Everything Shines as it Disappears

On Janet Gorzegno’s “Old Souls” at the Bowery Gallery


"Want the change. Be inspired by the flame where everything shines as it disappears.

The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much as the curve of the body as it turns away."

(R.M.Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus II,12 Translated by Anita Barrows, Joanna Macy)


In the opening of Rilke’s twelfth sonnet to Orpheus, the German Romantic poet urges radical transformation, drawing on the twin images of an all-consuming flame and “the curve of the body as it turns away.” The subjects of Janet Gorzegno’s “Old Souls” paintings also stand poised on thresholds, but their bodies are not turning away. Not yet. They are steadying themselves for the imminent pivot.

Each of the “Old Souls” in Gorzegno’s recent show at the Bowery Gallery in New York hold poses of collecting courage, praying for a storm to unleash. They are largely in profile, their eyes fixed on a point we can’t see, and which, we suspect, may not be visible for them, either. Their gaze is trained on an inner object instead, one dancing on the edge of (in)sight. The souls do not make eye contact with us; instead, Gorzegno quietly offers a translation of their tenuous transcendence, often in the backs of their heads: a palette of color in “Illuminate,” which spills into a cap; a resplendent turban in “Ferryman,” which bridges the two backgrounds of the canvas. In “Guardian,” the somber stillness of the subject’s focused gaze and the steel blue background are belied by an exuberantly swollen scalp: a swirl of bright circles in various stages of eclipse.

The heart, it seems, has risen to the head.

Change, the kind Rilke describes, the kind hinted at in “Old Souls,” does not feel rapturous when we are undergoing it. It often feels nauseating, harrowing, and banal. It feels more like stasis than transformation. This is the fundamental insight of Gorzegno’s series: to paint the liminal space where change can be seen, like phosphorescence on waves, glowing and gone. She shows us, not how we look in turbulent times, but how our souls look at those times. To the outside world, we may appear capsized, undone. But the soul’s gaze remains steady and still.

“Every happiness is the child of a separation it did not think it could survive,” writes Rilke, in the sonnet’s final stanza. “And Daphne, becoming a laurel, dares you to become the wind.”

Gorzegno’s series dares us to find what icons we can, to have faith that within us there is a vision that is reverent, insistent; there are tiny, perfect wings; there is a background subtly shifting from pewter to rust.

Britanni Sonnenberg