David Hornung’s mysteriously charged works on view at Elena Zang Gallery

David Hornung’s Shelter, 2019, acrylic gouache on handmade paper, 10 x 12.5 inches

“Handmade Light,” opening on June 15 and running through July 2, is David Hornung’s first solo show at the Elena Zang Gallery, located in Shady, just north of Woodstock. The show consists of 23 paintings by the artist, who currently lives with his wife, children’s book author Ellen Tarlow, in Woodside, Queens. His mostly small, acrylic gouache paintings on handmade paper feel like epiphanies, though their formal language of colored shapes is of the utmost simplicity and their pared-down iconography of trees, shrubs, fences, logs, twigs, buildings, boats, stumps, rocks, ladders and the like is of the most ordinary kind, drawn from rural America.

There’s a sense of mystery in these intimate, schematic landscapes, whose skies are frequently riven with lightning bolts, sunrays, portentous, oddly shaped clouds or, in the case of Hypothetical May Morning 2, a descending bird in flight, breaking through the forest cover. Though it’s aimed at a yellow gable-roofed house, not the Virgin Mary, its journey seems no less charged with divine energy than the dove in medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Annunciation. (Hornung’s mother is a devout Catholic, and he credits his early experience with the Church with instilling his love of emblematic art.) On the other hand, while the subject of the paintings seem tied to the momentous – each captures a particular time of day or weather event that suggests an impeding shift, the quiet before the storm – their language is rooted in the abstract: The quality of emotion resides in the intense, syncopated color harmonies and arrangement of shapes, which convey a sense of space from which the recognizable emblems of a person, cloud or house emerge. Each element of the piece is essential to its structure, never extraneous, which frees our eyes and minds to revel in the beauty of a pure work of art whose pared-down content also grounds us in meaning.

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Hornung, who is 69, was raised in a working-class family in southeastern Pennsylvania and, from the age of 13, in Delaware. He attended the University of Delaware and spent a year at art school in London before earning his MFA at the University of Wisconsin. He taught at Rhode Island School of Design for many years and, after moving to New York City, also at Pratt, the Parsons School of Design and Adelphi University, where he was chair of the Art Department for several years. He continues to teach at Adelphi and just completed his revisions for the third edition of his classic book on color, Color: A Workshop for Artists and Designers, which will be published next spring. Hornung has also written about art and quilts – as part of his transition from painting abstractly to a more representational mode, in the early 1980s he made art quilts –and is curating a show of contemporary stitched art at the University of Nebraska.

Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Hornung:

How is your medium, acrylic gouache, different from conventional gouache?

The difference is that acrylic gouache is not reworkable, which means you can make infinite adjustments without bringing up the color underneath. The paintings look fresh and unlabored, but I make many adjustments.

Hornung’s Under Darkness, 2018, acrylic gouache on handmade paper, 11 x 9.75 inches

How do you begin a work?

I start with color and moving paint around. Abstract notations and shapes suggest subjects. My fundamental shape language is fluid, which is why the figures are emblematic; they allow me to move freely between abstraction and representation. Some things coalesce into a reference, while other things remain shapes. There are shapes that almost become things, but not quite. It’s a matter of reference. The shapes in the sky read as clouds because of their location. I like to create varying degrees of closure so there’s a sense of discovery on the part of the viewer. 

It sounds like the process itself is about discovery.

I try to surprise myself. If I’m not surprised, then the viewer will not be, either. I can’t fake it, so I try to keep the process as light and spontaneous as I can, even though the painting coalesces into specific images. Of all the traditional genres, landscape is the closest thing to abstract painting. Even a traditional landscape painter like Constable could only see objects in the foreground and had to invent an equivalent for everything else. In still life, you can transcribe in detail all the things you see, but landscape is intrinsically abstract; in the middle ground you might be able to see the tree still has leaves on it, but farther back you’re hanging on for dear life.

While the color and relative scale of objects in your paintings convey a sense of space, the paintings are resolutely flat. You don’t paint objects in the foreground with more detail than those placed in the background, and your backgrounds aren’t more generalized than your foregrounds.

Even though I’m painting in a landscape format or idiom, I think of my landscapes as still lifes, in that the mid-ground and background contain equal amounts of invention. Nothing overlaps. My point of view tends to be above eye level; I’m looking down into my subjects. I want the viewer to be able to regard each element as independent and interdependent. You recognize a form as a boat, and it therefore becomes iconic or prototypical, which is another reason I don’t provide too much detail; the less detail, the more iconic it is. Yet it’s also very specific. I try to make my pictorial references as specific as they can be without being realistically detailed. There’s also an interdependent relationship between the boat in, say, Waterland, to mention one example of a painting in the show, and the purple shape that adjoins it marking the line of the shore. They speak to each other.

