On Certain Paintings by Benjamin Klein
In a tiny, early fiction titled “Absent-minded Window-gazing,” Kafka proposes that we wile away the hours doing exactly that. It is late afternoon when we act on the suggestion and sit down at a window overlooking the sidewalk. We see, first, a “little girl who strolls along, looking around her.” Then a man approaches, overtakes the girl, briefly casts a shadow on her, then passes on. Illuminated by the light of the sinking sun, “the little girl’s face is quite bright.”
We are “surprised,” “astonished”--überrascht is Kafka’s word. But why? Were it to transpire in real life, in real time, on a real sidewalk below a real window, the scenario Kafka narrates would surely be unsurprising, devoid of significance. But this story is not a report of empirical facts. It is art, and it is about the event of art, the interpretative moment, when something ordinary, bereft of resonance, is transfigured into the remarkable--when even a banal incident such as the one Kafka describes can become the stuff of parable. Presented in art, the quotidian, the thing accounted worthless, blooms with worth and meaning, becomes symbolic.
We recognize the man at once, since we have encountered him before, countless times, in stories and films that diagnose (and often damn) the hectic life of modern cities. He strides by in a hurry, with nothing other than his ultimate destination on his mind. He ignores the little girl “who strolls along, looking around her,” and everyone and everything else on the street. He is the driven modern--or the impatient reader, or the careless gallery-goer, or anyone who speeds through books or exhibitions of art or city streets, glimpsing little and grasping less. We know this man exists, because we live in a world of images, narratives, commodities and surfaces fashioned to satisfy his appetite for immediately graspable stimuli, answers, certainties, reassurances.
But if we have been fortunate in our friendships and acquaintances, we will also recognize the story’s little girl, “looking around her.” Unlike the rushing man, she “strolls along,” attending closely to what happens on the street, to every urban street’s spectacle of signs and movements. Commenting on Kafka’s text, Gabriel Josipovici has said the girl lets “her mind wander, as we should let ours hover over the story, noting mirrorings and correspondences, and not rushing to any conclusions.”
Benjamin Klein’s recent oils offer certain pleasures to the hurrying man. Even if prepared to give each canvas no more than a minute, he will likely be impressed by Klein’s sure-handed, generous paintwork, the smouldering, luminous colours of the artist’s animals, trees, stars, gorgeous skies, his painterly evocation of failing daylight, approaching night. If he is acquainted with the passing parade of art-world fashion and discussion, the man may also acknowledge the artist’s commitment to presenting recognizable, rhetorical figures, and his solidarity, openly confessed in the work, with contemporary artists (Peter Doig, Allison Schulnik, Dana Schutz, Daniel Richter, and others) who have rejected, as he rejects, the late-modernist proposition that painting is either terminally exhausted or certifiably dead
If that is all he sees, the rushing man will have gotten something of value from his visit, but missed much. Indeed, the future that Klein imagines for painting comes into focus only as the viewer of his work stops hurrying past, taking into account only what is immediately obvious, and becomes the little girl in Kafka’s story, strolling along, “noting mirrorings and correspondences,” the ideas at play in the artist’s tableaux.
Her face lit by the setting sun, she allows her mind to “hover,” first of all, over the spaces in which Klein’s fictions characteristically unfold. They remind this urban child of certain places she has visited when on holidays or school trips, places that celebrate effortful modernity’s triumphs over nature, its imperial subduings of the wild, the unkempt and unknown. Entering some of Klein’s canvases, for example, she finds herself in a garden or cleared pasture, which in Western painting and cultural imagination is a patch of rational, tidy real estate wrested from untidy, unruly wilderness. In other pictures, she looks into what appears to be an aquarium. Whether an intimate container, such as the brightly lit, buzzing fish tank in a living room, or a grand public institution, such as Chicago’s Shedd, every aquarium is a site of the exotic and wondrous. It is device for viewing, without risk to ourselves, without difficult travel, denizens of far-off, watery worlds fetched into the modern city by explorers, adventurers, scientists--a small memorial or large monument, that is, to modern mastery over distance and time.
