Some light in the darkest time of year
John Gordon Gauld's work on display at Berkshire Botanical Garden
STOCKBRIDGE — No representational painting is really just what it seems. In the paintings of John Gordon Gauld, the seemingly simple images of landscapes, still life, and common objects are really just one layer of many within the painting's frame. There is much to be explored in his choice of materials, which can be familiar or strange, and the idea and systems that are playing off one another. It all amounts to another, more careful way of engaging with a world we often take for granted.
In an interview as he prepared for a new show at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, Gauld described part of his work as "an investigation of different belief systems." That can include references to Greek mythology, for example, or astrology or the Hippocratic system of humours that were once considered to rule the physical self.
All that is there in, for example, his painting "The Archer." It is shaped like a diamond, with a background made of gold leaf. Its subject is a meditation on the zodiac — in this case the sign of Sagittarius — with references to thistle and its symbolic connection to Jupiter, with a goose hanging as a trophy from a hunt beside a bowl where a fire has recently been extinguished.
"It's one of the things that gets me involved in the painting," he said. "There's some storytelling, but there isn't necessarily a conclusion."
The exhibition of Gauld's recent work opened at the Garden's Leonhardt Galleries on Saturday. "Unborn Sun, Paintings by John Gordon Gauld" will run through Feb. 7.
Over about two dozen works, Gauld demonstrates his different approaches. Some works appear in egg tempera, with its brighter and more stable colors, while others are in oil, with their deeper and richer hues. He deploys painstaking processes like water gilding — a way of adding a layer of gold leaf to a surface — and often uses rare and historic elements like cinnabar, lapis lazuli, and malachite for certain effects.
But more than that is his use of light in all its rich varieties — sunlight at different times of the day, the color of the sky from season to season, the cool starkness of moonlight.
The last is a subject for one room of the exhibit, with a series of recent paintings that emerged from his periodic bouts of insomnia, which often motivated him to go outside and walk around, especially when it strikes during a full moon.
A group of these mostly landscapes will hang in a more dimly lit separate room, and his commitment to representing a low-light image makes it difficult to even make out what we are seeing. "It takes a few minutes for you to see what's going on, the same as at night when your eyes adjust to the dark."
Gauld divides his time between his house and studio in Egremont and a place in Brooklyn. He said the title of the show was to offer a little bit of light and hope, particularly now at the darkest time of year.
"I like the idea of the unborn sun, of new hope," he said. "Every day is an opportunity to do something positive and make change."
Gauld has worked in representational painting for most of his career, from before his time at Rhode Island School of Design in the '90s, and has stuck with it even as its popularity has ebbed and flowed through the years. He said he was always committed in his approach, learning techniques that in some cases date back to the Renaissance, even if sometimes instructors and well-wishers would wonder why anyone would want to paint that way even if they could. Asked about influences, he mentioned painters of a previous generation like Lucian Freud and Andrew Wyeth, as well as contemporaries like Walton Ford, Alexis Rockman, Hilary Harkness, Lisa Yuskavage and Marilyn Minter.
Representational painting occupies a strange place in our visual culture at the current moment, as we are all flooded by digital images from television and our phones, from all angles it seems. Gauld talked about the "special quality of an object," of a grounding presence of a crafted work within this torrent.
"There is still something that is special that people will return to," he said. It presents an opportunity to slow down and draw out a response.
He noted that for many artists, how the work appears digitally in spaces like Instagram is an important factor, but that he'd be happy for his work to be the opposite. "I'd rather [the work] look better in person," he said.
The Berkshire Botanical Garden has long featured artwork, usually sculpture outdoors in the warmer months, but only added a year-round exhibition program when a new gallery space was created during a renovation just over two years ago.
"We're not just here for the tourist season," said the Garden's executive director, Michael Beck. "Especially in the depth of winter, there's nothing nicer than walking into a gallery and having a nice art experience."
Beck said Gauld's "meticulous attention to detail" fit nicely with the Garden's purpose for hosting work. "We're very clear there has to be some connection to our overall mission, which is to inspire about the natural world," he said. "All of the shows we've had tie in to that."
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