No Work, Nor Device, Nor Knowledge, Nor Wisdom
by E.C. Woodley
On the small side table beside my reading chair, an image: a stack of John Berger’s books gathered haphazardly, one atop the other, slightly askew as if arranged for the painting of a vanitas. That morning of January 2, 2017, in a southern suburb of Paris, Berger had died. I had taken his books from my shelves; for days afterward, to look at those books was to notice that each one, each physical object, had lost some kind of life. That before (although I had not noticed) they were resonant with Berger’s life beyond my library. Now the space around each volume was dead and only the bare material remained.
I picked up his first novel, A Painter of Our Time and, by chance, turned to the passage about the relationship between the Marxist painter, Janos Lavin, and Lavin’s own paintings after his sudden disappearance. Berger, thirty-four years old in 1958, a character in his own book, writes in his journal:
Everything was the same, yet to my eyes everything looked different; everything except what the studio was full of – the painted canvases . . . It was a typical London autumn afternoon, but even in that muted light their colours remained strong and resonant. The huge figures in The Games canvas, that leant along the whole length of one wall, looked certain and unalterable. Never before had I realized so vividly and personally what all our talk about unity of “form” and “style” meant. By virtue of these qualities, this canvas now had an independent life. Around it were the personal effects the meaning of which had been transformed by recent events. Not so the painting. It was already beginning to outlast the circumstances that had given rise to its being painted. On to everything else in the studio except the paintings I was able to project my own feeling of confusion and loss. In their own way the paintings were as independent as the sky on a national day of tragedy.
To disappear into the Soviet Bloc as Lavin had just done was to disappear perhaps forever. As the dead disappear perhaps forever. Without meaningful ritual with which to accompany the dead away from life, they persist here with us. Alone they are present in the life of individual memory. Memory and individual artworks belong to a similar realm of synthesis. The dead who may well, like the disappeared Lavin, have stepped out and left everything just as it was.
So what do we have? Into the Soviet Bloc one painter has disappeared and another is arriving from there, from Warsaw to be precise, via an early childhood in Moscow. The son of a diplomat who has given up everything to emigrate in an instant, Leopold Plotek is twelve years old upon his arrival in Montréal in the winter of 1960. Although his fate, which is to become a painter, has not yet been made known to him, the circumstances of his early years predispose him to an art of story-telling, an art of a certain complexity. In his situation the dual, French-language sense of “histoire”: a history is always also a story. “Without mystery, without curiosity and without the form imposed by a partial answer, there can be no stories,” wrote Berger.
Before we return to Plotek’s story – a partial answer to the questions this exhibition may invoke – let us lay a ground upon which to advance. Let’s turn to José Ortega y Gasset’s lectures, Historical Reason, delivered in the autumn of 1940 at the University of Buenos Aires where Ortega had gone into exile during the Spanish Civil War. In considering the terms “being” and “becoming,” Ortega substitutes “circumstance” for “being” because – and you’ll forgive my summation of a rather beautifully drawn out exposition – isn’t our being so much circumstance? It is not only a matter of pressures easily named – our profession or the country we live in, for example – which make us, but, to extend Ortega’s notion, even something of our parents’ and grandparents’ situations and responses to life, can find their way to us, epigenetically. The “being” of a human being – and also, for our purposes, a painting – is at once more openly causal, more understandable but ultimately, vastly unknowable. The span and depth of “influence” – of what the person or painting has taken up and become infused with – is beyond the reach of the careful formulations of psychoanalysis and art history. Its depths are composed of partial answers beyond which the territory is irretrievable.
We can, of course, attribute influences to Plotek’s paintings. References to the world, including the history of art, are intensely present. For example, a familiar gesture or tonality of a colour, the way paint is laid down as it might have been years before by a certain beloved artist. In this way there is Matisse in What’s the Spanish Word for Hombre (1988) and Marrano (2015), but this is Matisse in the employ of principle obsessions nothing much like those of the maître. The presence of two obsessions, like synergetic layers of paint, dark and light, only make for more circumstance. In Marrano, the surfaces of Matisse are present less as influence and more as an underlying condition of the painting, as if in a dream. We recognize this influence in the way we might recognize a face in the street which invokes our dead: a case of familiarity but mistaken identity, a different face.
