James Gortner is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program. The artist has exhibited around the world and, through the gallery, was chosen to commission a piece for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s newest and largest luxury ship, Harmony of the Seas. Gortner recently interviewed with Brainard Carey for a Yale University radio show and lives in New York City with his wife and children.

Statement About Ground Breakage

This series is a dramatic departure from the artist’s previous body of work, GAMES, in which he employed a lush figurative style that was layered on top of reclaimed and recycled canvases, co-mingling with the work of others.

In Ground Breakage, Gortner employs a technique entirely of his own invention wherein he has quite literally ripped the floor from his Jersey City studio and used this raw material as his medium. The artist extracts and re-purposes parts of the floor onto stretched canvas, reproducing each errant splash of paint and seemingly innocuous bit of debris discarded onto the ground.

While visually disparate, this collection continues Gortner’s themes of possession, reclamation, and adaptation of circumstance. The idea was born from a haphazardly served eviction notice, wherein the artist was forced from his studio. By using the ground on which he worked as his canvas, he re-purposes the property he is being forced to leave, transferring its physical utility and ownership into the greater purpose of Art, and preserving the years of labor he expended in that space.

Statement About the Works

For the past 7 years, James Gortner has worked and reworked the series presented at the Alvarez Gallery. These pieces, with their complex aesthetics and melding of realism with abstraction, produce a confounding but exhilarating take on ideas of authorship, artistic production, aesthetics, collaboration, autonomy, and love.

Each canvas is constructed by the appropriation of many others’ artwork—canvases that have been discarded, abandoned, or otherwise left to dust. These works are then stitched together and used by Gortner as another artist would use a blank canvas. He paints over the assemblage, allowing for new content to develop while what already exists peeks through. This process offers a strong commentary on the state of contemporary art, where so much material and subject is appropriated and re-negotiated. Ironically, what Gortner works to create in totality presents one of the more complicated objects of pure self-expression in the art world today. His pieces become meta-sculptures: directed artist participation, copious amounts of painting by hand and transformation of others’ work join to question the differentiation between originality and authenticity.

Gortner often appropriates found historical archetypes, symbols and visual iconography both related and unrelated to art. He borrows from the old-world system of divination that evolved into what we know as modern playing cards- the Tarot. In fact, these works demonstrate a very specific collection of Tarot Cards – the same cards that were produced during a reading in 2007 to the artist by his future wife and mother of his children, Carolina Palmgren. In this, Gortner constructs a relational space of life-meaning around each painting; the viewer is unaware of the intimacy of the portrait and the layers of connection it holds for its creator. For Gortner, this project comprised the future he and Carolina delved into together and speaks to a greater love story.

Gortner’s romantic tribute to Carolina deepens in each work, as he highlights her artistry in the women that he paints. A high-fashion photographer, Carolina captures as many as a thousand images in a day. Gortner looks through these images of models and selects ones in which the subjects return Carolina’s gaze. Through the borrowed figure and serial titling of the paintings, Gortner intentionally creates a conceptual portrait of Carolina; not through a picture of her, but through the pictures she creates. A proposition that—when re-contextualized inside of Gortner’s work—creates a kaleidoscopic mirror of reflexive meaning and the melding of gazes equaled in his use of many other painterly gazes. The women’s penetrating eyes, sculpted cheekbones, and waif-like bodies form otherworldly figures that compel the viewer to step closer, like Sirens calling out to shipwrecked sailors.

At times, Gortner invites other artists—both friends and colleagues—to collaborate or act in the work in some way. Artists whose hands have helped in the completion of these works include Kara Walker, Fia Backstrom, Dana Schutz, Jon Kessler, Gregory Amenoff, Matt Mullican and Virginia Martinson. Small touches by these high-level established artists showcased next to unknown and anonymous artists’ handiwork inside of his own work helps Gortner point to the juxtaposition of high and low art, as well as notions of artistic value.