Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Exegesis: The Stalingrad Paintings of Joachim Waibel

Joachim Waibel self-portraited as a moment in his "Stalingrad" series.

I have observed and written about the mixed-media art works of Joachim Waibel for some years now. His style has been, up until now, recognizable as postmodern pop art with a charming conceptual twist and an abundant satirical humour. However, with his latest body of work, the “Stalingrad” series, his work has gone from compelling to utterly mesmerizing, and he has launched it into a darkly stratospheric level of aesthetic quality which is both thought-provoking and deeply emotional.

What does it mean for an artist to be a hero in his own time, or at least the hero of his own life? To an observing art critic and curator, and a lover of powerful images writing in the 21st century such as myself, it means persevering as a painter in the flickering shadows of the digital realm and stubbornly refusing to stop painting, to pick up a camera, video, film or computer equipment. To continue making archaic marks on a textile surface which harks as far back as the medieval period and reaches restlessly forward far into the haptic future. That stubbornness, a creative commitment to pigment and canvas, even when it’s exercised with an almost esoteric and alchemical charm as Waibel’s work does, is what makes an artist of today’s time a heroic figure.

The artist himself has designated this installation series of tarp paintings containing dry pigment, charcoal, ink, imprints, frottage rubbings and conceptual creases to be “Stalingrad #1-13." Naturally I am compelled to accept this designation, referencing as it does a calamity of gargantuan proportions (which took place from 1942 to1943), and one which encapsulates a historical place and term that essentially captures living life in extremis, at the very edge of what is bearable or memorable. Yet also as an aesthetic doctor who psychoanalyzes the patient hiding deep inside each painting, I also perceive them to be "Stalingraduals," designating the slow withdrawal from human history and the gradual accretion of a memory mode cleansed of itself. This memory is partially a personal epic lodged in the cultural fabric of an artist, but also partially a collective ancestral memory of what we sorrowful humans frequently do to each other.

Not everything requires an exegesis. But things of rare importance often demand it. The word is a somewhat fancy Greek term with a basic and simple meaning. It comes from the ancient phrase “to lead out” and is a critical explanation or interpretation of a work of art or text, usually one of a spiritual nature, which examines the history and origins of a specific artifact. Its broad and poetic analysis also includes a classification of the style and salient features in the work itself. The “leading out” in the case of complex or challenging creative achievements also suggests the role of a guide, a navigator who might assist the travelers in moving into and out of a particular wilderness and back to the safety of a new kind of understanding. In this case, the commentary in question relates to aesthetic objects of rare importance: the new “Stalingrad” paintings of Joachim Waibel. Appearing at first glance to be extremely high-altitude Air Force reconnaissance radar images preceding Russian bombardment, upon closer inspection and with the proper reflection they truly deserve, they suddenly shift focus towards being a kind of x-ray of the interior: not of the soil, but of the Slavic soul.

First of all, Stalingrad is not a place, or at least it’s not only a place: it is also a state of mind, one which any one of us who has ever entered into an emergency situation can relate to. The history of a traumatic event has in the case of these profound images been transformed into more of an emotional diagram, a location pinned on the map of image-nation. They exist in a geography of dreams to which everyone can travel at will, assuming ,of course, they leave all baggage and assumptions behind. These new paintings really are new, which is partly why they are so important from my perspective: they contribute something substantial to the dialogue about what the art of painting is, might be, or could be. They are also extremely subtle; the casual observer might be forgiven for glancing at them and encountering a challenge in discerning their subject matter. This is understandable, however, as some degree of effort must be made due to what I’ve identified already as their rare importance. A reward awaits.

