Leopold Plotek, Then and Now
For as long as I have been following Leopold Plotek’s work, watching him, over more than three decades, shuttle between greater and lesser degrees of abstractness and reference, now exploring the possibilities of arcane narratives, now wrapping himself in insulating metaphor, each new family of paintings has seemed more powerful and more alluring, but at the same time, a little stranger and often, a little more disturbing – in the best possible way. The works in an exhibition in late 1989, for example, struck me at the time as being among his most difficult and least ingratiating to date, and just about every group of pictures I have seen, in the studio or in shows, has provoked similar responses. At times, it seems as if Plotek’s self-appointed task, over the years, has been to challenge his audience, perhaps even to test our visual and intellectual acuity, by offering us the evidence of his own formidable intellect, probing more and more deeply into the mysteries of the art he is most interested in, past and present, while simultaneously bringing to bear, in purely visual terms, the effects of a lifetime’s omnivorous looking, reading, and ruminating. (It goes without saying that Plotek also challenges himself by his effort.)
Plotek’s work established him early on as a young painter to be reckoned with and, in retrospect, announced many of his persistent preoccupations. His generously scaled paintings of the late 1970s were essentially geometric (albeit non-Euclidian), constructed out of clean, discrete areas of often murky, hot color. Their imagery evoked architecture or, at least, rational structures, suggesting (though not literally depicting) entrances, arcades, or the shift of light in a doorway. Those that followed over the next decade, were increasingly lush and complex, but spoke to similar obsessions. In a painting of the late 1980s, for example, a tall, slender tower-like shape could turn a dark, luminous expanse into sky, arching shapes invoked the sheltered streets of Bologna, something vaguely figure-like lurked in a corner, yet the work remained essentially abstract. Plotek acknowledged those associations, saying that he was often surprised to discover, after the fact, that the configuration he had coaxed into being on the canvas would sometimes recapitulate, without his having willed it, spaces and places that seemed to him particularly charged.
Since then, Plotek’s paint handling has become increasingly various and expressive, so that the differences between loose, brushy gestures and more restrained passages have become major carriers of meaning. But he has never abandoned the expansive scale, the uncanny invocation of place, and the simultaneous sense of ample space and flat, painted surface that distinguished his early work. Similarly, he has remained faithful to moody color and broken surfaces that seem particularly his own but also trigger associations with Old Master precursors. In the more recent works, the places to which Plotek alludes seem to be less those of an external environment than of an internal landscape with the elastic properties of remembered or dreamt locations. It is difficult to locate oneself in these pictures; space is unstable; “foreground” and “background” change places. Figures, gestures, even entire narratives, are implied but rarely made entirely explicit. Sometimes Plotek’s elusive dramas are enacted by fairly recognizable protagonists, but at other times human presence seems to haunt a picture rather than to inhabit it unmistakably. The paintings draw us in; they hook us with their tantalizing sense of that if we look hard enough we could unravel the confounding image before us and yet they also force us to keep our distance and consider them as independent objects.
It seems beside the point to try to classify Plotek’s recent works as abstract or even loosely figurative. They are both simultaneously, perhaps defining a new kind of picture, hors catégorie, like the steepest bicycle ascents, or like the way the best of the sculptor David Smith’s polychromed constructions fulfilled his lifetime ambition to fuse painting and sculpture into what he called “a new art form that would beat either one.” Plotek investigates an uneasy zone between limpidity and ambiguity, between autonomy and illusion. It’s a high risk proposition, but when he succeeds best – as he often does – he achieves resonant, unsettling images with ambiguous layers of associative meaning that both demand and reward sustained attention, provoking our intellects and our emotions with equal intensity.
Plotek’s titles, from the early years to the present, have invoked everything from classical mythology to Jewish scripture to obscure moments in history to the literature of several languages to Artie Shaw – an eclectic list that parallels the wide-ranging pictorial allusions of his paintings. Plotek clearly aspires to the drama, seriousness, and sensuousness of the Venetian Renaissance and the High Baroque, aspirations usually synonymous, in recent years, with Post-Modernist irony and appropriation. But he neither quotes verbatim nor updates historical compositions. Instead, he strives to re-invent – or perhaps wholly invent – the qualities of the past art that he admires in his own ambiguous language. He casts the Grand Manner into completely contemporary terms, filtering the highest of high art through High Modernism, but at the same time, allowing street-smart overtones to impose themselves. He seems to inhabit with equal enthusiasm the cinquecento, the seicento – he knows Italy well – and the gritty glory years of Modernist abstraction, without either nostalgia of cynicism, and without ceasing to make work speak unequivocally to the present moment.
This is, happily, unfashionable art: no cynicism, no appropriation, and no text. It’s about expressiveness, feeling, and reason in purely visual, painterly (which is not to say mindless) terms. A peevish Toronto reviewer famous for his susceptibility to novelty once asked whether we needed Plotek’s kind of painting. The answer is a resounding “yes.” His intelligent, resonant pictures are some of the best we have.