PARTS OF A CONVERSATION
by Eric C. Woodley (ECW) and Leopold Plotek (LP)
The artist’s studio, Montreal, December 2012
ECW: The act of encountering your paintings is more complex and demanding than looking at the work of any other painter I can think of. I’ve seen many of your shows and visited your studio often and yet the contact with the works themselves, even ones I’ve seen before − I needed to stand in front of them again. There’s a great deal of depth and feeling and they seem to have become increasingly complex.
LP: In certain ways, yes. Somewhere in the early 80s I just felt I needed more; I craved it. I had started out creating these very iconic images based on places and things (fig_). And then along with the desire for complexity came a desire to engage with more demanding subjects. For example, some of the earliest architectural paintings were named after songs from Schoenberg’s Pierrot-Lunaire song-cycle. In fact, the titles were adventitious. One painting was red and had a vertical shape in the middle, and I named it after the Gallows-Song. Another was dark and had a blue barrel-vault shape, and I called it Moondrunk. But there was no direct effort to express my experience of Schoenberg’s actual music. Eventually the need to address that experience became pressing for me. I needed that engagement with space, which is automatically an engagement with the past as well as with movement − movement “in” as well as movement “on.” It had to be more intimate, closer as an analogue to my inner world than those flatter architectural paintings had become.
For me that shift was gradual. But it was a great opening-up in terms of space and colour, especially of colour-volume, not just the colouring of surfaces, but coming to grips with what oil colour could really do. I think those bigger flatter paintings could have been painted with water-based colours. But once I decided to work with translucencies and layered transparencies, I just allowed the slow give-and-take to happen. I began to work with a rag in one hand and a brush in the other and struggling to find the right forms and the right light. I realized − this is oil painting!
ECW: Colour and light: one often talks about these in contemporary painting in relationship to colourists.
LP: I’m not a colourist. So, if you’re moved by my colour, it’s because I work so damn hard at it. This is not a native talent of mine. When I start a painting, I start with a brush in my hand and some dark, maybe some earth colour. And I start drawing on the canvas. I don’t begin as I imagine Matisse or Dufy might have done, by putting down some chromatic shapes that stand for water or sky, and then continuing, guided by colour vibration. My tendency is to start with drawing and therefore, because I want the painting to be alive and vivid − this is something I experience in paintings I love and it’s something I want in my own − I have to labour harder than the next guy who has a real gift for it.
ECW: Well, I think in many cases you’re working with colour as tonality, and it’s where a good musical analogy is apt − colour as resonance, as mood. With draughtsman-painters, say Picasso, one feels one could substitute colours freely without losing the essential.
LP: Right, because that’s not where the feeling lies.
ECW: But in your case it often is; not solely, but in an integrated way.
LP: But who knows where the line between tonality and chromaticism lies? You can show me a Rembrandt and say he’s not an important colourist at all, and yet in the tonal murk there are sometimes colour intervals that are totally astonishing.
ECW: So maybe it would be difficult to call you a colourist because colour alone isn’t the point, but the integrated nature of everything going on in the painting is such that colour is both formally and emotionally important. Your colour creates depth and space and shadow and the pull into the picture. It takes time to look at your works individually, to fall into them and to get them, and there’s irony and they’re dark. There’s a lot of mood and space and lots to be felt and read. That’s asking a lot of colour.
LP: Certainly, colour has to perform many different jobs.
ECW: You’re very much an autodidact in the scope of your interests. Many of your subjects and the range of those subjects have to do with your own reading and listening, with a sort-of Soviet mode of self-education. Not to suggest that any of the works are overly obscure, but simply that the commentaries made by most of us critics, curators and educators usually just scratch the surface and are devoid of engagement with the real subject or perhaps the many nuanced layers of that subject.
LP: I’ve sometimes called my subjects obscure, but I’m probably being unfair to them. They’re certainly of the deepest importance to me. Moments of high drama in the lives of poets, artists, philosophers, soldiers – I’m thinking of the Spinoza painting, or Dr. Johnson, or William Blake,- their confrontations with authority, with fate, with their own dark impulses, touch me where I live. Sometimes I’ll have been incubating a subject for months or years, and one day it just appears to me in the shape of a painting − usually as a situation in a certain kind of light, a certain time of day, a place.
