One often hears the phrase, “dream-like”, thrown about in discussion of art. So often in fact that the label seems to have lost some descriptive acuity, seems to be roughly synonymous with “weird” or “far-out”. I, like Mr. Orwell, believe that imprecise language begets imprecise thought, and so please allow me the next paragraph as an attempt to resuscitate this near-comatose adjectival phrase.
So what might I mean if I were to call a work of art “dream-like”? Assuredly, there would be an element of off-putting skew to the piece, a feeling that somehow the geometry of the art’s metaphysics didn’t quite square with my understanding of the world. There would be a deep elasticity or dynamism, requiring the sincere proviso that any interpretation I come up with is capable of mutating as I watch. And finally, at least in my case, for a piece to be truly “dream-like”, the foregoing elements must coalesce into an emotional ambivalence that swings between wonder and fear.
Having thus defined the term, I’d like to introduce the work of Roland Flexner. A selection of his prints are on display in this year’s Whitney Biennial. They occupy an entire wall on the museum’s third floor, and they stand out as some of the most striking artwork in the show. They are at once beautiful and, you know what’s coming, dream-like.
The artist was born in France, and now lives and works in New York City. Mr. Flexner’s online CV lists solo shows going back to the early eighties, geographically spread over art hot-spots not just in the United States, but in Europe and Asia as well. He’s received positive reviews from the Times and Art in America. This is all simply to say that his inclusion in this year’s Biennial comes as another in a career of accolades and critical praise.
And through his career, Mr. Flexner has repeatedly shown an interest in the interaction between traditional craft and elements of chaos. Even some of his earlier, vastly more representational, drawings devolve into something like black-and-white pointillist anarchy when one looks closely enough. Another previous series, which more directly prefigures the work in the Biennial, has Mr. Flexner using the unpredictable popping of ink-bubbles to create splendid little explosions of gradient and flow. Again and again, one sees the practiced technique of a master craftsman exercised right up until some final, decisive moment, when the artist relinquishes his control to the forces of chance and gravity.
And perhaps Mr. Flexner’s contribution to the Biennial brings this antipodal synthesis to the fore more clearly than ever. The allotted wall is neatly and symmetrically covered by dozens of smallish (5 1/2 x 7 inches) prints, all in grayscale. The show’s literature describes the artist’s technique like so:
The works on view here were created using a Japanese decorative art technique in which paper is laid on top of ink floating on water or gelatin, creating a marbled effect. However, Flexner departs from the traditional technique, altering the composition in the moment before the ink is absorbed by tilting, blowing, or blotting the paper.
The results remind one partly of cross-sections of some fanciful chunk of marble, and partly of deeply disturbing Stygian landscapes. Here again the influence of chaos is apparent, though it seems that there must be some intelligence and intent guiding it to some degree, lest it be only one’s own perception that causes the pictorial snippets that keep the prints from pure abstraction.
And it is from this sense, of needing to find the artist’s hand in order to explain the eery sense of mimesis that the prints leave in my mind, that the art’s dream-like quality emerges. As I stare at each image in turn, I feel an almost primordial struggle going on in my cognitive faculties, trying to suss out exactly what it is that’s going on before my eyes. Parts of it are recognizable, though not unconditionally, while others are so tantalizingly close to rational order that some part of me refuses to give up on making them fit, on making them speak a language I can understand. Like in a dream where my companion inexplicably and unremarkably morphs from one person to another, Mr. Flexner’s silent little phantasmagorias tease us by jumping back and forth over the line between comfort and fear.
To experience the whole wall of these tumultuous dreamscapes is a thrilling thing. While a good portion of the Biennial is given to concept-driven art, stuff with a punch-line or at least a core axiom, Mr. Flexner’s work succeeds in infiltrating that pre-rational spot and taking up residence, and at once stimulating and deriding our desire to make sense of what we see. In doing so, it establishes itself both as highlight and resident gadfly of that prestigious show.
The 2010 Whitney Biennial runs through the end of May.