ESSAYS Mousse 15
Ink Worlds: Roland Flexner
by Anna Daneri
Born in Nice in 1944, Roland Flexner has lived and worked in New York since 1982. Starting in the 1970s, he was active in the redefinition of the status of painting in keeping with a conceptual approach, close to the movements “Support/Surfaces” and BMPT. Since the early 1990s Flexner has focused on the practice of drawing. As seen in a recent solo show held in New York by D’Amelio Terras.
Entering Roland Flexner’s studio is like a voyage in space and time: little bottles containing precious inks, mostly from Asia, accumulate along with paper, brushes, settling tanks and work tools, like the laboratory of a scientist or an alchemist. His narratives focus on worlds becoming extinct, where knowledge is the inseparable result of theoretical and technical knowledge. We start precisely with the ink, the raw material of his works for over twenty years now. Roland Flexner tells us about many trips to Japan, where the art of sumi-e (ink painting) was brought by Korean missionaries who had learned about it in China (where the use of India ink or encre de Chine dates back to the 3rd century B.C.). During his travels in the East Flexner learned the secrets of the preparation of ink, passed down from master to master and now surpassed by industrial production (which is more economical, of course, but at an incomparably lower level of quality), as well as the techniques of suminagashi, the ancient Japanese art of marbled paper decoration, practiced by blowing on ink floating on water or gelatin.
Flexner makes drawing series with this technique, which opens up infinite expressive possibilities through very precise control of all the components (type of ink and paper, degree of viscosity of the liquids, quantity of breath used to mix them), in a practice that makes the condensation of time and the work’s capacity for self-formation into a conceptual nucleus in which to move, one that has characterized the artist’s research since the beginning.
Apparently self-generated, or without any evident relationship to the will of the artist, the suminagashi works of Flexner construct layers, condensations and galaxies in which the gaze and the imagination can get lost. They are like the famous “pierres de rêve” (the suiseki or biseki, in Japanese, also known as Guo Hua in China), which thanks to the strata of different minerals contain imaginary landscapes. Due to their particular properties and qualities, these stones have been collected in Europe since the late Renaissance. The studio of Roland Flexner is full of such curiosities, like an antique wunderkammer full of fine specimens from all over the world. While his work and his imagery have often been compared to the automatic, dream-based practices of Surrealism, the greatest affinities can be found, perhaps, in the words of a writer close to Surrealism but also in open conflict with Bréton. In his many writings on stones, Roger Caillois talks about a “logic of imagery” inscribed in them: “I can scarcely refrain from suspecting some ancient, diffused magnetism; a call from the center of things; a dim memory, almost lost, or perhaps a presentiment, pointless in so a puny a being, of a universal syntax.” (Roger Caillois, L’écriture des pierres, Skira 1970, Eng. tr. The Writing of Stones, University Press of Virginia, 1985).
Precisely this possibility of deciphering the universal laws of existence hidden in the microcosm of a stone or a drawing, and the dizzying effect of each image, as Georges Didi-Huberman put it, lead Roland Flexner to construct a universe of parallel possibilities constructed by the constantly different repetition of forms produced by “automatic” gestures. The relationship with the body of the artist, and not just with the chemistry of the constituent elements, forms the basis of each drawing, which is the result of an action, a certain amount of breath, a “labor” the drawing distills. This aspect is most evident, perhaps, in the “bubble drawings”, a series in progress since the late 1990s, made by starting with a mixture of soapy water and ink the artist uses to form bubbles with changing surfaces, which depending on the “burst” (which always happens through the action of the artist, in the moment when the bubble has taken on an “interesting” form) and the spray of the liquid onto the paper, form the “nuclear” designs at the center of the paper. Here again, drawing is a condensation of matter and time, the trace of a three-dimensional form that disappears, leaving another image of itself behind.
Like fossils, but certainly in a more abstract way, each bubble gives rise to multiple configurations that, as in the stones of Caillois, form micro and macrocosms whose laws can be discerned not perhaps by science, but through an effort of imagination. The memento mori contained in each drawing, the sign of a fleeting, fragile existence, like human life, returns in other works by Flexner with more naturalistic leanings. These are very small graphite drawings on a white field, depicting still lifes (mostly skulls) and misshapen people. The disturbing impact is attenuated by the technique: the subjects taken from photographs are fragmented by the almost pointilliste sign of the graphite and recomposed by means of the gaze, in a dynamic relationship of perception that seems to follow the principles of the Gestalt. Here it may be useful to recall the words of Rudolf Arnheim, in an interview in 2001: “I consider art to be a means of perception, a means of cognition. Perception makes it possible to structure reality and thus to attain knowledge. Art reveals to us the essence of things, the essence of our existence; that is its function.” (Cabinet, issue 2).
Flexner does not proceed by theorizing, but with an approach closer to meditation or contemplation. The glimpses the artist offers us are very evocative “cuts” in reality, “framings” that underscore particular, but nevertheless universal, obsessions, triggered by details of stones, designs of water and ink, reflected images, as in the latest installation at the D’Amelio Terras gallery, entitled (in fact) “Cuts”, in which for the first time the artist has combined suminagashi works, cut and mounted on wood, with Chinese cut jasper and stills taken from Sansho Dayu by Mizoguchi, in which a woman vanishes into the water. “Each medium in the installation is the subject of a cut: the film, the stones and the sumi drawings. They are all created by “mirroring” the image, as in a Rorschach test.”
Originally published on Mousse 15 (October-November 2008)