PAINTERLY PAINTINGS IN HIGH MODERN SPACE
by Gavin Affleck
In this age of installation art, Leopold Plotek's exhibition of oil paintings at the Saidye Bronfman Center may be taken as a shrug of indifference to the latest crest of the avant-garde wave. This is certainly how more than one local critic responded to the recent display of twelve new Plotek pictures. Henry Lehmann reported in the Montreal Gazette, “In the last few decades, the art scene has been as fickle and trendy as designer clothing. What was in one year is out the next... Many people have declared pain— ting dead, a thing of the past.” Even the exhibition curators admitted somewhat apologetically in a press release that “a good painter in contemporary art is hard to find."
While one may partly explain such deference as a typically Canadian response to excellence, the exhibition and the discussion surrounding it remain rich in the ironies of today's artistic debate. The desire to expand the conventional frontiers of the visual arts has been central to the efforts of installation art, performance art and conceptual art. Installation art in particular has helped us to understand environments as total sensual experiences rather than assemblies of parts. However valuable the critiques of the “art-object" and the “museum-receptacle" in shaping a new environmental awareness, they have nonetheless risked throwing out the baby with the bathwater by declaring painting obsolete.
Rather than using the “installation critique” as a tool of exclusion that marginalizes painting, we might use it instead as a means of looking at conventional exhibitions with renewed vision. From this point of view, the display of twelve painterly canvases in a glass box gallery inspired by the architecture of Mies van der Rohe is as provocative an “installation” as most offered to us today by the established institutions of contemporary art.
If performance art overlaps into the theatre and conceptual art into literature, then the shared domain of installation art is architecture. Over the last two decades, architectural sources have been a continuous presence in Plotek’s work, particularly with reference to our collective memory of built form. While architecture is important to the content of his paintings, Plotek has been equally concerned with the effect his abstract compositions have on both the viewer and the spaces into which they project.
Among contemporary painters Mark Rothko showed great interest in this idea, and both the Rothko Chapel in Texas and the installation of his works at the Tate Gallery in London attempt to modify architectural space using the planar illusionistic space of his canvases. Rothko’s installation projects suggest that a completed painting develops a kind of will of its own to inhabit spaces that allow it full freedom of expression. Like Cinderella’s foot in the glass slipper, certain paintings fit certain rooms, magically transforming the whole. An exhibition of Plotek pictures in the “Old World" flavour of the Louvre, for example, would complement the painter’s admitted affinity for historic Europe, while bringing to life the flowing space of the museum’s ensuite arrangement of generously proportioned rooms.
There is, however, a different kind of symmetry in the juxtaposition of Plotek’s large-format oil paintings with the open spaces of the Bronfman Gallery, designed by Montreal architect Phyllis Lambert in the 1960s as a deliberate homage to Bauhaus master Mies. Both painterly abstraction and architectural minimalism have become classic forms within the vocabulary of Modern Art and their combination here eludes the vicissitudes of fashion and speaks instead of lasting quality. The Bronfman Gallery is a “universal” space in the best Miesian tradition, meaning that it presents a clear volume free of columns, walls and other encumbrances, and consists of only two permanent, but neutral surfaces: the floor and the ceiling. Users are free to modify the space according to their own specific requirements. For the Plotek exhibition, the “universal” space has been transformed by pushing a series of plasterboard panels against the exterior glass walls and creating a “room” in the grand tradition of the Louvre. One enters this room laterally at one end and leaves at the opposite end from the same side. The directionality of the room has been emphasized by using taller panels on the two narrow ends and lower, continuous panels to stretch out the long sides. The net effect is to compress the almost square space into a more rectangular volume and to focus attention on the tall, narrow ends. The more striking paintings in the exhibition, vertically oriented can- vases with strongly projecting images, are located on these end panels, while more intimate, “look into me” pictures line the shorter, longer sides. Like Rothko‘s work, Plotek’s best paintings are those of the “projecting” variety. Relying on a mood that seems to emanate from the canvas like an odour, Anche Agosto, Anche Agoste, e per Sempre combines deep blues with veiled forms in a type of underwater land- scape that fills the gallery magnificently. It is interesting to note that the last opportunity for Montrealers to see a significant collection of Plotek’s work, the retrospective Five Years of Painting at the Concordia Art Gallery, did not produce the same synergy of space and image we find in this new exhibition. The low ceilings and acoustic softness of the Concordia Gallery felt too cosy and the work was unable to assert itself with any degree of conviction.
