Against Gravity: Leopold Plotek and the Imagery of Height
“Suppose someone has frequently flown in his dreams and finally becomes conscious of a power and an art of flying just as soon as he starts dreaming, as though it were his privilege, and also his most personal and enviable happiness: one who believes he can realize every sort of curve and angle with the lightest impulse, who knows the feeling of a certain divine frivolity, an “upwards” without tension or duress, a “downwards” without condescension and humiliation—without gravity?”
· Friedrich Nietzsche (1)
Each new glimpse is determined by many,
Many glimpses before.
It’s this glimpse which inspires you – like an occurrence And I notice those are always my moments of having an idea That maybe I could start a painting…….….the real world, this so-called real world, is just something you put up with, like everybody else.
I’m in my element when I am a little bit out of this world: then I’m in the real world – I’m on the beam. Because when I’m falling, I’m doing all right; when I’m slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting!
It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me:
I’m not doing so good; I’m stiff. As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping, most of the time, into that glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser…..
· Willem de Kooning, (2)
This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.
· Philip Gourevitch (3)
Why is it that when I reflect upon the work of Leopold Plotek, I think of aphorisms penned by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche? Why do I see in my mind’s eye Russian locomotives hurtling through the night? Probably because his art is the furthest thing from unthinking, static or serene, if we mean by unthinking devoid of contemplation or by serene, placid or chaste. His is an art perennially in flight, in a state of becoming, in agile pursuit of the elusive sublime. Calm and unruffled it has never been.
Plotek is a painter we might well call ‘ascensional’ – if only to emphasize his upwards thinking, on the rise, in mid-flight tendencies. His is truly the imagery of height. There is, however, no attendant specter of the Icarus syndrome. (4) I don’t mean merely that he “thinks big” or “flies high” (although he does both) but that he is always in a state of imaginative frenzy, in the midst of creative flight. The “upwards” Nietzsche speaks of custom fits Plotek’s corpus, because as a painter he always seeks the summit, the summum bonum, the higher ground, even when he gazes into and seizes the abyss as his own. The imagery – the iconography, the mood, and the aura -- in a Plotek painting is one of height and euphoria, and this has been the case throughout his figurative work of 4 decades.
Plotek’s painting is allegorical even when the subjects of his allegories seem fugitive, probably because they hide in plain sight. In any case, his are binary. They may draw upon history and politics, in which specific historical persons and events are treated (Stalin, Voltaire, Blake) but they may also be figural allegories of ideas, in which specific characters personify abstract concepts. We need not know the identities of the players in either case, although knowledge does enrich the viewing in one very obvious way.
Plotek’s cloudlike passages of painterliness invariably both camouflage and celebrate Eros in his painting, which looms large in alluring and even voluptuous yin/yang phraseologies. These paintings are strenuous and rapturous at once; strenuous as the long uphill climb of the locomotive, rapturous when it achieves the summit and subsequent free-fall.
Plotek is a feral Nietzchean bird sans pareil which, as F.D. Luke has said:
“…is not one of a migrating flock, but the large proud solitary bird of prey., flying usually over mountains, a free and sublime observer, able to reach and maintain vast heights and gaze piercingly into vast depths; fierce and rapacious, like a renaissance prince or a blond ‘Raubtier’; in fact, the eagle.” (5)
If we look closely at his paintings, we discover just how eagle-eyed and eyrie-like they are. Ours is the perspective from the eagle’s nest or say, rather, that Plotek sweeps his viewers up in his claws over the mountaintops and roofs of villages and rivers and railway tracks and there is a certain salutary vertigo and rapture in the viewing that is both unsettling and transcendent.
Although it is one of the shorter Nietzschean aphorisms, the epigraph to this monograph serves as both useful poetic introduction to and fitting coda for Plotek’s whole body of work – as useful and apt, I think, as it is comprehensive. If I invoke Nietzsche's philosophy here it is because it, like Plotek’s paintings, presents us with many different levels of interpretation that, onion-like, may be peeled away to disclose an increasingly complex interior core that does not necessarily register its full array of complications upon first inspection, but rewards us with continuing scrutiny.
In any case, it is no exaggeration to state that Plotek’s painting, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, veers close to pure poetry. Not only is the handling of paint that of a savant of the lyrical and the tumultuous, but the subject matter requires a great deal of examination, and is always considered, if altogether idiosyncratic and invigorating. The paintings themselves can be experienced without knowing any of this, and still betray a sublime heat, a poetic interiority. The palette is overwhelmingly seductive; the unusual fluency of shape equally so. When things start to morph and buckle, we are reminded of the role of fluctuant representation in Synthetic Cubism. They catch us up in a whirligig of centering and decentering, constructing and deconstructing the inside, outside and the overlap of our lived world.
To suggest that Plotek resists the forces of gravity (as implied in the epigraph to this essay) does not mean that that his paintings are without gravitas – because these are decidedly not paintings of unmitigated sweetness and light. These are serious works that make us think. Even as they communicate the palpable pleasure in painting, the turbulence and the dark undertow intrinsic to the use of oil paint (when in the hands of a painter who is also a poet) is always in the foreground.
