Magnus Plessen Atelier
, 2007 Oil on canvas 75.98 x 111.81 inches (193 x 284 cm)
courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New YorkMagnus Plessen: Memory’s Flash by Ajay Kurian, WM New York
Magnus Plessen seems to always leave his audience wanting more. The artist is not a personality – he’s quite reclusive, actually. He isn’t considered to be part of any major artistic circles, and most of all, his output is extremely limited. Such self-restraint borders on mythic. It’s as if Plessen is one of the few lucky artists that has made it into the art world and doesn’t have anything to do with it. Regardless of whatever involvement he has, he’s a painter whose every success feels to be entirely justified.
Two years ago, in 2005, Plessen had his first show at the venerated Gladstone Gallery. The paintings were mostly dark images appearing out of burnt sienna scrapes or inky blue-black bars – a formal feature that has become Plessen’s signature. Smears and pulls of paint acted as bare-bones designations of human figures, held in an intransigent darkness spiked with neon. They were minimal while remaining sensuous, and they felt like a remarkably fresh discovery. Plessen began as a photographer and only recently moved to painting; it seems almost appalling that it’s taken so little time for him to become so good. Photography certainly played a major role in this first show, but with Plessen’s second solo show at Gladstone, the flash of the camera has now become the internal flash of memory.
Plessen has never considered representation a closed issue. The camera doesn’t capture and the brush doesn’t freeze or depict. When Plessen does use photographs, it’s similar to Wittgenstein’s pedagogical and philosophical ascent. It’s best to throw away the ladder once one has scaled it. The paintings, now past the photograph, insist upon fracture, attempting to embody a “mental picture” rather than fulfill any illustrative capacity. His recent work follows suit, but with a different temperament. The surface is slicker and brighter, and Plessen’s signature bar of neither pure addition nor subtraction takes on more variety and exhibits an artist more comfortable working towards the image he desires
That’s not to say the new works aren’t daring. They are in fact far less agreeable than Plessen’s earlier work. They lack the easy sensuality of his previous, dark-and-dreamy paintings. They seem to catch you in mid-breath, as if you’re not quite sure there’s enough information. Two paintings of the same garden, remembered twice, or perhaps pictured in some combination of life and memory, look as if Plessen had to measure every stroke, attempting to recover a place where only three marks were certain. With concerted and prolonged looking, you can make out a chair in both paintings, but its shape has changed, and one looks clumsier than the other. Another work, a portrait of his wife, Sarah, is almost Japanese in its brevity. Her face looks near alien, and the gaze is slightly discomforting. And it’s clear that no stroke follows any strict line of depiction, but rather something that lives inside Plessen’s mind.
There are exceptions to this rule of narrow economy, such as Untitled (mother and child)
, which is perhaps the most luscious
painting in the show. A co-mingling of acid reds and alkaline browns screech down the painting in nearly systematic bars. The image of mother and child, trembling in these folds, isn’t locatable in any one place and emerges only partially. Its basic thematic content—the mother and child—has a long tradition in the West, but following the 19th Century, Western artists – such as Manet and Cassat to name but two – would borrow from Japanese imagery. One can see the Japanese artist Utamaro as providing many important woodcuts of the mother and child, recasting the religious iconography in a new secular light. The work therefore couples well with the other dominating piece in the show, Paravent.
The title means “screen” in English, while in French it has the added connotation of a folding screen. It’s therefore possible to see a continuing Japanese connection. Paravent
has a similar palette to Untitled but is applied upon a more sharply white surface. Wide bars that almost look like the planks of a strange and forbidding fence, or a series of asymmetrical crates smashed together, roll across the surface. It’s a strange painting and it feels resistant to any easy acceptance, but more than any other painting in the show, it may allude to Plessen’s artistic and thematic preoccupations.
Plessen has spoken about the possibility of seeing the other side of the brushstroke, making the painting into a kind of revolving door, when one force is exerted onto the painting and another projects out. One can go in, see inside, and come out and see outside. The screen, in the terms that Plessen describes, folds the inside and the outside into a space of subjective recognition. The paintings demonstrate an understanding of space and surface that could be called a “disjunctive synthesis”—a fracture that doesn’t necessarily reconcile itself, but has a logic that perhaps eludes classification. In and Out of my Shirt
asserts simultaneity – there is no either/or, and there is no dialectic. The philosopher of multiplicities, Gilles Deleuze, speaks quite beautifully of this:
It is the irruption of incompossibilities on the same stage, where Sextus will rape and not rape Lucretia, where Caesar crosses and does not cross the Rubicon, where Fang kills, is killed, and neither kills nor is killed.
Magnus Plessen, In and out of my shirt
, 2006 Oil on canvas 45.67 x 39.37 inches
(116 x 100 cm) courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York
These “incompossibilities” refer to more than one level of Plessen’s paintings. His application of paint, specifically the scrape, is another means of complication. The scrape itself is a mark that is commonly used for fixing, for removing the unnecessary or unwanted paint from one area so as to correct it. In Plessen’s work, this mode of correction becomes the act of painting itself. He creates his paintings out of a gesture generally thought negative, folding the negative into the positive.
It’s interesting as well to see when the stroke becomes more additive than equivocal, because on these occasions, depending on the color Plessen has chosen, the mark appears to look like, oddly enough – electrical tape. This association is further reinforced with the actual inclusion of pieces of tape. Tape thus becomes paint’s analogical counterpart. In both cases, we are given reasons to believe that Plessen is fixing something, or keeping something together in a makeshift way. He’s allowed an object of banal reality to hold together a mental version of it.
Plessen’s paintings are beyond any explanatory discourse; they function before one can make any kind of linguistic turn. Attempts at speaking or writing on the visual arts are done so in the name of teasing out what language is capable of, teetering between exegesis and eisegesis, and always involved in the act of reaching but never capturing. The paintings are driven by forces and sensations; any external categories they may fall into, such as landscape, portrait, or even history painting, are contorted to fit Plessen’s own mental images. The result is a show bent on breaking dualities and limits and finding the new.
 Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (Minneapolis, Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993)
Ajay Kurian 2008