VISUAL ART: LEOPOLD PLOTEK
by EC Woodley
It is possible that at 60 Leopold Plotek may be the most daring and masterfully complex painter in North America. He is also one of the least publicly acknowledged. The product of this disconnect between achievement and profile could be viewed at Han Art, where a retrospective assort- ment of 13 canvases overfilled the diminutive space, beautifully and forcefully suggesting the necessity of a major museum overview of Plotek’s work.
In the early 1970s, after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art—a residence that marks his current work in its relation to a number of London painters including Walter Sickert, Roger Hilton and Leon Kossoff—P1otek returned to Montreal where he developed unique, large-scale abstractions. The work of this period exhibits a formalism that maintains a balance in architectural and psycho- logical space.
Roald Nasgaard refers to Plotek as the “odd man out” in the 1979 “6 Propositions” exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts because, Nasgaard says, “He did not lose faith in the traditional painting space as a vehicle for imagistic and narrative content.” In fact, his Malevich-tinged work of the period resembles less “the indeterminate state of painting in the late ’70s” (as Lucie Dorais put it in the pages of Arts Canada) than a kind of harbinger of our current brand of “new abstraction.” Plotek’s impure, shadowed and modelled spaces prefigure the practice of any number of contemporary abstract painters. When Ken Johnson in The New York Times admires Tomma Abts’s recent work for it’s “mysterious, inscrutable sense of purpose” or when the Turner Prize judges speak about extending the language of abstraction with “a kind of depth and illusion . . . which you normally find in figure painting,” they might be speaking about Plotek’s early achievement.
By not recognizing the distinction between abstraction and representation, Plotek worked toward an intuitive mode of depiction that went against the visual ideals that his Montreal-based teachers, among them Yves Gaucher and Roy Kiyooka, inherited from the post-war battles over abstractions legitimacy. “The ideology of pure visuality is an intellectual construction,” he said recently. “There is no such thing as ‘the innocent eye.’ Seeing invokes the entire cognitive structure of the mind.”
By the late 1980s, Plotek had become even more adept at fusing the complexities of interior and exterior spaces and states. His references to art and literature were sometimes grandly historical and at the same time oblique. In richer, more nuanced colour inﬂuenced by the Venetian Renaissance, he developed an abundantly pliable abstraction in which, as art historian Sandra Paikowski observed, “the archeology of the subconscious mind becomes the essential reference point.” These works may allude to a landscape or “to the presence of objects, whereby a single dominating motif suggests an emblematic content or an ‘objectification of the inner.’” Many of the object-related pictures have internalized the colour or figure-ground relationships of a Titian sitter to his background as if it were a strange kind of emergent or hybrid portraiture. Plotek’s concentrated, recombinant play with the language and imagery of western painting echoes the experiments of his favourite English romantic poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins, who remade language in an attempt to convey the “inscape” of a thing, its unique being or nature in time.
In 2002 at the Olga Korper Gallery, a landmark exhibition in Plotek"s development, he exhibited a series of large canvases called the “History Paintings." This work was openly figurative and literary and played with some of the technical tools of traditional genre painting. Among the reoccurring subjects of these occasionally absurd or blackly humorous works are moments of impossible or ludicrous circumstances that “mean everything” to the historical character portrayed. There are Soviet era scenes from the lives of Shostakovich and Pasternak and one depicting Isaac Babel, the self-styled “master of silence,” talking himself into his own execution in the course of 20 minutes of inter- rogation by Stalin’s chief of security and secret police, Lavrenti Beria. Plotek, who was born in Moscow, lived as a baby in the infamous Hotel Metropol toward the end of Stalin’s reign, which, as well as being filled with party elite, housed in passing various political prisoners and their keepers.
In his recent canvases at Han Art, Plotek is working with confidence in abstraction and figuration—using a shallow, theatrical, stage-like depth or working on the surface of the picture plane—and it is only a question of to what degree he modulates or separates these depictive choices. At Uxetter Fair, 2008, a superb example of his figurative style, uses wonderfully robust and communicative drawing to portray a remorse- ridden Samuel Johnson standing alone in fairground mud the colour of bile (or nausea) on the spot where his long dead bookseller father once sold his wares. What is factored into the seemingly offhand means of depiction used in At Uxetter Fair, as in many of the “History Paintings,” is the human incapacity to totally recover any moment of the past. As Walter Benjamin noted in Illuminations, “The past can be seized only as an image that flashes at the instant it can be recognized, never to be seen again.” In a sense, the impossibility of fixing the past as an image is the main subject depicted, and it gives Plotek's characters a strange protection even as he constructs images of their vulnerability and mortality.
The past may in some senses be irretrievable, but it is also embedded, as Benjamin put it, and relevant. Part of initial strangeness or unreadability in a Plotek painting arises because the view we are given of an individual moment has little to do with the contemporary standard of the snapshot or film frame and is, instead, something more like the view of God. The least innocent and most comprehensive of all, here becoming another character in the drama that is being played out.
Stage Fright, 2008, Plotek’s re-staging of Poussins The Massacre of the Innocents, 1630-1632. Is a concise attempt to work with “Poussinesque" colours such as earth reds and olive greens. Under a luminously blue sky, an extraordinary violence is unleashed in the central composition. Combining seemingly abstract sections with more easily identifiable elements of Poussins composition: the sword of the attacker. the fallen baby under foot, here depicted like a Cubist or brutalist sculpture. This is a devastating painting. Its view could well belong in its desolation to Paul Celan’s post-Holocaust God, “No One.”
“Against Gravity: Leopold Plotek and the Imagery of Height” was exhibited at HanArt in Montreal from October 22, 2008, to ]anuary 3, 2009.
EC Woodley is a composer, artist and critic based in Toronto and Amsterdam.