Atmospheric Disturbances

November 24th, 2012

Roland Flexner is presently known for his small-scale abstractions that look like geological, cosmological, and biological terrain.  Since the 1980s, Flexner has had many solo shows in New York and abroad, but his inclusion in the 2010 Whitney Biennial and many of its reviews might have reanimated his profile.  Working primarily in drawing and specializing in artisanal inks and liquid graphite, Flexner’s output invites comparison to surrealist art, as well as some expansive associations.  “Branches of coral or ice-encased trees to patterns of erosion or internal organs.  One work uncannily resembles an aerial photograph of a shoreline and, simultaneously, a Man Ray torso or photogram,” wrote Nathan Kernan.  Or “hidden grottoes, trees draped in Spanish moss, moonlit shores,” from The New Yorker.

Roland Flexner at D'Amelio Gallery

Continuing beyond his atomic, signature “bubble” works, for which Flexner would blow a bubble and then pop it against a prepared surface, the new show at D’Amelio Gallery features 100 viscous abstract interactions that might strike us as pictures of another world.  They look like alien wonderlands because they are plausible landscapes, with stratified surfaces and starry skies, yet they are unpopulated and stripped of Earthly vital signs.  His swirling, layered images result from his technique of suminagashi, the ancient Japanese art of marbled paper decoration.  Flexner has orally augmented this particular process with the bubble popping and by “uttering a word or sound as the bubble bursts,” according to Raphael Rubinstein.


Suminagashi is the 900-year-old invention of Jizemon Hiroba.  In the 12th century, divine inspiration prompted Hiroba to explore Japan, seeking the best water with which to make his papers. He found it in Echizen, along the Sea of Japan. He settled there and his family continues its suminagashi legacy to the present.

Echizen is only about 350 miles away from Fukushima, whose nuclear disaster has reached as far as California and Hawaii.  What kind of marbleized patterns does concentrated cesium cause?  What kind of charred, soggy, and radioactive wastelands will result from the next series of nuclear meltdowns, caused by the next round of natural disasters, generated by the next upward ticks in global temperature and tidal encroachment?  Or the next oil catastrophe?  Are Flexner’s landscapes merely alien, or is Flexner presenting the landscapes of the future?

Barnaby Furnas, "Tide 3," 2011
Wolfgang Tillmans, "Freischwimmer 16," 2003

Actually, Flexner’s work gets discussed in more chastened dialogue.  Many critical responses to Flexner connect him to surrealism, via his use of transfer and chance.  “They give the Surrealist term exquisite corpse added meaning and also belong to the tradition of Surrealist automatism,” notes Roberta Smith.

“Many viewers…may recall the Surrealists’ experiments with decalcomania, in which fantastic imagery was created by transferring wet paint or ink from one surface to another, or the automatists’ approach to painting practiced by André Masson, Jackson Pollock, and countless artists thereafter,” writes Raphael Rubinstein.

“The umpteenth riff on Automatist drawing,” states Mario Naves, who nevertheless elevates Flexner over Ernst.  He writes, “Though promulgated in the name of psychic liberation, Ernst’s efforts in frottage were ultimately the product of conscious determination.  Mr. Flexner, by contrast, doesn’t stifle chance incident by imposing upon it emblems of a humdrum imagination.”  -That’s a helpful comparison, because it helps us realize that Flexner allows viewers to complete the images.  He doesn’t force imagery on us, but instead gives us the pieces to assemble – or not assemble.

There’s also a bodily analogy.  “The relationship with the body of the artist, and not just with the chemistry of the constituent elements, forms the basis of each drawing, which is the result of an action, a certain amount of breath, a “labor” the drawing distills,” wrote Anna Daneri.  This particular quality of Flexner’s fit him into Breathless, a group exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art, for which “there is a focus on the body, which becomes externalized through abstract gesture and mark more than through representation.”

A Flexner bubble

Finally, there’s a phenomenological view.  For example, “Each of his works indexes the single, fleeting moment of possibility in which the ink is applied to its support,” says Chus Martínez for Artforum.  Flexner himself describes the work in these terms, in a conversation with Faye Hirsch for Art in America:  “I have very little time – just a few seconds after the image is transferred to the paper.  And when the paper is wet it immediately curls into a tube.  So I’m fighting against that.”

Still from Thorsten Fleisch, "Energie!"

Writers are correct to focus on “the moment,” which reminds us of the urgent role of “chance,” illuminates the existential meaning of each picture, and even relates the work to photography, which requires the right moment just as much as the right light.  However, the generative gesture is just a drop in the bucket when compared to the research and preparation behind each picture.  The conditions in the studio must be stabilized, the process must be rehearsed, and most importantly, Flexner had to travel to Japan, seek out the ink artisans, arrange his purchases, and research the handmade ink.   In looking for the perfect ink, Flexner sounds quite like Hiroba searching for the perfect suminagashi water.  (Flexner actually says that it’s Evian.)

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