To be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore. --Roland Barthes, "Requichot et son corps" (1) Beholding April Gornik's Mirrored Trees, like writing about it, is to be beckoned into something akin to D. W. Winnicott's "holding environment" (Fig. 1). (2) Painted on linen, in 2000, at human scale (76 by 55 inches), Mirrored Trees presents an aesthetic experience of intimate immensity. The painting's depicted world is opened toward me, the viewer; as I am invited to move toward the middle of the painting, I am held, like arms extended in embrace, by a meandering curve of substantial, delicately traced greenery. Even the tall, somewhat spindly trees enfold me between their luminous, cloud-like crowns--a relation echoed in the way that the long, slender branch on the painting's left leans out to shelter its diminutive counterpart. At its center, Mirrored Trees offers my gaze a lush place of rest.
In contrast to the aesthetic experience of a representation of the sublime in nature, the experience of intimate immensity does not commence on a note of surprise or terror that robs the beholder of breath; it begins, instead, with a sense of internal expansion. Gaston Bachelard characterizes intimate immensity as "consciousness of enlargement" or internal spaciousness. (3) For Gornik, intimate immensity refers to the way a natural or invented landscape--at once human-scale and vast--invites us to enter into it and to breathe, to expand our being in the aesthetic experience of that space. (4) Perhaps this is why the artist eschews the use of the human figure in her landscapes. The human figure performs a necessary role in representations of the sublime in nature: this figure not only sets the scale of the landscape, underlining, thereby, the immensity of nature's appearance, but it also stands apart from the scene of nature's vastness or might, demonstrating, in doing so, that the sublime, as Immanuel Kant stressed, takes place from a position of security. (5) Here, as in all Gornik's works of art, we are drawn into the very heart of an invented landscape, exquisitely rendered.
Held here, but where, exactly? For as much as Mirrored Trees provides refuge at its center, it posits itself as a painted surface on which a landscape is depicted. The lilt of wind and water suggested through slight differences of stroke and shape--a glint of white here, a loosening of form there--remind us that natural reflection and artistic depiction are subtle games. Mirrored Trees relies on painterly naturalism and the genre of landscape for its effects. If these conventions have traditionally been associated with the transformation of the canvas into a window onto a world made "real" through the sleight of hand of illusionism, here they are pressed into the service of a world that is simultaneously "real" and oneiric. The taut play between naturalism and invention in Gornik's artwork lures us in like old-fashioned illusionism and subtly reminds us that this is a painted world, a representational space separate from our own.
Even as it offers repose, Mirrored Trees solicits the movement of the eye. Entering the painting on the right, my gaze is invited to course the curve of greenery or to traverse the stepping stones furnished by the reflected shapes of the treetops in the water. Either way, I come to that seeming still point at the center of the painting where the outstretched, sheltering branch mirrors, through metaphoric extension, my own place under the trees. Yet even as that branch shelters, it extends, pointing my gaze beyond it, as do so many fingers of greenery in the painting. An equipoise of rest and movement is also indicated in the overall composition. On the one hand, the cluster of trees planted in the center of the painting signals that a landscape has been arranged into a view. On the other hand, the manner in which the depicted landscape is cut off at left and right indicates a world beyond the frame. For its part, that rounded hint of a sun behind the swath of green (or is it the crest of a hill bathed in sunlight?) registers a recession of the landscape. Intimate immensity: in the aesthetic experience of Mirrored Trees, in the timeless moment it takes for my gaze to follow the painting's invitation to move through and beyond it, I am held within a painted world, just my scale, that likewise extends beyond me and holds itself apart from me.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
To be held within a "holding environment" that holds itself apart from me, is this the melancholic art? As Michael Ann Holly persuasively argues: yes, it is. Since the "'aesthetic moment.' ... sometimes empowers us," but so often "ails us," she calls "our disciplinary companion: Melancholy." Searching out the possible ways that melancholy figures our practices and our field, she asks us to ponder whether there exists an "'unconscious' of the history of art" and, if so, "What kind of spaces, what kinds of time might it occupy?" I will suggest that the condition of the modern is the time of the "unconscious" of the history of art. The phrase "condition of the modern" folds within itself chronological reference (the modern) and experience (modernity), as it signals a particular kind, or quality, of time. The space of this so-called unconscious, I believe, is a territory marked--in a host of ways--by the far in the near. Since the time and space of this "unconscious" cannot be held apart, one cannot write about the "scholarly commitment of writing art history" without addressing a question Holly poses, and which haunts her pages: "whence comes the desire to write about these works in the first place?"
