Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Purveyor of Thresholds: Joachim Waibel Shifts Gears

An untitled colour field from Waibel's Four Elements series.

Painters are people too. That’s what it sometimes comes down to. After producing an overwhelmingly captivating and almost spiritually compelling body of work such as The Stalingrad Series, one designed to stop us in our tracks with its emotional intensity, Joachim Waibel naturally felt the need to engage in something that offered some relief from the darkness. As much for himself as for us, the viewers, he needed to take a pause, collect his thoughts and feelings, go on a bit of a painterly vacation and, dare I say it, to relax.

But rather than do what most of us might do, travel to Cuba or Mexico for a couple of weeks on the beach, the artist’s idea of a break is to immediately commence a series of paintings that encompass a drastically different emotional palette. Waibel doesn’t make his art works for you or me, he makes them for himself, not unlike the way a bird sings to communicate with its own environment, not to entertain us with pretty music. For the painter, his studio is his beach.

And yet, the visual music made by this contemporary painter can be very beautiful even when it’s equally challenging. Whereas The Stalingrad Series dealt with substantial issues such as large-scale human conflicts, his new works examine a realm closer to hand: the physical fact of being alive, being embodied with perceptual equipment via the five senses at our disposal. What we do with them is up to us, of course, but what painters and critics do with them is to turn them around and study not just what we see but how we see it. In this case, though, seeing is barely believing.

"Winter" / "Blue" / "East" / "Earth" (spray paint on cartons).

The Four Elements series of subtle threshold paintings is thus much more playful in form and content, almost tongue-in-cheek in its presentation, but still utterly mesmerizing in its aesthetic agenda. Indeed, almost bordering in the fanciful zone between painting and sculpture, and comprising both, what these works play with is our eyes themselves. They toy with us in a way we readily submit to. Some art is made for the mind, some is made for the heart, occasionally some might even be made for the spirit. These subtle relief works, in four intense colour spectrums which might be related to earth, air, fire and water (but could also be enjoyed as a suite of the four seasons), are splendid and opulent. I emphasize the word "might." Mystery abounds in their shimmering spectacle. They are liminal in nature, that is, having to do with thresholds, amorphous intermediate zones and in-between states, not entirely here and not entirely there. Hovering apparitions.

Speaking of opulence, there is a kind of visual art practice that applies, if only obliquely, to these recent creations by Waibel in such unique material and in so subtly nebulous a format: Op art, first explored fully in the early and mid-1960’s by practitioners such as the Hungarian Victor Vasarely and the British Bridget Riley. To be clear, this is not about comparison; this is about context. The other realm being sidled up against and evoked skillfully in Waibel’s new venture is often referred to as hard-edge painting: the abrupt shift in colour via a dramatic transition without blending. In the case of the four elements work, it amounts to removing all but one seemingly monochrome palette which, upon closer inspection, in actuality has a multitude of individual blues, greens, reads and blacks, all dancing on the surface of our eyes. Both Vasarely and Riley also explored the optical realm by depicting the poetry of the eyeball itself, the principal organ we use to dream images.

One of Waibel’s untitled colour field pieces (and one not included in the Four Elements/Seasons/Directions series formally) is a marvelous example of extending this Op tradition and hard-edged aesthetic into a new century. It too speculates on the personality of the eye, with its alternating current of "coming out and going in" shapes. It gives the push and pull of abstraction a new and quite literal meaning: it recedes and advances physically before us. But the key difference between their earlier efforts and Waibel’s recent shifting of visual gears is that in their case they more or less forced our viewing eyes to confront an opera of the optical, while in Waibel’s large elemental series he takes a more subtle approach, allowing our eyes to do the work via small incremental gestures. He offers a far more contemplative experience which is as much about time and duration as it is about colour and form. This, in addition to the fact that his similarly structured eyeball evocations have actual circular indentations (since they use actual egg trays sculpturally assembled) to give us access to the optical domain. It’s a magical motif.

Detail of "Spring".

“Winter” is a prime example of this optical domain. A conjunction of the colour we know well and its icy associations with a sleepy season and also one of the primary cartographic directions. This chilling indigo-toned surface is one of the most intense to contemplate. Indigo appears between blue and violet in the rainbow spectrum; it was first recorded in history in English in the year 1289 but has an ancient lineage and symbolism. The plant that got this name came from the Indus Valley Civilization, was first discovered some 5000 years ago and has since entered visual annals as an image of royalty. To gaze into these depths is to engage with pure vibrancy.