Plotek is as much, in his own way, a “slipping glimpser” as Willem de Kooning claimed to be. Not only are his oil paints as slippery as de Kooning’s were, but he clearly likes a nice, juicy, greasy surface as much as that old master did. His forms have a mutton-fat consistency, as he moves them around on the grill, they hiss and spit and, well, purr. His brush strokes, tentatively at first, then with more deliberation, build up structures that are then adjusted, refined, scaled back, seasoned, set on fire and then doused with aqueous pigments until a certain threshold of density is reached. Amidst all that raucous shape shifting, that relentless hurly-burly, Plotek conjures up magic from his pigment-rich recipes and offers us a very full plate, indeed.
The seductiveness in Plotek’s paintings resides in change. I mean in flux, and in always slipping and the willingness to slip into and out of the world’s embrace; in denying and then accepting heart’s desire. Arguably, only a painter in uncanny complicity with oil paint and history painting could achieve this state of unending slippage and still be able to achieve the glimpse in the slippage, the slippage in the glimpse. His paintings are like terrific glimpses even for us, his viewers, into another world, sometimes from the side, often from above, but always centered in the solar plexus as much as the optic. A window has opened on the life world and Leopold Plotek has opened wide its shutters. Light streams in through the cracks and thus a phenomenal lumen irradiates his paints.
For Plotek, as de Kooning also claimed, to be removed from the Real in the act of painting means being not out of the loop because just when you think you are out you are right back in the sweat and tears of it -- “out on the beam”. You slip before you fly, after all, your feet trail behind you, you are leaving the ground plane, and everything is buoyed up. You levitate. This slippage is Plotek’s prequel to flight, the glimpsing from on high of the reward of a life spent in tutelage to oil paint and its far-from-dire mastery. It means communion with an ineffable truth: oil paint facilitates alchemical transformation, the divine coniunctio.
In fact, the turbulence, for him, lies in the energy and urgency of a painter who knows what he is about. The paintbrush, as turbine propellant and oxygen tube, is nothing more or less than the deliverance and the life. I can cite few painters for whom the turbulent is such a living language. Stasis is anathema to Leopold Plotek. It means creative asphyxiation. A restless chameleon, his flights of the imagination in the figural arena always translate, for his viewers, into exultation. His passion for painting becomes synonymous with our own.
A man of imposing stature, if not bulk, Plotek betrays an unusual modesty in his person. But in his painting world, he is anything but. He is a legend in Montreal and has enjoyed that status for the last several decades, Never one to work the front lines and high-five it with wannabes and hangers-on, he is a creature of his studio and has moved quietly, inexorably even, from strength to strength, picking up steam all the while like the Ov-324 locomotive on the old St. Petersburg-Moscow line.
He is a painter of the supplest gesturality, but also one of sovereign gestures, pure violence and rupture. No safe haven for him in the tranquil backwaters of representation; no mute embrace of oil paint for its own sake. Plotek challenges himself constantly. His choice for subject matter supplies ample proof for this claim. The hectic clamor of real life enters into and invigorates his painting regimen with rare brio. Fluid topologies of brushstrokes, full of oases and archipelagoes and myriad strange shapes which have in the past flirted with geometry but always remain resolutely organic, seduce the optic and hold us there effortlessly, inside painting.
I mean that his subject matter seems to use the medium of the painter’s hand as preternatural conduit, as switchbox lever and magician’s wand. In terms of actual historical events that touched him, Plotek would probably say that he is but their willing instrument or voice – but this is his way of articulating life and a full engagement with life, with what it means to be alive. He does not cow his imagined images into submission through the medium of the hand, but one might argue that they choose him. If he coaxes them out of forebrain and onto the canvas ground like an animal trainer who is also a conjurer, it is because expression demands their apparitional complicity and submission. When Plotek is conquered by events that seem no-brainers for painting subjects, at least for him, all is well. No other painter captures hustle and jostle and bustle the way Plotek does -- and few can dance the tango in oil painting as deftly and tirelessly as he.
The forms in these paintings cavort, dance on tiptoe, soar trapeze-like through the firmament, and walk the high wire – and I have rarely if ever seen them fall from that perilous height. As for locomotives, well, no one can deny that Plotek’s paintings have the same hurtling quality, unstoppable in their engine-driven, pigment-consuming way, overwhelmingly robust on the uphill climb.
Plotek is a dancer, a seafarer, a mountaineer, maybe a mountain man (no disrespect intended), but more than anything else he is a locomotive conductor of a painter at the top of his game. There is something about a night train, after all. I am reminded of Tom Hyman’s novel Seven Days to Petrograd, which proposes that stupendous hypothetical of history, namely, what if Lenin had been assassinated aboard that famous "sealed” train that traveled from Switzerland through wartime Germany, straight into the heart of Russia and Petrograd's Finland Station in 1917? (6) Take V.I. Lenin, 32 exiled and contentious Bolsheviks and an American assassin, amongst others – load ‘em up, lock them down, paint all the windows, and start rolling, rollicking headlong down one alternative historical timeline – well, all that reminds me of a Plotek painting with its riotous iconographic contents all locked in and heading further, ever further, up the line.
