Drunken Bubbles: The Sumi-e Spray Drawings of Roland Flexner
Roland Flexner and Japanese Bronzes of the Edo Period at Sargent’s Daughters
September 12 to October 11, 2015
179 East Broadway (between Rutgers and Jefferson streets)
New York City, 917 463 3901
The work of Roland Flexner is deep in conversation with traditional vanitas paintings that convey the impermanence of existence and the futility of earthly pursuits. Amidst the familiar symbolism of skulls, decaying fruit, smoke and other ephemera in 17th-century Dutch painting, for instance, is the motif of a young boy, gleeful and naive, blowing soap bubbles. But in his striking exhibition of bubble ink drawings, shown at Sargent’s Daughters alongside a selection of Japanese bronze vases (from the Edo period of the 18th and 19th Centuries), Flexner moves beyond the security of the intact bubble. The burst, remnant stains of the artist’s breath — reaffirmed by the adjacent hollow bronze vessels — provide a meditative glimpse into the composition of emptiness.
Born into the volatility of 1944 France, Flexner spent his first 30 years in the vibrant city of Nice where he was associated with the Nouveaux Réalistes and the Supports/Surfaces artists of the 1960s. In 1981 he moved to New York City on a scholarship, with a one-year workshop with PS1.
Monochrome prevails through much of his oeuvre and his theme has indeed predominately been one of vanitas — smoking skulls, agonizing visages, mourning clothes, decaying landscapes. These ideas underwent a certain condensation in 1996 when, while playing with his daughter, the bubble drawings emerged. Flexner began to study sumi-e (ink painting), and made multiple trips to Japan to learn sumi-nagashi (floating ink) painting — an ancient technique of paper marbling. In Flexner’s modified approach, the ink is mixed with soap and water, passed through a hollow brush, and burst against the paper. The result is a record not only of impermanence, but also of the artist’s breath.
The bubble drawings in this exhibition are all from 2001, on pages that uniformly measure 12¾ x 11½ inches. Though they are all untitled, each is unique. Some resemble onionskin marbles, pathogens or inkblots while many bring to mind alien planets — entire worlds, condensed. A couple of particularly vivid pieces have a ring of droplets dancing along the perimeter of the bubble — as these have been imbued with alcohol, Flexner likes to call them “drunken bubbles.” The forms of a few are disconcertingly ovoid, and others carry little dark tails — a sudden reminder of the artist’s haphazard process.
Considering Flexner’s other work, the understanding of these bubble drawings would cease to develop beyond his preoccupation with vanitas were it not for the thoughtful pairing of them with the five bronze futabana (two-flower) vases. Selected by the gallery’s curators — Allegra LaViola and Meredith Rosen — these late Edo vases were originally created for the Buddhist ritual of flower arrangement. The practice is extremely intuitive, and demands the artist’s patience and meditation. To see these vessels empty highlights the absence of those flowers and the artists that handled them. The mind immediately stretches towards the absence in Flexner’s own work — the product of a void, of dissipated breath.
Sunyata, the Buddhist meditative concept of emptiness, is often translated as the not-self and, indeed, the Sutras refer to foam, bubbles and drops of dew to illustrate that emptiness. Unified in this exhibition, these two records of absence bring the audience gently through the geographies of philosophy, West to East — from the weight of vanitas towards the zero gravity of nothingness. Flexner’s bubbles may be an impressive handling, and manipulation, of sumi-e. The vases may reveal Japan’s incredible early influence on Art Nouveau. However, this show is asking us to suspend our attention to such artistic achievements, to forget titles, dates or bitter lemon peels, to contemplate that old understanding of what we will all soon become. It asks us to consider nothing.