David Hornung’s oil and gouache paintings bear a kinship to comics, Japanese and Chinese woodcuts, Indian miniatures, and American folk art. The small-scale works are disarming in their spare, rustic iconography, set in elemental landscapes that frame cosmological phenomena—a dark cloud emitting light rays, atmospheric shifts, a starburst on the horizon—like abstracted stage sets. Each painting has the force of epiphany, yet there is nothing overwrought in these deadpan representations. Rather, it’s the odd combination of different visual languages that cause the shock and surprise, the depiction of impossible occurrences we can yet believe in. The juxtaposition of the diagrammatic with the atmospheric, the literal with the abstract, the cartoonlike with the naturalistic creates ambiguities in scale, space, and time that seem knowable, true to our mental experience. His paintings are inscrutable, yet they have a dreamlike logic, a psychological poignancy.
Hornung paints in a studio on a wooded hillside in Shokan, not far from the garden and house he shares with his wife, cellist Abby Newton. The sphere of his influence extends far beyond this reclusive setting, however. He is a dedicated teacher and talented author whose book, Color: A Workshop for Artists and Designers (McGraw-Hill, 2004), is available in five languages. Earning his MFA from the University of Wisconsin in 1976, Hornung has taught art for more than 30 years and is currently associate professor and chair of the art and art history department at Adelphi University, commuting from an Upper West Side apartment during the school year.
Hornung was a reviewer for ARTnews and has published many essays on art. He has lectured all over the country on art, color, and quilts (in an earlier phase of his career, he constructed art quilts). Recently, he collaborated with poet Susan Sindall on a collection of her poems called Corona, contributing his white-on-black drawings. His paintings can be seen in his one-man show at John Davis Gallery, in Hudson, which runs through August 16. Portfolio: www.johndavisgallery.com.
DAVID HORNUNG ON HIS WORK
Psychological Sign Language
I’m not that interested in verisimilitude, although I love good realist painting. I’m really more interested in the conceptual aspects of pictorial construction. Also, the psychology of the way we look at things. The other thing is, there’s this religious thing. I’m really interested in icon painting, the idea that if you stylize something it tends to be more emblematic.
The important thing is the painting disagrees with itself and yet it seems to come together as a kind of psychological whole. It’s almost like the mind craves cohesion, craves meaning and understanding, and I try to create a tension against that. I try to pull that apart or challenge it. That’s what gives the painting a kind of snap, its visual interest.
First Taste of Art
I was Catholic until I was six. My mother was a devout Catholic. When I was a little kid she was always dragging me to church. That was my first touch of art. The church left a deep visual impression on me. I think my interest in emblematic art all comes from that. I loved it, I was mesmerized; it’s quite a show, the Catholic Church.
A Ticklish Enigma
This sounds incredibly pretentious, but the truth is, if I were to talk about what my subject is, to sum it up I’d say it was the enigma of being. Simple as that. That’s what I’m interested in. My idea about what’s right in the picture is always measured against that standard. There has to be a level of ambiguity. There has to be a level of precariousness, of all kinds. But it also has to be directed, and matter-of-fact.
One of my cardinal rules in painting is, if I’m not surprised, no one else is going to be. Some would argue you can manipulate a viewer; I guess illustrators do this a lot. I can’t do it that way. If I’m going to make a surprising image, I have to literally surprise myself. Tickling yourself is an impossibility, but it’s the standard, it’s what you’re trying to do.
Painting without Thinking
If I’m really painting a lot, I stop thinking altogether. My hands just do the work. I put 10 paintings on the wall and I look at them and adjust them to each other, and make one or two changes now and then. I’ve been painting since I was 15, and [over the years] you develop highly developed preferences.