And so what in this exhibition are we left with? We are left with ourselves as we stand in front of a painting. A painting which may bring us into a moment in the life of a poet or philosopher, a god or a city. Or an object standing in for a particular human circumstance. This painting admits the impossibility of entirely retrieving the past it depicts. But this is not a contradiction. The present is also subject to mysteries and boundaries through which we cannot pass, and in this sense, our orientation toward the present is hardly distinguishable from our position before the past.
The exhibition at the Koffler Gallery, No Work, Nor Device, Nor Knowledge, Nor Wisdom makes a case for the importance of drawing and the figure in Plotek’s oeuvre right from the start of his mature work – a period that began at the end of the 1970s, long before the figure’s more overt appearance in his history paintings of twenty years later. Perhaps this is one reason why many of the exhibition’s viewers couldn’t easily tell a new painting from an older one. Despite their development, little in debt to the fashions of the times in which they were conceived, each work belongs to a set of concerns at home in the present. Like a cubist still life in which the object is both central and immediately lost to vision, or a grand scene of Pierre Bonnard’s where the figure is the last thing one sees but is seen indelibly after, Plotek’s forms can be hidden. Reading them is often a process and the images come into view over time. Yet at the first appearance of Renaissance buildings as a theme in the arch-like shadows of Il Frulino (1979), the figure is present. The figure was always necessary because Plotek’s true subject is humanity manifest in individual circumstance, the stresses and pressures of what amount to the human condition whether noble, star-crossed, absurd or impossible – or indeed, all of these things. And this is not to say that his scenes lack specificity. He is concerned, for example, in a painting such as At Uxetter Fair (2008) with capturing a certain quality of light on a rainy London day – an atmosphere he knows well from his days at the Slade School of Art in the early 1970s, and the Walter Sickert scenes he saw then – and the way a figure carries its weight while standing stock still. In his early work there is something of a late modern, 1960s attention to the everyday. Il Frulino, at first glance, before its more deeply felt intensions become clear, relates to Ellsworth Kelly’s early Paris works, which Kelly based on shadows encountered in the course of his everyday. In At Uxetter Fair, the rainy London day is also a day in the eighteenth century and the figure is Samuel Johnson standing in shame before the bookselling cart of his dead father. In Plotek’s work, the realism of his depiction of a shadow cast by a Renaissance church window is that it belongs equally to the past and to the present.
To return to Ortega (and to Berger, in a passage incorporated into his 1986 essay “A Story for Aesop” about Velasquez’ portrait of Aesop in Madrid):
At another time we shall see that, while astronomy for example is not a part of the stellar bodies it researches and discovers, the peculiar vital wisdom we call “life experience” is an essential part of life itself, constituting one of its principle components or factors. It is this wisdom that makes a second love necessarily different from a first one, because the first love is already there and one carries it rolled up within. So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be travelled and travelled again… we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is, the road already travelled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to the end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.
We might say that this roll of film, this account of the road already travelled, includes scenes or knowledge of the journeys of our parents and grandparents. Journeys taken, journeys interrupted. We are beginning to understand, or rather, understand again that our experience is more like the sequence of films in old movie houses – reels that played all day without a break – than it is the later fashion of discrete show times. Where newsreels are spliced onto short films and dramas connected to comedies, one following the other, into which we enter in the soft darkness of the theatre without knowing the beginning or the end of any of it.
And so we have the road travelled by Plotek’s father before the war, a walking trip through Poland to Lithuania where near Kovno (now Kaunas) he met his future bride. After the defeat of the Polish army, Henry Plotek returned there and, with Irene and her brother David, they fled east, eventually arriving in the regional capital Urgench in Western Uzbekistan where they lived out the war. Recounts Plotek:
I’ve heard a few tales about Uzbekistan and seen some photographs from that period, which are sort of idyllic photographs of people raising a glass in a sun-speckled garden. The war must have seemed very distant, which of course was the whole purpose of getting out there. But nobody else went, both families remained; remained in Poland and remained in Lithuania and both perished.
