AN ESCAPE FROM THE PRESENT
by Henry Lehmann
A whole army of modes — film, video, body art, performance — seems to point the way for art, once painting is gone. Meanwhile painting hangs on and many artists go right on slinging pigment. Biggies like Cy Twombly and Alex Katz are as big as ever. In Canada. artists like Bolduc, Craven, and Fischl continue to assert painting’s good name in exciting ways. And this isn’t even to mention the popularity of Kitsch art which remains as resistant as crabgrass. Whatever happens to serious art, Kitsch makers are no doubt able to give the Incredible Hulk and Charlie’s Angels a run for the money.
But even if that lovely smell of linseed oil and turpentine still exudes from some art studios, the question of whether painting is dead nags on. At one time, the signs and smells of action would have been sufficient proof that there was life. But today, things aren't so simple. The comic strips have long since recognized the grey zones between bad and good; and as recent much publicized law cases have shown, the line dividing life from death is far from clear. Some people assert that a beating heart is sign enough that there is life. Others assert that an absence of brainwave activity denotes total death and the body can be unhitched from its life support systems, no matter how healthy the pulse.
The “body” — painting — isn't what it used to be. It’s there alright, but presence doesn’t guarantee life. Of course, the analogy with painting is simplistic; yet, we do have the impression that many important artists shave had to reduce their levels of thinking in order to keep on producing. Take Stella's recent show in Montreal, for example. That star of modern art seemed to have thrown everything to the wind; lacking conceptual direction, his funky gesture was empty except for the glitter.
Two one-man exhibits in Montreal bring those nagging is-there-life-after-death questions into focus. Both these young artists are painters who have demonstrated the skills and dedication of real accomplishment. Yet, in both cases something is happening that indicates an indecision about the possibilities of painting. At turns, we detect willfulness, hesitation, and a desire to escape the present. It may create confusion to add that there are also some interesting paintings.
Lee Plotek’s new canvases now on view at the Yajima Galerie are his best. They represent a quantum leap from the unresolved, unstretched paintings he displayed at Optica gallery back in 1976. The artist is still working with monochromatic swaths of color, but now the relationship with external reality is beginning to surface. The current pictures, most of them roughly square and larger than human scale, were partially inspired by Plotek’s recent first trip to certain cities in Italy. These are only superficially abstract paintings; they are really highly stylized renditions of such things as the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Plotek isn’t concerned with the mere formal orchestration of optical effects, he seeks to construct an aura through the handling of colors notably reds and greys that are personal and symbolic more than they are objective.
In a painting like Une Valse de Chopin Plotek builds his composition on the play of several arms-length arcs. Initially the work is fairly straight forward with the curves resulting from the coming together of planes of white, black, or grey. Under closer scrutiny, however, the vista becomes more demanding. A substrate of red and yellow visually seeps up through various cracks; suddenly we sense that just under the dark coat there is another painting ready to break out. And as we prolong our scan, the surface begins to yield impurities; milky trace elements indicate the artist’s physical involvement with paint. This picture, which at first seemed "just-so" begins to display tentative side. Plotek’s imagery is selfconscious; a raw edge is intentionally contrasted with a smooth one, a bubbly texture contrasts with a strip of canvas. Plotek is openly designy. The slightly revealed painterly underpinnings show us the painter-designer thoughtfully shifting around his shapes.
In a way Plotek seems to wrap himself up in an artistic past in order to shield himself from paintings’ uncertain present and future. The titles of his series are borrowed from Arnold Schoenberg's song cycle, Pierrot Lunaire. And artistic styles representative of a time perhaps more favorable to painting emerge in Plotek's canvases. Mondestrunken, a successful piece owing to its complexity, is partly shaped by Arp, an artist who like Plotek produced stylizations of real life. The weakest works in the show, Serenade and Prière à Pierrot become simply precious recantings of art history.