Stalingrad #1

Since the city they portray and document exists only in a dream, it is even more natural to observe that they also appear to be architectural blueprints for structures that are only in the mind: let’s call them psychological buildings. With their graceful scratches, smudges and smoky field signatures, Waibel’s “Stalingrads” are evocations of time. The fading forms and grid-like structures in each painting are scaffolding for an imaginary experience to which the intrepid viewer must bring fresh eyes, eyes cleansed of the dust of art history itself. You are being invited to dream with your eyes wide open, to enter them as you would enter a cathedral rapidly vanishing with each step you take. They ask us to stand still. They require us to celebrate stillness in the midst of the storm. There is what I feel compelled to call a brutal tenderness in the "Stalingrad" paintings. Perhaps this is because almost immediately upon first viewing them, I was reminded of a line from a favourite poet of mine, this time an American, Robert Duncan: “Human blood is the ink in which history is written.” If you find that profoundly arresting poetic quote to be depressing, then you may be challenged by the intense tarp paintings of Joachim Waibel. But if so, you might also be made a little nervous by the symphonies of Brahms, the songs of Schubert, the plays of Shakespeare, or the dances of Martha Graham.

Sometimes, certain kinds of beauty can be difficult to withstand. The kind, for instance, that is obscure in its origins and heartbreakingly lovely, but for mysterious and disconcerting reasons, even for reasons that are often apparently at odds with what your eyes are witnessing. Such is the kind of beauty that is not only surprisingly unpremeditated but also largely unmediated. The artist has gotten out of the way, so to speak, has given up control and surrendered, it seems, to a creative force bigger than their individual personality. But this task is also being asked of the viewer as well, and many viewers, or at least some, might well be unprepared to do so at first, without a little coaxing. That’s not a problem; we have all the time in the world to adjust ourselves to beauty in its most raw forms. Some paintings come to mind, such as those created by a revolutionary artist such as Giotto or an innovator such as Caravaggio, arriving in the world in an almost miraculous manner: nothing which came before can prepare the viewer for the new kind of perceptual experience they beckon us to explore. Such paintings are by no means impersonal, and yet they somehow manage to convey feelings shared by everyone but understood by no one.

After the advent of 20th-century abstract expressionism in the late forties and throughout the fifties, a gauntlet was thrown down by Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and Newman, to name just the most influential, with which every other subsequent painter has had to come to terms. Considering this creative continuum, to me there is a similar quantifiable enigma evident in Waibel's "Stalingrad" series, which is paralleled equally, and maybe even exceeded, by their joyful ferocity. The sheer fragility of the human condition being excavated through Waibel’s examination of the subliminal imagery inherent in his archaeological urban conflict sites is staggering. They feel to me like portraits, still lives, and landscapes all rolled into one abstract viewing experience, and a very timely one at that. Thirteen distinct moments of grueling clarity. Of course, this experience is of a variety that might take some getting used to for the average viewer looking for a visual storyline, but if they patiently persist, anyone with a heartbeat will be capable of appreciating the historical references relating to a major catastrophe like a world war (or even more timely, global terrorism). These large tarp paintings also push and pull at the abstract-expressionist traditions in a manner similar to the shock of the new contained in either Giotto or Caravaggio, and the mystical bravado embedded in either Klee or Mondrian.

Stalingrad #2.

But you don’t need an art history textbook to begin to appreciate their grandeur as visual operas, other than to position you in preparation for their seeming absence of a figure-to-ground pictorial relationship. Tradition is in transition throughout the "Stalingrad" series: they might be suitable examples of a minimalist departure, or good examples of a new conceptual path beyond “the picture,” or, even more clearly to me, accurate depictions of a dreamscape existing in the archaic and archetypal collective unconscious. Existential blueprints, in other words. All it takes to enjoy their brutal tenderness is the nerve to abandon all preconceptions and expectations: to embark on an optical adventure requiring only one single and simple thing from the viewer, the willingness to dream while fully awake, to feel without knowing, to accept pleasure without judging. Life is short, these paintings are long, and all they ask is to be gazed at in a reverie state. At first blush it might appear that I’m comparing these Waibel paintings to the works of those other artists I referenced, but nothing could be further from the truth. That would, in fact, be folly. I am merely saying that to an art critic, curator, and historian, they represent a new optical experience beyond borders: an exquisite road map for a tour through both heaven and hell. They are, however, highly liminal and comprised of threshold experiences: domains of ethereal "there and not there" emotional events and retinal occurrences which require attentive attention. I could more effectively compare them to Waibel’s earlier works in a drastically different stylistic language and indicate that there’s been a radical evolutionary leap here. Having written, with considerable pleasure, about his successive bodies of work, I can attest to their post-pop art sensibility, which utilized considerable humour, irony, and social commentary in their delivery. They used mass-produced items, toys, replicas, industrial tools, media-saturated collages, or even tarred and feathered household objects with considerable aplomb and charm.