ECW: And anyone who knows your work at all will recognize that shape or light. So this is the other paradox: there’s no “signature style”, no branded-image, except they’re instantly recognizable as yours.
LP: But recognizable by what?
ECW: You have to attend to them individually to accept them.
LP: For me it’s simply not an important area of content, that the paintings are heterogeneous. They turn out that way partly because I make them one at a time, and because I refuse to repeat myself.
ECW: So, it amounts to a different way of approaching each painting. This may perhaps help dispel some of the bafflement of how you get from one canvas to another, which with most painters is very easy, especially in a solo show.
LP: Yes, in most cases you can stand back and “get the idea”- the theme or the look. It’s actually one of the ways in which modernism kept itself alive, by organizing itself in this research-like structure. I don’t do that. I want it a lot more like life, like what really happens in the studio. The studio is a place of incessant puzzlement and failure.
ECW: It seems that form in your work is shaped or bent into content and vice versa, because I’ll often wonder, what is this form? For instance, here in Tramezzo (fig. ), something almost recognizable becomes obscured or warps into some other thing.
LP: Well, this painting started out as a riff on a favourite Veronese − Apollo and Daphne. Some weeks into it, and feeling rather blocked, I was looking at a print of another version of the theme by Pollaiuolo, in a book on Renaissance architecture. A couple of pages away I stumbled on an illustration of a kind of screen which divided the business-end of a basilica from the congregation: a rood-screen perforated with arches. Something clicked, and a half-hour later I had painted this “tramezzo” into my canvas, but slightly tilted. Trees rose up through and behind it; something unaccountable had happened, and the painting took off again. The whole space of the painting closed and opened simultaneously.
ECW: Form or content?
LP: I don’t know where the border is, honestly. If you find that they’re easy to separate, then the work just isn’t that interesting. Form is just as hard to talk about as content; we don’t know exactly what divides them. Maybe meaning is the “something” that overlaps both content and form.
ECW: There are no obvious corridors into many of the paintings. Not everything’s on the surface.
LP: You know, I just don’t have that much fun with the “given”. I want to find it, to dream it up. I want that moment when it just happens, under my hand. I’ll be working and listening to the radio, or preoccupied by what to cook for supper, and suddenly the thing happens, and you just step back and say wow! Look at this! You may not even clearly know what it is, but you know it has the power to transform the whole painting. Those moments don’t come from anything“given”, and they aren’t “coded” either. The conscious mind is occupied with the newscast, or with the Brahms piano quintet, and the hand is making its unknown choices. . . It’s somewhere at a liminal level, and it’s recognized only after it’s happened. For instance, in The Green Theatre (fig_),− which is the garden-theatre in Chekhov’s The Seagull − I could never explain to you how that central redness came about. It’s not the bird, it’s not the girl. But somehow it represents for me the crisis and the heartbreak. Certainly the dark figure on the left, this black thing rising − I’ve seen its siblings in other paintings of mine and I think of them as guardians or as providence, on the margins of the event. So it’s a strange painting, with presences and absences. Butit’s also about light on the stage. In recent years, the deeper my daughter Rose has delved into theatre, the more drama has taken hold in my work. Somewhat reminiscent of the 18th century, when the theatrical was the condition to which all the arts aspired.
ECW: I’ve been thinking of the line in J.L.Borges: “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by he peoples the space with the images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
LP: In the broad sense in which Borges meant it, it’s undeniably true. At the very least your labours form a diary of your obsessions. In it we can recall the impulse that generated the work, sometimes incidents associated with its making.
ECW: I think of you as a kind of realist, a counter- or psychological realist, in whom the psyche, the embodied consciousness darkly-bound, is brought back. You’re painting the painting of a particular moment and you are in your own present moment, but the work also has a memory that belongs to a collective story. And then there are these elevated angles of viewing going on.
