LEOPOLD PLOTEK: Yajima Gallery, Montreal, February 6 to March 6, 1982
by Diana Nemiroff
In 1979, the art critic for the Montreal Star began his review of two painting shows, one of which was Leopold Plotek’s, by asking how we could tell if painting was indeed dead, as rumour would have it. For, as he slyly reminded his readers, modern medicine has revealed the moment of death to be an ambiguous matter. The heart may go on beating — thanks to life-support machines — though the brain be functionally dead. Not long ago Douglas Crimp, writing in October, took up the theme of paintings terminal condition (“The End of Painting," Spring 1981) in conscious opposition to the current widespread revival of painting, and in particular, against the humanist rhetoric which has heralded the rebirth. insistence on painting as a transcendental art, and on its liberating potential as a catharsis of the imagination, is, Crimp maintains, the hallmark of bourgeois ideology; these are the “notions that sustain the dominant bourgeois ideology.”
In this light, the title of Plotek's recent exhibition, “Vox Humana," could be a polemical declaration for the other side. Already in the context of Quebec 75, an exhibition whose criterion was whether or not an artist was questioning art and the medium in a fundamental way, Plotek appeared as one of the lone hold-outs for modernism. At that time his unstretched, irregularly shaped canvases showed a concern with the relationship of support and surface, and with process (though the latter more in the idealist sense of creative process than in the more restricted materialist sense). Subsequently his work has generally revealed an interest in the tradition of abstract painting as an expressive, intellectual endeavour whose interest is, in the strict sense, metaphysical. Plotek‘s tendencies have always lain in the direction of synthesis rather than analysis; his references to the history of modern painting are both large and deliberate.
The humanist implications of such historicism was thus tacit in Plotek‘s work for some time, but humanism emerged as specific content in a series of works exhibited in 1979 called “Pierrot Lunaire," a reference to the song cycle of that name by Schoenberg. Here architectural forms remembered from a visit to Italy supplied a literal vocabulary of humanism, with their simultaneous reference to human scale and to a period of human history, the Renaissance.
The heroic phrase Vox Humana announces Plotek’s continuing belief in the capacity of high art to make major statements and his faith in painting as a humanist endeavour. To regard the works in the present show, not all of which meet the mark he has set, is to understand what such a programme entails. On the one hand, these paintings display an involvement with the modernist tradition in painting, particularly its classicizing, geometrical expression. Plotek is fond of building a composition of complex shapes fitted together like a jigsaw or made of shuffled overlapping planes of colour in the manner of synthetic cubism, and at times echoes of such painters as Gris or Poliakoff give the work a borrowed ring. One wishes that the architectural forms which provided a monumental reference in the last exhibition were more in evidence here. In- stead he frequently contents himself with an academic mise en jeu of figure-ground relationships, and a tightness of painting creeps in that is not at all inspiring. At times, as in Song of the Shirt, Summer, the formal incoherence of the composition is startling.
Yet in spite of an occasional dryness of execution, a sometimes heavy sense of colour, and often ungainly, awkward shapes, Plotek remains an interesting painter and often a convincing one. The strength he derives from the second major aspect of his humanist conception of painting, the notion of painting as work, is far from irrelevant aesthetically, I have the sense that many of the paintings have been approached on this basis. as arenas in which he sets himself problems to be worked out. Over and over, for instance, one sees him introduce the problem of the corner into the centre of the painting via the meeting of two or more planes, and proceed patiently to subdue the awkward intersection of angles thus created through an intelligent if not sensuous arrangement of colours and tones. There is a kind of dogged arrogance in his attack, in this search for still more complex configurations which will resist any kind of reasonable integration into the painting in formal terms.
Plotek scorns the simple, purely geometric shape, favouring surprising assemblies of large planes bounded by sinuous curves and sharp angles. When he brings them off successfully they possess a vivid and expressive body language, light and solid at the same time, like the unlikely grace some fat men exhibit when dancing. I think of the jazzy Demon in American Shoes or the witty elegance of the slender shapes and attenuated curves in The Heroism of Flattery.
I used to feel that a sense of travail was visible in Plotek’s handling of paint, in those painted-over areas which showed through the semi opaque top layer of colour. This is less the case now. As Plotek becomes a more fluent painter, what used to appear as a sign of the struggle to master the surface, he now uses more consciously. He aims for a fluid movement of form info form within an overall stable arrange- ment of shapes, though he rarely draws and generally prefers a collage-like montage of sharp-edged figures. To get the flow he continues a colour from one area into another or lets an underpainted section show through. His brushwork is often evident but he's hardly a painterly painter, except in the handsome Mnemosyne where the shapes have a new softness, and the painting takes its life from the subtle and irreproducible relations of under and overpainting that he orchestrates.
Paintings like this one and the earlier Gangenlied which is not in this exhibition make me wish Plotek would loosen up and exploit the strong expressive drawing he is capable of. His combinations of colour, now lugubrious songs of purple, brown, plum and turquoise, now acid ditties of rose, black and turquoise, also hint at an expressionism which could be quite. , potent.
Plotek needs to get away from the stale recapitulations of classical abstract painting which are too evident in this show. He certainly has the qualities of individual sensibility and intelligence which make a good painter. It's enough of an acknowledgement of a tradition merely to continue the act of painting; the human voice speaks more effectively without the grand Latin accent of reaction. Anyhow, the best authors don’t spend their time quoting others.