Where Holly focuses on works of art "from worlds long gone," I would like to extend her claims by arguing that for contemporary art, too, "melancholy [comes] along in a distinctly concrete way." This is not only because, as my colleague Richard Meyer asserts, contemporary art is itself historical, (6) but also because, like objects from the past, works of contemporary art are objects separate from me. Gornik's artistic production demonstrates this relation in contemporary art of the object and viewer in a compelling and sophisticated way.
For Roland Barthes, "to be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore." (7) Rich in connotation, Barthes's phrase registers a condition of ineluctable separation between the subject and actual, mental, spiritual, or imagined objects--what I behold or hold in my hand is not me; the nation or the author is not me; nor is God or my lover--a condition of disrepair that "myth today" endeavors to paper over, or at least assuage. (8) Charles Baudelaire's poetry captures the nuances of this modern condition. Where "Correspondances" tells of the poetic reverie inspired by experiences of interconnection, in "Le gout du neant" Baudelaire indicates that it is the melancholy poet who contemplates the earth as an object of reflection separate from him:
I contemplate, from on high, the globe in its roundness, And no longer look there for the shelter of a hut. (9) Since a notion of separation folds within itself a sense of loss, melancholy and nostalgia become linguistic and experiential markers of the modern. Set beside this, Baudelaire's and Marcel Proust's efforts to recover what had been lost, like the energy Franz Kafka expended in order to register this modern condition, appear as inevitable responses to what the nineteenth century had wrought.
Many artists, writers, and thinkers have claimed the separation of subject and object as a condition and effect of the modern. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise to discover that the aesthetic experience begins to be codified at the middle of the eighteenth century, a time that can arguably be termed the advent of the modern. (10) The aesthetic moment, akin to mythic experience, draws beholder and object together in an imagined space of temporal suspension. This moment when "the two become one entity," as Bernard Berenson put it, is a "fleeting instant," a moment "so brief as to be almost timeless." (11) The aesthetic moment is elusive not simply in a temporal sense, however. While aesthetic experience might proffer intimations of the sublime and the beautiful, aesthetic judgment grants us no concept by which we might know the objects that frighten or enchant us.
Kant, in his three Critiques, shows why philosophy involves the negotiation of near and far. In the Critique of Pure Reason he elucidates how cognition relies on "two transcendentals," the standpoint of the finite and the infinite. (12) According to the philosopher, the negotiation of these points of view lend truth content to our perceptions. Kant's 1790 Critique of Judgment explains why the inquiry into aesthetic phenomena proceeds with knowledge as its imaginary focus. At the same time, the philosopher establishes the impossibility of gaining conceptual knowledge of aesthetic phenomena. In this sense, the aesthetic moment might be considered an occasion of the far in the near. Where cognition relies on Kant's two transcendentals, in the aesthetic moment we cannot negotiate the finite and the infinite. As a result, aesthetic judgment eludes theoretical understanding: because we cannot know the laws of aesthetic judgment, there exists no truth content for our perceptions of aesthetic phenomena. Modern aesthetics is "born as a nullification of transcendence"; as Gregg Horowitz tells it, so, too, is artistic modernism. (13)
To be sure, melancholy is not a strictly modern condition. "For many thinkers," Holly writes, "the time elapsed between the fourteenth century and the 'end' of modernism in the twentieth represents the era of melancholy...." (14) Taking Petrarch (1304-1374) as an example, one could argue that the beginning of the era of melancholy coincides with the stirrings of a sense of history. Petrarch "discovered history" in his promenades "through the wilderness of ruins then covering most of...