drew me in the most. Admittedly, it reminded me of Wynona Ryder but it was also her posture, her placement within the painting. She was totally submerged in the environment and the movement; she was everywhere. The painting was called “Carolina, The Hanged Man”(top). Within minutes, I was talking to the artist, James Gortner. Dressed casually, his shoulders crowned by a furry parka and wearing a whimsical smile; toting the California lassiez-faire. An affable and friendly person, James was more than happy to discuss his concept and even a little insight on his technique.

We met up for an interview at “lion north” (per James’ instructions) in front of the New York Public Library where the majestic lion statues were covered with snow. After trudging through the gray slush, we finally settled at the echoing eating area of the library’s lobby. There’s a quote by James on his website that says “energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be transformed.” Transformation is an important element in Gortner’s work that points to his interest in utilizing found objects and old paintings to collaborate with his own mark; figurative work of intense narrative and emotive quality. He transforms these materials by cutting them into abstractions within the painting field, creating a mish-mash of styles and a new kind of energy that was once dead and now has been revitalized by Gortner’s intuitive touch. He considers these found paintings to be collaborations and is mused by the elderly quality of them.

“If you think you’re alone in life or that you’re making your work alone, you should check your facts. That gets back to the idea that all art is collaboration no matter what you do…when it leaves your hands, it will change over time. Not because someone’s doodling over it but it’s going to change because someone is going to think of it differently over time and you’re not going to be there,” says Gortner.

“It’s not really yours anymore,” I say.

“I mean if it ever was yours.”

I felt the wisdom of that moment as it sunk in deeper than James’ technique or charisma. It spoke volumes about his ability to be humbled by creation itself, through lines of history and energy pouring in from every corner. For his most recent collection, “The Lovers”, a series of female figures that are translated through the tarot and the gaze of Gortner’s life partner Carolina Palmgren. Using Palmgren’s photography as subject, Gortner seeks to capture both their relationship and the essence of Carolina through the collaboration of her lens and his interpretation.

“I was envisioning a project where I would use her photos and make a portrait of her through the photos. It would be an excerpt of a photo she took, something to me that really looked like it was a reflection of her, sort of bouncing back through the lens,” says Gortner. Gortner’s figures are without stagnation as they weave in and out of the abstractions on the canvas, pulling you in with their gaze. The women make you wonder but the artist’s work never hits you over the head with a particular message. The work moves James, not the other way around.

“It’s less about my process or what I’m doing. It’s more about what I’m pointing to or the language I’m trying to develop. An artwork is not made by someone; it’s made with them,” says Gortner.

His childhood in East L.A. most likely influenced his previous projects that include the Darkside Portraits as well as Exit Strategy. These two series of portrait works immortalize the residents of a section in East Bushwick, New York; a poor neighborhood nicknamed “Darkside” in the 1970s and located near a conglomerate of cemeteries. Gortner lived there for two years documenting the faces of the derelict building that he took residency in under the watch of Brenda, the madam of the house and the neighborhood’s local Santeria shaman. It is often a point of controversy when an artist is an observer and becomes a voyeur, seeking to gain success from the outsider perspective of ghettoized communities. The context of race came up briefly in our discussion because of this. However, it’s important to note that Gortner had a personal experience with this project. He lived among these people and views it simply as a documentation of his experience and also the lives of those he connected with.

“Meeting people and taking their photograph, it got to be known that I was taking photographs and it was okay with most everybody. I thought of them as just being the people that were in the building where I was living that were anything from homeless people to transients to gang members to members of an underground religion. For me, it was about otherness but it wasn’t necessarily racial. This was just one project, this was not my career of painting,” says Gortner.

A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, a fact that is a piece of the subtext rather than the headline for the artist, Gortner was originally discovered through his thesis exhibition by gallery owner Mike Weiss who referred him to gortner’s current representation, Michael Lyons Wier. The artist speaks highly of the gallery owner, whom he felt an immediate connection with.

“He follows his creative gut. I’m just in line with his sort of vision and he’s creating at the same time. It’s a symbiotic relationship between an artist and a gallerist,” says Gortner.

For Gortner, Death and rebirth or an important theme in his artistic expression. From the death of a childhood friend that reawakened his artistic abilities to the cemetery community to his technique of giving life to found paintings, Gortner is mused by crossroads and the fluidity of conceptual realism that plays with these two juxtaposing ideas, creating windows into hearts of people and communities; entire worlds upon worlds.

“Art is a sort of continuous, malleable thing that goes over time and history. We’re contributing or building into that collectively. The idea being that the art isn’t actually these things that we make; objects. But it’s more the ideas; it’s more the feeling. It’s more the situation around the artwork being created; the larger space around the piece.”


—-Margaux Galli

Margaux is a New York City based writer and artist. She is the Editor-In-Chief of Pop Surrealism Magazine.