But Klein’s aquarium is not, the viewer discovers, an aquarium in the pure or usual sense. Radiant tropical fish flash in front of her, but they swim among planets, stars hugely magnified--as if another familiar showcase of instrumental reason’s triumph, the planetarium, had merged with the aquarium, In other paintings, similarly, the space theatre and the open field penetrate each other: Stars float among trees at the garden’s edge--but immense ones, glowing like colourful Japanese lanterns in the dusk, as stars and galaxies, barely or wholly invisible to the unaided eye, become immense and glow when projected on the planetarium’s curving wall during a show about deep space. The settings of Klein’s stories have been cobbled together from a few of totalizing modernity’s typical, familiar architectures and paradigmatic places--institutions of knowledge about the world and universe that, relieved of their solemn Enlightenment duty to give authoritative shape to our imaginative lives, to answer every question, reappear as dreamscapes, in which symbolism and mystery again take root and flourish.
Stepping into one of Klein’s pictures, for example, the little girl finds herself in what seems to be a conventional garden or field--derelict perhaps, bare, unproductive, but certainly a place cleared by human agency, for the human project. Ladybugs and snails live here, just as they do in the family’s garden back home in the city. But she soon realizes that the scene she has walked into, noting “mirrorings and correspondences,” is not just another domesticated backyard, or even an urban park. She becomes aware that, just beyond the garden, is something she would never see in the city: thickly treed, shadowy, unpenetrated wilderness, everything the garden, with its friendly little ladybugs, is not. She is standing on the frontier--always fraught, even dangerous territory in Western literary and visual imagination--where the tame and the completely wild meet, recognize each other, enter into complex exchanges of energy and desire--where civilization and reason abut nature, the irrational and unsubdued, where the the ploughed field ends, and all that is not the field or garden begins.
Because she has read the myths and fairy tales told about this place, the little girl knows that, along this borderline, anything can happen. The shapes, the customary meanings of things lose their fixity, their rigidity, conventional proportions and measures are skewed, as they are in dreams and hallucinations. The edge of culture is a site of the monstrous. The snail she sees, normally a picturesque little inhabitant of the domestic garden, advances, half as tall as a nearby tree and staring from huge, red eyes, toward her from the forest over the brow of a weedy hill. A violently molten volcanic fissure yawns open in the garden’s floor at her feet. An enormous spider approaches a cluster of fluorescently carapaced ladybugs, which are also enormous, outsized, incredible.
What are the spider’s intentions? Does she come from the woods to kill and feed on the insects? That would be a plausible conjecture, were Klein presenting the behaviours of ladybugs and spiders as they operate in backyard gardens. But this is not a snapshot of the real, the empirically observable. It is oil painting, a zone of myth and radical potentiality, where (as on the borderline) anything can happen, and where a vast panoply of surprising, sometimes ominous, persistently interesting things have indeed happened throughout oil painting’s 500-year history. In the fictive space created by art, in the complicated territory where the sunny, reasonable croquet court back of the house is contiguous with the rabbit hole down which Alice plunges into the impossible, a spider is never merely a spider.
The little girl knows spiders, or thinks she does, so she imagines she can figure out this large one. She is aware of the poor reputation modern science has given the spider--one for being venomous, prone to eat her husbands, secretive, edgy. But analogical imagination honours her for her marvelous weaving, for her attractively impudent disregard for official piety (as in the Greek and Latin legends of Arachne). Not one to be daunted, Arachne pluckily engaged in a weaving contest with a jealous goddess (Velázquez’s The Spinners, in Madrid). The beautiful creature into which outraged Athena turned Arachne is known to prefer shadows like those that fall over Klein’s twilit landscapes. In a dim barn, the one in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a spider shows exemplary concern for a pig doomed to be slaughtered, thereby revealing a compassionate side to her nature; and some people have found an emblem of protectiveness in Louise Bourgeois’ titanic bronze spiders.