In optics, the perception of green is evoked by light that has a spectrum dominated by energy with a strong retinal wavelength. Most commonly associated with nature, life, health, spring and hope, the word comes from middle English and, like the German word grun, has the same roots as the words grass and grow. “Spring” is a celebration of the organic origin. In many ancient cultures green was a symbol of regeneration and rebirth, after the cool retreat of winter, and for the Romans, for instance, it was associated with the goddess Venus, and pastoral vineyards. Here, its deep emerald tones herald a kind of collision with the sensual realm, provoking a deep and intimate relationship with the alchemical qualities of power and passion. We gaze into its depths in order to discover our own roots.

Red is the colour at the end of the spectrum of light, next to orange and opposite violet. Since red is the colour of blood, it has historically been associated with sacrifice, danger and courage, but it is also connected to heat, activity, creativity, passion, sexuality, love and joy. Often it is aligned with the experiences of happiness and good fortune. It is, of course, also far beyond the meanings we human beings bestow upon it, and its powers have long been reflected through the history of art. Rarely, however, is it allowed to be simply itself, as is in the Waibel threshold series of elements, seasons and directions. “Summer” invites us to travel inward. We gaze into its depths to test the durability of our desires and the temperature of our dreams.

The artist interacting with "Summer".

As the close-up detail of "Black" (which I termed "dark mirror") demonstrates so clearly, these new works are about distance as well: the experience they provide changes drastically the closer to or farther away from them we position ourselves. Thus they are truly interactive works; we ourselves are actively engaged in their ongoing composition by choosing how and where we want to view them. Close, they are very aggressive sculptures that can swallow us up, while farther away, they are ethereal and liminal in nature. As is “Fall” pictorially, a transitional mode.

The limen is a word active in psychophysics: it is the threshold of a physiological or psychological response. It is the boundary of perception. On one side of a limen (or threshold) a stimulus is perceivable, on the other it is not. Thus these pieces are situated at a sensory threshold, hence their true content is barely perceptible. Subliminal would mean, as we already know, that obscure something which is below perception. The absolute threshold is therefore the lowest amount of sensation detectable by a sense organ. Black, in turn, is the darkest colour as a result of the absence or complete absorption of visible light. It is not, of course, the absence of colour but rather might be the ultimate colour, containing all the other spectral tones in its tight grip, and it often represents elegance, formality, mystery and the unknown. In a painting, the black hole connotation may be a viable one, since it also suggests a pictorial event horizon, where nothing can enter or exit: a place where meaning eludes our grasp. We gaze into its depths in order to discern the true essence of our characters: black might therefore also be that absolute threshold again, a minimalist kingdom of microscopic sensations.

Detail of "Black", Waibel's "dark mirror".

To that extent, these new Waibel pieces are similar to ambient music, which also operates at the subtlest level, in this case that of listening and hearing. I therefore suspect that they are ambient paintings. However, whichever way one wants to approach them, their ethereal beauty is obvious to the eye and poetic to the brain. With them, as a painter, this purveyor of thresholds has shifted gears aesthetically and entered a new "territor-reality." They might be sub-atomic and thus invisible landscapes; they might also be, in a very literal sense, quantum field sculptures. Perhaps they also suggest, as a suite of visual moments, that there might actually be five or even six elements, not just four. This could be so since space itself is the true medium in which they unfold their gentle gestural field experiences of season, direction and colour. Meanwhile, time is the other obvious element within which they engage our senses, as a result of how dramatically they shift their form and content the longer we stare not at but into them.

Visual art can have many messages, whether consciously placed or unconsciously embedded: images can be social, political, cultural, or spiritual. Waibel’s new body of immersive works is purely perceptual and as such, it is also very playful. If anything they prompt reflections on the politics of perception, since, as an optical bath and a retinal storm, each one invites us to use our eyes in a new way. No debating, only looking. They don’t need to tell a story; we are the story; what we see is what we see. It’s also who we are, a part of the environment we frequently gaze at. Upon reflection, most viewers will be able to accept the observation that these are landscape-oriented paintings. Not “pictures” of landscapes but rather actual perceptual fields. They are, in fact, it occurs to me, perhaps more accurately referred to as mindscapes. Perhaps in the end, they are interior weather reports, since they don’t just reproduce reality so much as create a totally different reality of the same intensity. Maybe even more.

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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