Roland Flexner, Untitled (2008-2009), Sumi ink on paper, 5-1/2″ x 7″; courtesy D’Amelio Terras Gallery
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Was it Plato who remarked that seeing an image in the clouds signified nothing so much as the lowest form of the imagination? You wonder how the old contrarian would appraise Roland Flexner’s recent works-on-paper on display at Caren Golden Fine Art. Mr. Flexner divines images within smears and stains of ink.
Employing a traditional method of Japanese ornamentation known assuminagashi— literally translated as “ink floating”—Mr. Flexner submerges small sheets of paper within a tray of water and sumi ink. Upon removing the paper, Mr. Flexner has only a few moments—10 seconds at the max, I am told—to respond with his brush to the resulting flow. The extent to which his response determines the final result is something of a mystery, and a good one at that.
The work, collectively titled Nocturne, seems like the umpteenth riff on Automatist drawing. Favored by the Surrealists and made famous by Jackson Pollock, this mode of making art sought to circumvent rational thought by tapping into the primordial impulses of the subconscious. Mr. Flexner’s fluid slurs of ink bring to mind the frottage paintings of Max Ernst, wherein oil paint was blotted onto a canvas and then converted into Surrealist dreamscapes.
That’s where the comparison between Ernst and Mr. Flexner ends. The devastating distinction in character and quality between the artists lies in their respective approaches to transformation. Chance incident, for Ernst, launched the foundation of an image, but did not carry through to its shaping. Fantastic panoramas, painted with a drab and illustrational hand, were superimposed upon underlying random textures. Though promulgated in the name of psychic liberation, Ernst’s efforts in frottagewere ultimately the product of conscious determination.
Mr. Flexner, by contrast, doesn’t stifle chance incident by imposing upon it emblems of a humdrum imagination; he embraces it as a means of unlocking the associative capabilities of the materials themselves. Mr. Flexner doesn’t discern images in the clouds so much as the clouds unveil images to him. It’s his responsibility as an artist to endow them with a greater clarity and presence. What would Plato have to say about that?
Mr. Flexner does exert some control over the suminagashi process, though it’s difficult to ascertain how. He has a supple and, to be frank, eerie gift for working intuitively within its strictures. (The lone exception is the skull that one can detect without too much strain in a drawing in Golden’s back room.) The craggy landscapes, cosmological phenomena and fantastic bestiaries—the evocative fluidity of it all is brought to focus with an uncanny specificity. Some of the pieces will prompt double takes. Can a simple blur of paint contain that much drama? That depends on what you mean by “simple.”
Despite Mr. Flexner’s knowledge of the artistic practices of non-Western cultures, the meticulousness of the drawings is reminiscent of Netherlandish painting, Bosch especially. Mr. Flexner’s sepia-toned, often grotesque cosmos is mesmerizing and lucid, impossibly particular. Would that Golden had given individual pictures their due—the one-after-another-after-another installation isn’t as kind to Mr. Flexner’s untamed art as it could be. But that’s a small complaint given its humble and irresistible sweep.
© 2005 Mario Naves
Originally published in the November 11, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.