Beyond the spatial aspects of the Bronfman Gallery, the neutrality of the “machine aesthetic” employed in the construction of the building provides a provocative contrast to Plotek’s personal and painterly technique. There is more motion in the paint here than one finds anywhere in his previous work, particularly in the watery, reflective passages of Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death and Enter, Burning. If the counterpoint of architecture to paint- ing brings the artist‘s hand alive, the problem of accessibility remains more of a conundrum. While the architectural idea of universal space remains non-elitist by its direct communication through experience, the illusionistic space of painting is one step removed and demands a greater intellectual exercise on the part of the viewer. The paintings require time and reflection and do not have the immediate impact of “real space".
There are certain thematic concerns in this show and they tend to unfold in a sequence tied directly to the installation. Upon entering the gallery one is introduced immediately to the “Elegy" theme by the horizontally oriented Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death. What with the recent positive identification of the Shroud of Turin as a painterly fake, Plotek apparently felt at liberty to join the fray and has offered us his own interpretation of this most fundamental of elegiac images. The picture serves as an emblem for an exhibition that seeks to broaden our understand- ing of the concept of elegies. In traditional terms, an elegy is a melancholic lament for the dead, and the paintings The Killing of Sisera and Christ in the Bonds reflect this more conventional reading. But what Plotek appears to be lamenting in many of his other compositions is the passing of certain ﬂeeting memories, and his success in doing so depends on his ability to recall a tangible physical component of the memory. This means that as much as the passing of the flesh of Christ or Sisera is regrettable, so too are forgotten architectural structures or suffering places, such as war-torn Yugoslavia in The Siege of Dubrovnik or a hellish Africa in Enter, Burning. In reflecting on the thematic title of this show, one cannot but be reminded of American painter Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic, a powerful series of abstract expressionist works from the 1950s. It is a sign of our apolitical times that while Plotek’s range of elegiac sources is fairly broad, regret for the death of an ideology is not among them.
While Plotek’s sympathy for the luminescence of Venetian painting and his traditional brown, black, maroon and brown-red palette are well represented in these recent works, certain new influences can also be seen. The naturalistic anatomy-lesson feeling of Stagger Lee reminds one of Chaim Soutine’s sacrificial still lifes of slaughtered animals, engaging the viewer rather violently in the picture. Fever Shot, while immediately adjacent to Stagger Lee, creates a completely different sensation of cool detachment and brings to mind the carefully balanced still lifes of Ben Nicholson in its neutral cubist forms. If there is a painting that marks a change in the traditional palette, it is the diptych Kleobis et Biton, where the browns, maroons and blacks of the 1980s on the right panel give way to lighter oranges and yellows on the left panel. Paintings that use this newer, brighter palette effectively are Le Calendrier d’Eleonor de Toledè and lntérieure au Cadeau.
This exhibition was an excellent opportunity to enjoy the mature work of one of Montreal’s most talented and committed painters. One hopes that an ongoing criticism of limits of art will help us to look at paintings within the context of the spaces in which we experience them and that painters such as Leopold Plotek will benefit from such new understanding.
Gavin Afﬂeck is an architect and painter based in Montreal. He has been adjunct professor of architecture at McGill University since 1987. A major focus of his work in both painting and architecture is the integration of contemporary forms with the landscape.
Leopold Plotek, Elegies, The Art Gallery, Saidye Bronfman Center, Montreal, October 21 — November 26, 1992 Notes
1. Lehmann, Henry, “Lee Plolek's Oils", The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, November 7, 1992, p.]l.
2. See Sandra Paikowsky's discussion of architectural sources in Plotek’s work in Five Years of Painting (Concordia University Art Gallery, 1990, catalogue), p.35.
3. Robert Roscnhlum concludes his book Modern Painting and the Northem Romantic Tradition (New York: Harper 6? Row, 1975} with an excellent discussion of the Rothko Chapel.
4. Sandra Paikowsky, in Five Years of Painting describes the use of memory in Plotek's work: “The pictorial situations are formally resolved but referentially incomplete, as occurs in the mechanism of memory".