But with the "Stalingrad" series (and, one suspects, with the next body of work they intimate or presage on his painterly horizon), we’re dealing with a whole other order of creative endeavour altogether. These dramatic departures from cheekiness have been handcrafted in hell but lifted up to a heavenly kind of rapture by virtue of their brutal tenderness. The entire series, and it is an unfolding sequence not unlike the chapters in a medieval manuscript (but one illuminated by smoke and shrapnel), starts out pale and monochrome. It ends fourteen stations later in a depthless metaphysical space dipped in dark blood. Human history, after all, is a book written in blood. The suite of images gradually winds its way from a ghostly rust towards a brilliant darkness, with mercurial hints of a subtle spectrum of tones beneath the surface all struggling to re-emerge into the delayed daylight. The last three members of the gathering are the most compelling. Subsumed by an explosive soot, they are submerged in the dark blood that history uses as its only ink. But they are also beautiful beyond words. They are visual music.

The final painting in the "Stalingrad" series is a Janus-faced image: it both registers an unknown event and acts as a harbinger of things to come. We are reminded of the performative aspect of these works, and of the painter as an active agent of change. Some obscure collision has occurred here, with the remnants of flight still attached to the glowing surface: the feathers of a fallen angel adhere stubbornly to the surface. The angel of our history perhaps, or the lost diary of Icarus after his fall? I can hear the low echo of a certain Jim Morrison song: “When the music’s over, / Turn out the lights, / Turn out the lights.” From far below the top layer of our vision, under the furnace of our feelings, a shocking colour is starting to be born: the heavy blue of a broken skyIt is an interior pictorial domain that Waibel explores so effectively in (what I personally refer to as) his bold new Stalingradual meditations on the substance of memory. These paintings are a travelogue conducted in time, of time, through time, and are perpetually arriving and departing, at the same time. The eternal present, the long now. Their transmission of secret information behind enemy lines is so gradual, in fact, that the disastrous war they chronicle hasn’t even happened yet. But still it continues to occur unabated, hovering in between every single blink of our eyes. Memory gradually but eventually fades into thin air. A series of meticulously crafted and yet totally aleatory images that began with a pale grid continues relentlessly towards something most painters may be averse to encountering: the towering absence of a figure to ground relationship altogether. A magnified vision which perceives the ground, formerly a background space within which figures are situated, to instead be the figure all by itself, without any separation. Like some surreal Sumi-ink drawing on a scroll from a Zen master in the west, the last explosions of black smoke billow across the abstract landscape of the canvas, blotting out the sun, blotting out the whisper of a pale, rosy hue of an anemic yet lingering sunset. It is suffused with real but difficult-to-define feelings. It is further evidence that the hero cannot leave our stage set even if he wanted to, and so, in keeping with his true job description, he makes friends with the envelope of darkness that so often accompanies human history.

In the final scene, as if waving the same kind of dark crimson banner that eventually was held aloft by a Russian soldier in 1943 and waved at the gathering throngs in the central square of Stalingrad, this exhausted cloth still stands aloft. Hoisted against a sky that formerly rained metal flowers. As with the realization that the battle was finally over, fear and hope were melted together in that long awaited moment. Visually, artistic subject and aesthetic object are likewise fused poetically in this artist’s painterly process, as are form and content, along with any other polarity or duality one may choose to proffer. What we’re left with instead, after every ounce of the urge to represent literally has been drained away, is perhaps poetry in its purest form. The shock of recognition. This roughly pockmarked canvas tarp, along with all the others in the series, is the national flag of an unknown country called peace.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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