L: Yes, where are we standing? Look at Dr. Johnson huddled on his bed (fig. ). I didn’t think of this till later, but I painted him from quite an elevated point of view. You literally have to be standing on a desk and looking down at him on his canopy bed. It’s more than a human point of view. Friedrich does this. Think of The Large Enclosure at Dresden, that beautiful landscape with pools of water that seem to run right underneath us as we look into the landscape. It’s almost a bird’s eye view but not quite. It’s the omniscient eye.
E: Or God’s! I’m wondering about you not quite as a moralist, but if God is watching, there is a moral universe that we sense, whether we acknowledge it or not.
L: I think the central issue that makes us lose faith, if we had any, is that the universe appears to have no moral centre at all.
ECW: But George Steiner’s argument is, why then do we make paintings and poems and music? For whom?
LP: For each other! Our artworks are addressed to each other. To quote from Geoffrey Hill,”what ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad and angry consolation”.
ECW: In the more figurative works, you take immense care in the depiction of subjects but the bodies are not realistic. These faces, how do they belong to reality? This runs counter to a lot of contemporary photography that says: the subject is portrayable. With digital tools and labour, you can construct something. But in your painting, there is something that can’t be recovered or said or depicted.
LP: For me, the real is not something you accomplish, but you’re always moving towards some sense of utterance or clarity in naming something.
ECW: In some of the works it seems that the impossibility of returning to the past is part of the way the painting is constructed.
LP: I think you’re right. In Die Gotter im Exil (see fig_), what stopped me from painting eyebrows and nostrils onto the face at the back of the boat? Somehow that made it truer to me. And after all, they are the gods of the ancient world, they’re gone. We don’t see them anymore. We don’t know what they look like anymore.
E: So is there a question of what can be painted or what cannot be painted, retrieved?
LP: For me, some things are unpaintable, no matter how delicious the idea. I might come across something in the obscure liner notes of an old jazz album. For instance, did you know that when Benny Goodman went on the road in the south with Teddy Wilson, Teddy used to have to play behind a curtain, because of Jim Crow? Well, when I read this, I thought, I have to paint this! This is iconic, it’s like a natural metaphor, horrible and comically absurd all at once. Well, I’ve had that subject in the drawer for two years and I’m still not ready to move on it. It’s just not really paintable, or maybe just not paintable for me... Or the image of Walter Benjamin, dying on a bench in a little customs office. This should be paintable, it’s a solitary figure of a man and a piece of luggage in an interior. The fact is I haven’t been able to do it. I’ve taken a desultory shot or two and have concluded each time that I am not ready. It just has to do with the process of my imagination. I don’t have it yet.
LP: Maybe it’s not the artist’s place to be the evaluator of his own work except insofar as you’re constantly working toward some kind of fitness, rightness, fulfillment − for which the code word is the beautiful, though many others would do as well. But I can’t think of a single work of mine that doesn’t have flaws in it. Partly because I paint relatively complicated paintings now. A flaw in an Albers will junk the whole thing − there are so few moving parts that if one fails it all fails. But in a Veronese you might find something that doesn’t quite gel but the whole is magnificent. Besides, maybe someone else actually painted that bit? Or restored it in the 19th century? Perfect is not the issue. We know that the universe is in tension between entropy and death, and continuous reorganization and birth; and this happens in works of art too. There is always a tension between the small wild inspirations, which we can’t help but let-live, but which refuse to recognize each other, and the drive of the work towards wholeness. Each extreme, if it wins out, will stop the work from becoming an experience.
ECW: For me, the relationship between the artist’s own knowledge of a particular work and the viewer’s particular knowledge − there’s always a gap there. The art and the process and the thoughts and unthoughts that went into its making, and then the viewer’s experience. It’s an interesting existential question.
LP: It is, and you’ll have to find a philosopher to give you a better answer. I know that the painter soon learns that a good deal of what we built into the work is never sensed. On the other hand, a good deal of the viewer’s subjective experience, so dependent on his or her own cognitive stock, the painter could never have imagined. So it’s like the palms of two hands touching but not quite congruent.
