A conversation of the imagination | AspenTimes.com

A conversation of the imagination

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen artist Jody Guralnick regularly receives a multitude of offers, via e-mail, to sell and promote her paintings on the Internet. The offers are so frequent, and her attitude toward selling art on the Internet so ambivalent, that Guralnick generally trashes them without a thought.

When Guralnick got a recent e-mail from a Web-based art gallery called Postpicasso.com, though, she was mildly intrigued. The site was not just offering to sell her work, but invited Guralnick to participate in an online, juried show. Guralnick recognized the name of the juror. And since she happened to have a CD of her art at the computer, Guralnick decided to click a few buttons and enter the show, titled “Revising Tradition, Revealing Contemporary.”

And then Guralnick forgot about the whole affair – until a $500 check, representing the Best in Show prize money for her painting “Love-in-a-Mist,” showed up in the mail.

That mixture of whimsical, spontaneous methods and rewarding ends seems a good characterization of Guralnick’s art. The painter approaches a canvas without concrete ideas. Instead she draws on her experiences – as a surgeon’s daughter, a former boxer, a lover of the outdoors – and her attractions – to floral designs, animals and retro iconography – to begin a conversation of the imagination. When the conversation has come to a close, the typical result is a luminous work containing a series of images and multiple layers of paint and found paper. There are specific emotions that Guralnick intends to convey with her images, but there is in most of her work a sharp focus on pure beauty. Confirming her sense of the whimsical is how Guralnick will frequently pick a title first – often from a 1950s children’s crossword puzzle book she has used for years – and then work from the title to make a painting.

The work has earned Guralnick a reputation in brick-and-mortar galleries as well as virtual ones. She is represented by Cornell DeWitt Gallery in New York City and the Robischon Gallery in Denver. In Aspen, she has shown at the David Floria Gallery for nearly a decade.

Collage and culture

Guralnick’s upcoming exhibit at David Floria, which has an opening reception July 3 and runs through the end of the month, represents something of a transition. For the past decade, Guralnick’s work has been heavy on collage. Working with found, decorated paper items – magic trick diagrams, Boy Scout handbooks, Chinese-language versions of “Popeye” comic strips, 1950s posters, floral wallpaper, X-rays and numerous other paper bits, many of which she has been hanging onto since her college years – Guralnick has developed an identifiable style and iconography. There have always been painted portions in the work, but the collage elements predominated.

For next month’s exhibit, however, Guralnick has brought painting to the fore. There are still at least trace elements of collage in most of the new pieces; most of the works begin with Guralnick reaching into the boxes of bric-a-brac in her barn-turned-studio, a stone’s throw from Castle Creek. But in several of the pieces, the found paper with which the piece began has disappeared under layers of paint. In one painting, Guralnick can’t even recall whether there is a bit of collage lurking underneath the paint.

The distance between painting and collage can seem vast. But to Guralnick there isn’t much difference whether the work is predominantly painted from scratch or assembled as a collage. For one, the earlier collage-heavy pieces always had some painted elements. And in the end product, there is not a world of difference between the two fields of Guralnick’s art. Her recent paintings strongly resemble her previous collages; they are stamped with Guralnick’s compositional style and her usual array of objects. And the process of engaging with the imagery remains the same, whether the collage pieces are the final product or merely a launching point.

“For me, collage has always been about not having a solitary conversation,” said Guralnick in her studio, where her dog, Monk, and a one-eyed cat named Mrs. Norris poke and paw around the finished works and paintings-in-progress. “There’s always a dialogue because I guess what the collage element does is put the artist in a response mode. There’s never a blank piece of paper staring at me.

“Now I’m burying the collage images, so you don’t even see them. But I know they’re there. They jump-start me. I have something I’m feverishly interested in, because I’ve saved it and looked at it all these years. And it pushes me in a direction.”

Guralnick has been consistently pushed toward the images of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Guralnick not only finds beauty in the objects themselves, but she also enjoys reflecting on how our culture uses images of such objects as a substitute for the things themselves, what she calls “this vanishing landscape.”

“It’s this loaded symbol in our culture,” she said, “because environmentally, this lush growth which it refers to is vanishing. So if I use a flower image, I have this built-in reference – to what it is, and to how we use it in our culture. I’m curious about the way they’re loaded with emotion.”

Pearls, too, make repeat appearances in Guralnick’s work. Like the flowers and such, Guralnick finds pearls both beautiful and charged with meaning.

“I started painting bubbles, because I wanted a device on the surface that you could see through. And that led me to pearls,” she said. “Then I was looking at a book of Tibetan symbols, rosaries, and I saw that pearls and rosaries, worry beads are in every tradition, every culture, many religions. And jewelry is another image that is pre-loaded – we hand them down in our families; they’re used for spiritual purposes.

“And pearls are this precious thing from the ocean. They’re beautiful and they’re fun to paint. They have this luster, and that’s like coaxing something out of a flat surface.”

Putting a greater emphasis on painting has allowed Guralnick to expand on one theme of her art, the depth of field. While the various layers of paint and paper have always been a focus, her current works play with the idea of layering even more. Some images are barely visible; in other places, paint is used almost as a collage element, like an opening to another plane. This idea is most prominent in “Coco Bay,” inspired by the underwater world she saw on a trip to the Bahamas.

“It’s about looking through things, how we perceive things through other things,” she said. “In all these paintings, there’s that idea of depth. There’s a promise of something there, if you keep looking.”

In all her work, Guralnick seems to be looking at this collection of objects, to see what kind of emotions they evoke, what connections can be drawn between them. It is art that tries to put into focus the smaller things in life rather than explicate the bigger picture.

“I don’t tend to see the big picture in anything,” said Guralnick, a Boston-area native whose own bigger picture includes two children and her architect husband, Michael Lipkin. “The way I paint and see is in a collection of details: I’m much more interested in a twig than the bigger view of the woods.

“In these paintings, there are details swimming up from the bigger picture. One of the things when I made collage was taking from a vast world of images I’d collected. And this is the same thing. There’s this vast area of possible images, and you pull some forward.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com