In Klein’s borderland, however, the traditional meanings of the spider refuse to settle unambiguously. The little girl stands alone on the frontier, her mind hovering over Klein’s fiction, wondering which, if any, of the meanings spiders carry with them in scientific narrative, and in art and legend, pertain to this spider. Perhaps she comes to mourn--Klein has given the title Ladybug Graveyard to a depiction of dead insects visited by a spider--or perhaps she comes to commiserate about the lowly, insecure life spiders and ladybugs lead in the world dominated by humans. Perhaps she is here to enjoy the dusk in the company of the large, beautiful ladybugs. . Or perhaps she is, in fact, the poisonous predator one meets in nature guides, come into the garden to feast. While he usually presents her quietly moving toward the ladybugs, the painter declines to state plainly her role in his fable. Questions always arise on the borderline, ones without easy answers.
The little girl thinks: What are ladybugs doing here? Unlike spiders, they have no histories, and only the scantiest presence in myth and fable and folklore. They belong to the large class of animals most urban humans consider (when they think of them at all) harmless, inedible, perhaps cute, occasionally useful--ladybugs can quickly clear pestilential aphids from a rose bed--but otherwise ignorable, like earthworms and pigeons. In the chauvinist paradigm most people (but perhaps not zoologists and gardeners) carry around in their heads, the way of ordering reality inherited from Western scientific culture, ladybugs, like snails and spiders, are far down the Great Chain of Being from whatever is popularly thought to be at the top. They figure in a German nursery rhyme (“Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home…”) and in a few stories written for children. Until now, ladybugs have never appeared in oil painting meant to be taken seriously by grownups, or literate little girls.
To paint a ladybug, then, is to paint something previously thought to be unpaintable, to introduce into art something alien, sub-artistic, inappropriate. In doing so, of course, Klein is in good company, and he stands within a long tradition. The depiction of what conventional wisdom or respectable taste decrees cannot or should not be depicted has been a fixture in modern artistic practice since Manet’s Olympia, van Gogh’s homely work boots, Duchamp’s urinal. The portrayal of ladybugs is, to my knowledge, new. The insect’s appearance in serious painting offends a certain art-world propriety, an expectation that oil painting treat only subjects deemed significant by the common sense that rules our liberal regions of the earth.
But is this all that can be said about Klein’s ladybugs? The ground-plans, the reverberant structures of his paintings suggest that the viewer should be on the lookout for something more substantial than another avant-gardist challenge, like so many before it, to established taste. Do the ladybugs symbolize, communicate transcendent meaning?
The actual bugs are too ignominious, of course, to be mobilized, as dogs and horses and canaries have been, as painterly signs for respectable virtues such as loyalty, gallantry, elegance. Nor, because they are cute and harmless to humans, can the real-world insects put on revolutionary uniforms and symbolize emancipation, resistance to oppression and so on. Their status is stuck low in the standard system of meaningfulness by which we continually judge the claims of the world’s creatures and causes on our attention, affection, concern.
But Klein’s painting, like Kafka’s fiction and all artwork that matters, like the border-zone where civilization and nature meet, is a place in which remarkable transformations can occur, upending the usual order of things. Small and easily overlooked in the city garden, ladybugs here become large and radiant symbols, not of ideas, values or states of consciousness too big for them to bear, but of insignificance itself. Their ignominy has not been abolished. Klein’s ladybugs summon up memories of the insects we know in the world. But in art (as in dream) they are freed to represent whatever is, like themselves in the common-sense scheme of things, unimportant, lost to regard, considered valueless in the great world’s conventional system of valuing and ranking things, existences, people, ideas.
Among the products of this regime of common sense--one that interests Klein insofar as it represents an antithesis of what he is trying to do--is a certain comfortably conservative, bien pensant, late-modernist politics he finds entrenched in the art market, the art galleries, the schools, the discussion of art. This politics, if I understand it correctly, proposes chaste, politely intelligent formalism, agreeable to easily upset stomachs, as contemporary art’s destiny.
This exhibition potently argues the case of another future for visual art, one radically open to fertilization by narrative and poetry, vision, philosophical reflection, feeling, and sensuous, embodied experience. To the guardians of exclusive formalism, Klein’s painting is heresy, and especially galling because it is well made. The new canvases are strong, intelligent, urgent. The imagery in them is fascinating and, as I have tried to show, provocative and allusive. Klein’s artistic project itself is humane and wise. The work invites, and amply rewards, serious, deliberate attention of the sort that “hovers,” “noting mirrorings and correspondences, and not rushing to any conclusions.”