ECW: There is a good reason why colour is used to describe harmony, because at a basic level you’re seeing waves of colour in terms of frequencies. Synesthesia: you hear a blue or some shade of orange. I wonder, when you were close with Yves Gaucher, did you discuss the relationship between the musical and the visual?
LP: Absolutely. We always talked more music than painting. Some of my best moments with Yves, we’d go to the Limelight and take in a couple of sets of Betty Carter singing, and have a lovely conversation with her. Yves had a jazz encyclopedia in his head. One of the things that drew us together was that we were both such know-it-alls! He became a self-taught connoisseur of modern music after his seminal experience with Webern, the silences in Webern. There’s ever so little there: you have to really listen before you hear the call. It’s like hearing bells and the silences between bells – “campane” !
ECW: But Gaucher wasn’t the one who brought you to painting in the first place; that was Roy Kiyooka.
LP: Roy was a magnetic personality, this goatish Japanese man with a huge laugh. I met him at a drunken party in the McGill ghetto. He had a gorgeous command of English rhetoric, and managed to be both perfectly articulate and apparently spontaneous all at once. It was a completely winning quality. Roy was the first professional artist I’d ever met, and he said to me: “as an artist, all human experience is your province. I know you’re a bookish boy and you like music too − it all comes into it. Being an artist means using it all, doing it all.” That was a very liberating thing to hear. I miss Roy, still, all the time.
ECW: I find there’s often a strong interior quality to things in your paintings, as if I am inside a space. I was wondering how much of that comes from your experience of architecture. There’s that quote from Degas: “seeing is not something we do, it’s something that happens to us”. He’s talking about painting, but it’s also true of architecture, the interior of a building, of a body, of a mind.
LP: Yes. And I can remember the first time that struck me: it was in Alberti’s church of Sant’ Andrea, in Mantua (fig_). It was my first encounter with everything in a building − the details of the masonry, the sculpture, the vaulted archway − being a transcendent experience of the relationship between the parts and the whole. I loved the feeling of the interior and the exterior in exchange. No single moment has taught me more about art: the penny dropped.
ECW: Sitting here in your studio, it’s a bit like sitting in a museum or maybe inside your head. The music collection, the books, the stacked paintings over there. What happens in the studio? How do you approach the process of painting?
L: I have the radio on!
ECW: You’re usually thinking of a story or an incident?
LP: Well, to start with, in my drawer I have a list of subjects which are little catch-phrases or titles. There’s maybe thirty things in there right now. I’ll be mulling over something; normally it happens when I’ve finished the last painting and I’m feeling a bit at a loss. And I ask myself, okay, what’s next; and there are all these things clamouring for attention. In the next day or two, if I’m lucky, one of them will begin to give the illusion of being almost physically concrete; and that’s when I can dive in. And once in a while what you get is way better than you had any right to expect, and you can’t really account for it by any of the deliberative processes, the plans, the ideas, the interpretive notions, all of which you can call upon consciously and examine. But then there are the things that happen – I mentioned this before − and we don’t know their sources. We used to call it inspiration.
ECW: I know that Freud was an important influence for you vis-a-vis this question.
LP: Yes. I had started reading Freud at the Slade in London, and continued to read him and Adrian Stokes, and Melanie Klein. I loved Freud because he seemed to suggest some interesting answers to that question, what the hell is inspiration? Where does it come from? If it doesn’t come from nine Greek ladies in diaphanous dresses who float in through the window and whisper in your ear, then where? Freud’s answer seemed something you could work with. I have no idea whether the Freudian unconscious actually corresponds to anything in reality or not. But his view of the mind has a coherence and seriousness and he never evades the tragic. He was totally up my alley.
ECW: Like you, Freud’s very literary and draws on the entire history of western thought.
LP: I guess I’m a very literary painter. “All the best painters are literary”, as Walter Sickert said to Virginia Woolf. That’s how I’ve been as far back as I can remember.
ECW: Virginia Woolf was a painterly writer.