That formal interplay and resonance perhaps account for the energy in your art. Though it’s flat, there’s an inherent liveliness in each piece – even, strange to say, considering how small in scale they are, a sense of weather and spatial immensity.

I try to create a sense of disequilibrium, in the way the paint is laid down and the way the figures are postured. I try to make them unstable, so there’s a sense of potential movement and transition. For a painting to be alive, it has to have these characteristics.

I noticed that some of your work is more abstract, while in others the references are more fully realized. 

For me, painting is a bit like being a sailboat. If you want to reach a lighthouse, you can’t go straight for it; you have to tack from left to right. My tacking takes me between the two poles of abstraction and representation. Desert is the most abstract of the works in the show, and Valley of Shadows represents the other extreme. Between these two parentheses the whole sentence of my art sits.

The bird’s-eye point of view of your paintings reminds me of Japanese woodcuts.

One reason I like the small figure in the landscape, which is more like how humans are depicted in Indian or Japanese art, is that it puts people in perspective in their relationship to a world in which we’re just one of many elements: We’re relatively insignificant. My view of humankind in relation to nature is not the heroic mode.

Many of your titles suggest a preoccupation with mortality, such as Autumnal, Twilight, Theater of Expectation, Under Darkness, Last Light, Borderland and Valley of Shadows. In many there is a single contemplative figure, tiny in relationship to the landscape, and your palette often skews toward the darker end of the spectrum. The pieces emit a dark radiance.

Although the interpretation of my work is fluid, they are a harbinger of mortality, which has always been my subject. I’ve been obsessed with mortality since I was 12 years old. 

David Hornung’s Clearing, 2019, acrylic gouache on handmade paper, 10 x 12.5 inches

You’ve spoken previously of the influence of Japanese and Chinese woodblocks, comic books and Mogul painting. What are others?

I had an early interest in children’s art and that of the early Modernists, such as Klee, who were very interested in self-taught art. Self-taught artists don’t have the technical skill to create a convincing illusion, so they fall back on a flat language. Usually they’re not very good, but there are a handful in the world, such as Bill Traylor, William Hawkins, Morris Hirschfield and Joseph Garlock, who are great painters. I call it Essentialism: The most powerful aspects of a painting are those things that are essential to it. Clement Greenberg took this to a ridiculous extreme, by addressing only its flatness; but there are many aspects essential to painting that don’t involve a labored illusionism.

The flatness of your work partly has to do with its matte surface and the lack of brushstrokes. The paintings look very graphic, almost as if they were printed.

I don’t want to create a buildup of brushstrokes. The slightly disembodied aspect of my images complements my agenda, which is to create a dreamlike parallel universe. Not much materiality interferes.

You’ve said that you view painting as more akin to music than to language. Could you explain?

I experience different levels of consciousness as I make a painting. The best analogy would be improvisational music, such as a sax solo by John Coltrane. In places, the melody comes into view, and elsewhere it disappears. You know the musician understands in some conscious part of his mind musical structure, harmony, rhythm, melody and pacing, but there’s no way he could access that in the moment he’s creating a solo. I work out of the unconscious in the heat of making. Afterwards, I sit down and look at it as a distanced observer. 

Did you have any artistic influences as a child?

I grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and as a teenager was very influenced by Andrew Wyeth. My father knew him well, because he grew up in that town. One day my father was walking by Andy’s studio and helped him put out a fire, so Wyeth gave my father a drawing. It was the only original work of art in our house. My art education took me far away from the values of Wyeth’s art, but now I see the shadow of his work in my imagery.

Your dad was a factory worker and your mom worked as a secretary at a reform school. You were the first person to go to college in your family. How did growing up working-class affect you as an artist?

I was always intrigued by art, though my intellectual interests were an anomaly in my family. Being working-class made me admire people who had a craft, whether it was in music, comedy or theater. Consequently, I was never attracted to conceptual art. I’ve always had a deep respect for the art of the past.

Many of the paintings have interrupted edges where they meet the paper, which breaks the sense of illusion, of the painting as a window into reality.

I’ve been playing with this idea of confounding the hardness of the rectangle for two years. It’s hard to have the interrupted edges come naturally out of the painting process and not be a decorative element. I’m interested in levels of reality and simultaneous levels of perception. Because the paintings are so flat, they reveal everything I’m doing, the duality between fact and fiction – the fact being the paint itself, the way it’s applied, the dimensions and edges of the panel, and the fiction being it’s a tree and a mountain. I’m constantly negotiating the divide between fact and fiction.

“Handmade Light: Recent Paintings by David Hornung, 2018-2019,” June 15-July 2, artist’s reception June 15, 2-5 p.m., Elena Zang Gallery, 3671 Route 212, Shady/Woodstock; (845) 679-5432.

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