One critic recently claimed that Plotek “paints the unpaintable” and this seems very close to the mark. (7) His subject matter is terrifically challenging, after all. When we look at Plotek’s paintings, we are always on the threshold of height. It is not as though we have an aerial view of them but that they rise up like icebergs in our foreground, unavoidable, and the purview itself seems impossible, like the optic transit between Cezanne and his beloved Mont. Ste. Victoire. Plotek the ‘ascensional’ painter makes the leap and makes it all seem easy. He has been the beneficiary of an extraordinary life history, a flurry of events of outright violence and reckless abandon, rupture and healing, and all this bears upon his art.
In a recent Montreal exhibition, Plotek included a suite of three monumental oil paintings inspired by Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil, Plotek has emptied out his bubbling paint vat in loving homage to a literary masterpiece. Some three meters tall, the diptych The Death of the Poet: Homecoming is a painting that moves us as much by its ambition as its formal power. Interestingly, Plotek has referred to this painting as “an attempt to have visions.” And what visions they are, for his paintings seize us by the cojones, and force us to witness things we have never seen and visit places we have never been.
As I argued earlier, Plotek invests his painting with an ascensional life that lifts the viewer up; up and over the threshold of identification so that we become one with his paintings, and are changed as a result. If Leopold Plotek is a painter who has flown in his dreams, he has done so in his paintings as well, and we fly alongside him as invitees to the Sublime. And, in so doing, he sees the abyss but with an eagle’s eyes – but, more, he seizes the abyss with eagle’s claws and therein lies his courage and the tenor of his achievement. (8)
Unusually literate and conversant with the broad array of cultural signifiers, Plotek has an unerring eye for those historical events that will act as catalyst and guarantor of authenticity. One could say he is a wily scavenger, but then, every choice in his paintings reads as methodical and highly charged, and we have no doubt that, at the moment of facture, they mean everything to him and cannot be left by the wayside.
As we "unpack" Plotek’s layered paintings in the ambit of our hungry optic, we begin to see how his methodology of progressively coaxing animate figural life out of the void is at once hard-won and unusually finessed. And Plotek also shows us, and unerringly, that "What occurs in the light, goes on in the dark", and inverts same just as Nietzsche did. If the darkness in Plotek’s paintings comes from his engagement with the Real, it owes less to his acts of lucid dreaming than to his autobiographical consciousness. He is unafraid of the dark. Plotek’s "art of flying" is predicated not only upon his imaginative prowess, his proven narrative worth and a daunting familiarity with literature and history, both his and ours, but his very own vigorous will to power, to discover and to reinvent himself time and time again over the long years in his chosen medium.
I have spoken of Plotek’s rich personal history and yet he is no hostage to that history. He is its interpreter. Doubtless, he would agree with the Nietzsche who wrote in The Birth of Tragedy that life must be viewed as a "tragic comedy of existence". (9) Plotek, like the philosopher, can look squarely at life and convey the terrifying irony, cruel logic, and tragic misfortune of fate, necessity and circumstance.
Plotek has never been one to shy away from the verities of our existence. As we have seen, he is not afraid to gaze into the abyss, and to document, in his own singular way, the myriad disruptions and harsh realms of our existence. But he always translates these verities into images that speak eloquently to all that his viewers have known, seen and been – and only imagined.
In his recent work exhibited at Galerie Han, Plotek has soared to new heights. Here, the practicing painter flies in his paintings towards the alchemical sun at midnight and, as he reaches the zenith, falls back earthwards, but not to certain death by drowning, as Icarus did, but to the promise of a new beginning, a radiant new life in the enduring cradle of his oil paint.
James D. Campbell, Montreal, August 2, 2008
1. Freidrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
2. From Sketchbook 1: Three Americans, film script, New York, Time, Inc., 1060, pp.6, 7, 8, 9. 10; From: New York School,The First Generation Paintings of the 1954s and 1950sAnthology of critics and artists Foreword by Maurice Tuchman "This book is a revised edition of the original Los Angeles County Museum catalog of an exhibition during July-August 1965 called New York School."
3. Philip Gourevitch, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, (Picador USA 1999), p. 6
4. Icarus and his father Daedalus were prisoners inside a massive labyrinth in Crete. The father constructed two pairs of wings to enable their escape. Daedalus warned his son, “Don’t fly too high or the sun will melt the wax on your wings and you will fall. Follow me closely. Do not set your own course.” Icarus, exulted by flying, failed to heed his father’s warning. He flew too high, his wax wings melted, and he plummeted into the sea and drowned.
5. F.D. Luke, “Nietzsche and the Imagery of Height” in Nietzsche: Imagery and Thought edited by Malcolm Pasley (Berkeley: University of Califrnia Press, 1978), p. 116. p. 104-122.
6. Tom Hyman’s novel Seven Days to Petrograd,
7. “Leopold Plotek” in Canadian Art
8. Luke, p. 117.
9. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy