Far from nothing: John Gnorski’s Like a Train in the Sky at Stumptown

Portland artist John Gnorski’s exhibition Like a Train in the Sky at Stumptown Coffee celebrates the Portland artist’s Stumptown Artist Fellowship award. It was curated by May Barruel, the proprietor of Nationale, and features a suite of woodblock prints and tenuously representational sculptures-as-drawings that readily communicate forms without being didactic. The forms aren’t fixed; they don’t always represent, say, humans, herons, or trains—but they’re also not nothing, far from it. In fact, “far from nothing” would be a good subtitle for a show that announces its attachment to, among other things, dusk and clouds. The fourteen works all involve wood, a material with which Gnorski, a carpenter by trade, is intimately familiar and they refer loosely to the visual world. 

His sculpted wooden shapes whirl, in slim billows, quills, or barbs (of feathers); some are as tall as grown herons while others are no bigger than a bouquet. The carvings are complemented by their brass supports and heavier cedar bases. The most memorable of things that Gnorski’s work conveys is that nuance resides in each object; it eschews convention. You can tell a person made this stuff. Craft, invention, strangeness can’t be taken for granted—all that’s epitomized here.

Gnorski Moth

John Gnorski, Moth (side view) (2018) Birch ply, flash, white oak, brass

Gnorski’s totemic and serpentine hewn-wood shapes carry an emotion, a depth of feeling that is enhanced by subtle, colorful edges. Looping symmetry lends an air of reverie that encourages a contemplative state (if you can hang out long enough amid the chatty, gawky tourist crowd). Gnorski’s work reveals sincerity—no cynicism and no obfuscation—and above all else, the seized luminescence of an instant. 

 Each composition has very obviously been tended to over time; nothing is quickly applied or fashioned. The carvings made from layered birchwood communicate vulnerability and strength in their skillful experimentation. The affinity between manual labor and art here is unquestionable. The precarity and awkward grace of the sculptures’ arrangements and installations (wood balanced atop thin brass bars) really make a case for sculpture as a medium and what a sculpted, carved form can achieve in terms of mark-making and disclosure of non-verbal sense. After considering these transfixing sculptures and pondering his process and approach, I came up with some questions for Gnorski to which he kindly responded. One of the things that struck me was the balance between delicacy and weight and I wanted to get a sense of how Gnoski understood this relationship: 

The line-based forms in the sculptures are delicate and intentionally wonky and awkward, and they push the medium—mostly plywood—to its limit in terms of structural integrity. The heavy plinths give both formal and physical support to the airy linear forms. 

… my hope is that the sculptures in particular embody some kind of essence of the encounter between me (or us) and the natural world and the emotions and reactions that happen in those moments. … Howard Hodgkin classified his paintings as “representational pictures of emotional situations” and I relate to that completely.    

Gnorski’s woodblock prints also lend the impression that process and result are harmonious. There’s intensive control in the artist’s procedures, and then a subsequent release in rendering: “I draw an image, transfer it to plywood, carve the plates and then print it, all for the sake of a single unique image. The reason I go through this process is because I like the mark-making I can achieve in carved and scratched wood.” When it comes to unconventional image composition, it’s often the artist’s job to avoid being overly analytical or controlling. Gnorski described his process as often resulting in something less predictable than another method might yield. It’s “unpredictable and uncooperative” he said, going on to add that the inconsistency tends to make “the image a lot more exciting to me than if I had put it directly onto paper or canvas with ink or paint.”

Gnorski Untitled

John Gnorski, Untitled (2019). Birth ply, fir ply, flashe, colored pencil, cedar, steel

Gnorski’s loose elaborations (which somehow don’t come off as ornate) emphasize negative space—the spaces that are not the sculptures (see Untitled (2019), Birch ply, cedar, steel), their shadows, and what may have inspired their hand-drawn aspect. The billowing shapes- as sculptures are unique despite the obvious fact that the ubiquity of influences is always just a click away. The prints have a hint of hedonism too because of the effort and scope of technique required to render such images. In the face of the laborious process and with any expectation of rationale (anything even small for the mind’s eye to latch onto), the seasoned artist takes the freedom to make it up as they go. “Due to physical and technical limitations they become their own thing,” Gnorski related. And isn’t that the way it should be? It’s one way to direct visual communication—minimal mediation, tension giving way to play. 

 It’s interesting to me that Gnorski can compose this kind of sensual imagery through such solid media as oak, cedar, birch, brass, steel. It’s another proof of the satisfaction that can emerge out of a symbiotic process. It’s clear, too, that some of the prints in the exhibition resonate with the sculptures. Gnorski confirmed: “Many of my recent prints are directly related to sculptures I’ve made, and I use a relatively small number of tools to make all of my art: saws, chisels, a router, a jigsaw, charcoal, paint, ink.” His ethereal sculptures look like drawn things, and his drawings somehow look like solid, dense objects—a little like they were sculpted. Bat and Moth 2 register the destabilizing darkness that the monoprint can have. In this heavy-light dichotomy, as well as in their specific coiling tracements, the prints rhyme with the sculptures. This is, of course, particularly so for Moth and Moth 2, which are cut from the same design. “Distinctions between media don’t matter to me at all” Gnorski told me. “The common thread for me is that all of the marks and forms are based in drawing—which is the seed of all my work—and then translated and re-imagined through various processes that impose some chance and awkwardness onto the source material.” 

Gnorski Moth 2

John Gnorski, Moth 2 (2019). Woodbock monotype in white oak frame.

To me, this approach typifies the requirements of creative work today, as ever—the invitation to, as opposed to the hiding of, whatever is awkward, tentative, precarious or without a determined outcome. This, accompanied by the requisite artistic rigor make for surprising outcomes. This dynamic shows up in Gnorski’s work and it’s part of what makes it so attractive. The formal contrasts and contradictions fashioned from wood and other solid objects suggest the unseen, the provisional, and the delicate so that the sculptures become “three-dimensional line drawings.” Contrasts and juxtaposition are, after all, primary for the enrichment of the viewer’s experience. For Gnorski, there are common threads related to techniques as well as themes of “connection to nature, exploration of what I call the spirit world.” His “acknowledgment of our relative insignificance in the vast tapestry of the universe” indicates an attention beyond the surface, which registers surprising formal and subjective effects.

Gnorski Untitled

John Gnorski, Untitled (2019). Birch ply, flashe, cedar, steel

I think some artists of the recent past were limited by admonishments to be tough or to appear strong, even powerful—when fear and vulnerability, what all sentient beings share, is a given. By contrast, all of Gnorski’s oeuvre suggests the dissolution of or the answer to solidity. Considering some art from the past, namely the mid-twentieth century, there’s a reticence to be open to the unknown, the veneer of toughness rejects the metaphysical. I think of Richard Serra’s hulking, occasionally perilous, things. It’s an assumed requirement to be remote, cold, hard. This could be a postwar zeitgeist thing—wracked nerves and worse. But for contemporary artworks like Gnorski’s, or what he consciously regards, I sense a deliberate effort to connect and to understand, people and inclinations. In his work, there’s the element of personhood but without aggressive agenda—this also allows for explorations further, much further out from there.

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