Chaim Grade’s story, The Seven Little Lanes (1955), tells of his return from Uzbekistan to Lithuania after the war. Grade’s dybbuk asks him: “Why on earth have you come home? Central Asia has snow-capped mountains; here, only collapsed houses.” And now as then in Grade’s “cemetery lanes,” orange-yellow lamplight falls day and night in wide intervals into the thin, close streets of the “large” ghetto of Vilna. Cast into the profound absence that inhabits the place are Grade’s “shadows of the slain.”
While he sleeps, the Canaanite leader Sisera is murdered by Yael, the woman with whom he’s sought refuge (The Killing of Sisera, 1991). Searching the world for her kidnapped daughter, Demeter is overtaken by an act of revenge on a young boy (Goyesca, 2008). Perseus delicately rests the head of Medusa “among the sweet ferns and seaweed” before killing the sea-serpent (The Creation of Coral, 1995). These ancient scenes from the Torah and Ovid, illustrated by Plotek in their irrational violence, unexpected and inevitable, are central to this exhibition. What Horace Gregory, one of Ovid’s translators, wrote about the great reactionary Augustan poet’s verse could be applied to Plotek’s paintings:
His purpose (and for proof of this we need go no further than the many “internal monologues” of The Metamorphoses) was to reveal the conflicts of emotional situations… [H]is readers… saw in his characters moments and projections of their desires, their own moments of weakness, of violence, of being overpowered by forces greater than their conscious wills.
What we face in Plotek’s images is memory as much as history. This accounts for some of the obscurity we are drawn into while standing in front of one of his paintings before the imagery comes clear (or at least becomes clearer than at first look). A story is always also memory. And when a Jew stands in a synagogue in prayer reading aloud to himself a passage of the Bible, he inhabits the circumstances of his ancestors. This return, which is also a coming forward, makes it clear that two periods of time always live at once. It tells us about our situation within the everyday just as it tells us about the longue durée of history.
After seeing the exhibition, the painter David Urban remarked that Plotek has solved the problem of modernism’s restrictions (a modernism Plotek came to by way of his Russian predecessors, the Montréal scene and mentors Roy Kiyooka and Yves Gaucher) by not confining himself to any single period or modality. One finds aspects of much of the history of art – the Renaissance and baroque, approaches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cubism, comic books and abstraction – fully assimilated into a singular practice without recourse to pastiche. This range is not meant to be a game of identifying styles or a test of erudition but forms a home base of intention internal to him.
Plotek’s best works offer a form of everything. Certainly the more you give them in the act of looking and understanding, the more you get. This is an everything that understands the impossibility of its own impulse. With more generosity than cruelty, it seems to me, Plotek understands the probability – the ease – of finding oneself in something like the states of his characters, in circumstances that we might call too much. An everything in the service of the too much that is the mystery and the weight of the world.
John Berger, A Painter of Our Time (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958).
John Berger, Keeping A Rendevous (New York: Pantheon Books, 1991).
José Ortega y Gasset, Historical Reason (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984).
Horace Gregory, Ovid, The Metamorphoses (New York: The Viking Press, 1958).
Leopold Plotek was born in Moscow, USSR, in 1948, and emigrated to Canada from Warsaw, Poland in 1960. He was educated at McGill and at Sir George Williams University, where he was the pupil of Roy Kiyooka and Yves Gaucher, and at the Slade School of Art under William Townsend. He lives and works in Montréal, where he is also Professor of Fine Art at Concordia University. Since 1976 his work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions including the National Gallery of Canada’s Inaugural Exhibition, at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Plotek’s works are held by major public collections including the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Plotek is represented by the Corkin Gallery in Toronto.
E.C. Woodley is a critic, curator, artist and composer based in Toronto.
Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Shannon Anderson
Digital publication to the exhibition Leopold Plotek: No Work, Nor Device, Nor Knowledge, Nor Wisdom
Presented by the Koffler Gallery | January 19 to March 19, 2017 | Guest Curator: E.C. Woodley
© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2018, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-928175-13-1.