John Gorman is a Dublin-educated Englishman who currently teaches in Paris. His artwork is remarkably interesting for its revisions of the grand traditions of drawing in Western culture. This small show, in the smaller room of the Art Mora gallery in Chelsea, happily offered visitors a chance to see work that is truly original, despite Gorman’s obvious influences from French 19th-century drawing. The combination of old and new in his drawings is highly interesting, for it melds his wide reading—in art history, mathematics, philosophy, literature, and poetry—with his fine art practice. All the drawings in the exhibition were small in dimension but presented a remarkable power whose effects straddle both abstract and figurative art. In doing so, Gorman extends his visual intelligence into the present moment, rather than becoming enmeshed in the past. At the same time, it is clear that his affection for past art accomplishments is far from passive. In America, where we are committed to newness for its own sake, art becomes an exercise in supposedly tradition-free visual construction. But as a result, the esthetic culminates in a language that is so sufficient unto itself, we lose any and all sense of the past. This seems to me both mistaken and naïve. What is truly needed is a mixture of an internalized tradition and an experimental outlook that, hopefully, results in a truly original work of art.
Gorman’s art comes close to looking like academic studies, but in fact, moves beyond the heritage influencing him into a place where the innate expressiveness of the drawings seems new and innovative. Especially, in America, we value expressiveness over scholarly consideration in art—we hold the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock especially—as our guide. But the truth is that there have been isolated, highly educated figures who are outstanding artists—think of Robert Motherwell, educated at Stanford and Harvard and an editor and writer as well as a painter. The point is that Gorman’s drawings take a lot from his studies, which give them a gravitas lacking in most art today. Indeed, the titles of his works, such as Ecce Homo, Gethsemane, and Marsyras point to biblical or classical themes, which bring with them a seriousness now not easily found. At the same time, these titles give Gorman’s audience a real sense of his ambition. He aims to work within the grand conventions he has studied, transforming his background into something new. There is a male head, done in red chalk, named Oedipus the King (2016). Achieved with stray lines, the drawing makes a real impression; despite its small size, it is monumental, even mythic, in feeling.
The head is particularly exciting because it shows us how realism can be made into something visionary and prophetic because of its ties to the past. The head has deep, empty eye sockets, as well as a bulbous nose and a high forehead. The feeling is one of romantic heroism touched with melancholic experience; the Oedipal story’s tragic conclusion here is rendered with its full emotional force. Dying Centaur (2016), to an extent eroticized and spiritually dark, is a mythic treatment of a creature found only in legend. The figure, with his hands raised above him, gazes helplessly into the distance. These drawings are truly disturbing, but their eloquence as art saves them from merely being a description hopeless melancholy. History has a way of compelling its students to recognize and accept events as tragic experience; yet art transforms experience into something novel, transcendent, and free. Even a line drawing of a naked, corpulent figure lying down—it is hard to tell whether the person is male or female–offers Gorman’s audience an improvisation that, composed only of a few gestures, nonetheless, carries a weight indicative of a much more finished work of art. It is impossible to decide whether work like this will survive the onslaught of experimental projects. But it is very clear that there is a place for Gorman’s efforts, which sustain his training and education.
Other drawings command attention. In Battle of the Centaurs (2016), an amorphous black mass covers most of the field of composition. It is a highly expressive, mysterious work of art. Without the title, we would not know what it is about. No boundaries seem to exist; the work feels like an elegy to struggling form despite its small dimensions. But the viewer does in fact sense a conflict is taking place. Here is a case in which Gorman’s sense of abstraction originates with a specific, if mythical, event. In all of the drawings of the show, we see the tension between narrative and abstraction. The strain is key to the art’s success. In fact, one of the major pleasures of Gorman’s art is its re-visioning of legend, made new in light of the forceful demonstrative drawing. In Dyonisos (2016), a male figure is drawn again with stray lines, with emphasis on black masses filling the head and the left shoulder. The god of wine and religious ecstasy here is treated as an imposing figure; his torso is muscular, and he feels as though he is poised for a spontaneous ritual. In such images, Gorman truly deserves congratulation for his inspired reading of history and myth, transformed into contemporary art.
John Gorman at Art Mora
Writing by Jonathan Goodman
Photographs provided by the gallery