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First paradox: that real events produce unreal spaces, i.e., fluid dynamics of various substances, guided by the artist, result in images of sheer fantasy, views onto imaginary landscapes. Perhaps more successfully than any other contemporary artist, Roland Flexner has harnessed the physics of emergence, brilliantly calibrating the interaction of levels (micro/macro, material/image) in the systems he puts into play.

Roland Flexner, “Untitled,” 2012. Liquid graphite on yupo, 9 x 12”. Frame size: 17 3/4 x 20 3/4”. Courtesy of the artist and D’Amelio Gallery, NY.

Second paradox: that a contemporary artist has given us an entirely new visual universe in part by delving into a distant, largely forgotten chapter in European art history (into which Flexner also folds parallel pictorial traditions from Japan and China).

The best preparation for approaching Flexner’s work might be to reread two well-known passages from Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting (here in John Francis Rigaud’s 1802 translation):

By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused lines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions. (Chapter CLXIII)

By throwing a sponge impregnated with various colours against a wall, it leaves some spots upon it, which may appear like a landscape. It is true also, that a variety of compositions may be seen in such spots, according to the disposition of mind with which they are considered; such as heads of men, various animals, battles, rocky scenes, seas, clouds, woods, and the like. It may be compared to the sound of bells, which may seem to say whatever we choose to imagine. (Chapter CCCXLIX)

The first passage is quoted in that most singular and fascinating volume of art historical scholarship, Aberrations: Essai sur la legend des formes by Jurgis Baltrušaitis. (Not by coincidence, it was Flexner who first told me about this book, and pressed into my hands the copy I have before me now.) One chapter retraces the human fascination with strange geological phenomenon unearthed over the centuries. Ranging from antiquity to the Middle Ages and, especially, the 17th century, Baltrušaitis recovers the lost tradition of pierres imagées (pictorial stones). Across 17th century Europe, artists painted figures onto slabs or sheets of turbulently veined marble or agate, while aristocratic collectors and pioneering naturalists sought out cut stones whose irregularities suggested the silhouettes of cities, flying dragons, and teeming forests. Baltrušaitis describes how this “visionary mineralogy” fostered a milieu in which “great scholars and famous artists, astrologers, alchemists, and quacks all met and mingled.” At the end of his essay, first published in 1957 (and translated into English by Richard Miller for MIT Press in 1989), he points out the affinities between the forms found in certain lapidary stones and post-war abstract painting. Enthusing over a piece of Tuscan limestone he exclaims, “Today’s masters could not have done better, even haunted as they are by the same play of paradox and surprise.”

One Flexner drawing seems to be channeling English Romantic painter Samuel Palmer; the next one looks like something envisioned by Palmer’s friend William Blake. At other moments we could be looking at a daguerreotype of interplanetary travel beamed back to us from some steampunk future.

What kind of space do we find in Flexner’s micro-landscapes? First, a space of scale: the scale of these drawings is shockingly modest in comparison with the gigantesque canvases, pumped-up photographs and overwhelming installations that have been the sign of “important” art for many decades. Here, instead, we are in the dimensions of the postcard, the book illustration, the artist’s notebook. And yet, each one of these little rectangles opens onto a sensation of incredible vastness: night skies, huge lakes, endless torrents, rolling landscapes, extensive caverns, eroded cliffs, desert wastes that would take days or years to traverse. Then the scale shifts again as we notice the pinpoint details, the granular textures, the near-microscopic features of these liquid topographies. But when, standing before a long grid of framed drawings, our eyes zoom out of a single drawing and look up or down at its neighbors, or when we take a step to the side, another scene of equal scope beckons, and another, and another. It is not just by each image that we must measure the scale of Flexner’s inventions but also by their accumulation. And here we realize the thrilling infinitude implied by his work, its Baroque abundance.

Leonardo began composing his Treatise in 1490, just as another Italian was about to open up geographical space in the most radical way. The apparent limitlessness of Flexner’s work, the fact that he can return again and again to his reservoir of potential images, also implies a radical remapping, not of the terrestrial globe but of the human imagination.

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Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the New York-based author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). Excerpts from his recently completed book Libraries of Sand about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès have appeared in BombThe Fortnightly Review and 3:AM Magazine. In January 2023, Bloomsbury Academic will publish a collection of his writing titled Negative Work: The Turn to Provisionality in Contemporary Art. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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