The title of Donna Gordon’s show, “Double Vision,” at the Chilmark library plays on the two-word term. While double vision isn’t something you want in your physiological eyesight, the richness of the process of looking twice is at the core of Gordon’s stunning exhibition.
In terms of doubles, some of the arresting artworks consist literally of multiples — side-by-side images of the same subject matter. Whether they are two or more, their repetition draws you in to look more closely as your gaze moves back and forth to see if they are exactly the same or just slightly different. In some instances, the difference is obvious, such as with “The Two Faces of Carol.” On the left, the exquisitely veiled woman has her eyes closed while to the right, she gazes alluringly out at us. But further contemplation reveals additional differences, such as in the position of her hands, how the veil falls, the lighting, and so forth.
“The Two Faces of Carol” actually initiated Gordon’s “Double Visions” series in 2020. She says, “My sister, a schizophrenic, had just died of liver cancer at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her passing inspired a kind of migratory, wordless instinct to piece together a double image.” While the pictures use photographs as their basis, what you notice — perhaps at a second glance — is their rich quality. “The images look like photographs, but feel more graphic, tactile,” Gordon says. “They’re not as smooth a surface as just a black-and-white photograph.”
The works are paper lithographs, in which Gordon laser-copies her black-and-white photographs onto “pronto plates” and then processes them via layers of liquid gum Arabic, ink, and water to bring the image to the surface before it’s passed through a printing press. The process also allows Gordon to achieve a wide range of tones, which creates an otherworldly quality. These evocative landscapes, in turn, imbue the art with an almost narrative feel. You can make up all sorts of stories for the enigmatic young girl in “Jennifer, With and Without Cat.” Where did the feline go? Why? How does the girl feel?
The literary element is no coincidence; Gordon is also an author. “As both a fiction writer and artist, these dual impulses are interwoven in a kind of outpouring I can’t measure,” she says. “My visual art tells a story. My writing is built upon imagery.” I experienced this firsthand when reviewing Gordon’s superbly crafted book, “What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me,” in which she skillfully uses words to evoke a very visual unfolding of an engrossing story about a vibrant 13-year-old boy who is facing premature death from progeria (a premature aging disease), his struggling mother, and a caretaker with a mystery of his own. (See mvtimes.com/2022/06/21/lost-time).
Nature is central to Gordon’s art as well: “Nature likes duality. Much of the world exists in pairs.” She finds a great deal of inspiration in the outdoors here on the Island. Gordon started coming here with her then-boyfriend, now husband, some 40 years ago. “The Vineyard is just a breathtakingly beautiful experience,” she says. “Over the years I’ve worked my way around, creating images inspired by experiences all over the Island.” She explains that they are “chance encounters with people and animals, delicate linear patterns along the shore, and the blue-black shadows of foliage. The effects of beatific light and the harsh hours of storms — it’s hard not to be touched by the insistence of nature.”
It’s easy to see Gordon’s affection for the Vineyard landscape in the dreamy prints “Lucy Vincent Overlook,” “Two Trees in Chilmark,” and “Sepia Horses.” Yet here, as in others, the symmetry created by the dual-reverse images simultaneously lets us take another look at them as abstract compositions.
Continually exploring different media, Gordon has created breathtaking waterscapes, inspired by Lucy Vincent and Squibnocket Beaches. She says, “The changing colors of the ocean are a study in light and shadow that can last a lifetime. My paintings of the waves are an attempt to capture a moment.” Gordon’s works stand out from traditional watercolors, where the pigments blend into one another. She draws in white, but not with paint. Instead, it is the white of the paper that remains from her process that creates the linear accents: “I start with masking fluid to preserve the whites, which allows me to draw and keep a lot of detail, and then paint with watercolors. They look like woodcut prints.”
Gordon’s love of drawing is most apparent in her figurative “Broken Beauty” series. Figures appear and reappear in different forms and tonal intensities. These are viscosity monotypes in which she draws and paints directly onto a plexiglass plate with oily ink, and then rolls over that with sticky ink so that the roller picks up part of an existing image, which she then transfers by re-rolling it onto a different part of the composition. The animated results, once again, keep you looking, trying to discern what is going on and how she creates such mysterious images. Gordon says, “Drawing is my connection to what I’m feeling — it is a kind of visual thinking and helps me find my way through every other process.”
“I want people to think about all the dualities in the world,” Gordon says about her exhibition. “Things that are the same are also different, and we need to look more closely to see the nuances. I want them to look a little longer and a little deeper.” She adds, “I hope these images remind people that first impressions are not always correct, that we are multifaceted individuals, and that everything is worth a second look.”
“Double Vision” runs through June 22 at the Chilmark library. For more information about Donna Gordon. see donnasgordon.com, and on Instagram, donnagordon8994.