With Chance and a Quick Brush, Artist Invents Nocturnal Dramas

Was it Plato who remarked that seeing an image in the clouds signified nothing so much as the lowest form of the imagination? You wonder how the old contrarian would appraise Roland Flexner’s recent works-on-paper on display at Caren Golden Fine Art. Mr. Flexner divines images within smears and stains of ink.

Employing a traditional method of Japanese ornamentation known as suminagashi— literally translated as “ink floating”—Mr. Flexner submerges small sheets of paper within a tray of water and sumi ink. Upon removing the paper, Mr. Flexner has only a few moments—10 seconds at the max, I am told—to respond with his brush to the resulting flow. The extent to which his response determines the final result is something of a mystery, and a good one at that.

The work, collectively titled Nocturne, seems like the umpteenth riff on Automatist drawing. Favored by the Surrealists and made famous by Jackson Pollock, this mode of making art sought to circumvent rational thought by tapping into the primordial impulses of the subconscious. Mr. Flexner’s fluid slurs of ink bring to mind the frottage paintings of Max Ernst, wherein oil paint was blotted onto a canvas and then converted into Surrealist dreamscapes.

That’s where the comparison between Ernst and Mr. Flexner ends. The devastating distinction in character and quality between the artists lies in their respective approaches to transformation. Chance incident, for Ernst, launched the foundation of an image, but did not carry through to its shaping. Fantastic panoramas, painted with a drab and illustrational hand, were superimposed upon underlying random textures. Though promulgated in the name of psychic liberation, Ernst’s efforts in frottage were ultimately the product of conscious determination.

Mr. Flexner, by contrast, doesn’t stifle chance incident by imposing upon it emblems of a humdrum imagination; he embraces it as a means of unlocking the associative capabilities of the materials themselves. Mr. Flexner doesn’t discern images in the clouds so much as the clouds unveil images to him. It’s his responsibility as an artist to endow them with a greater clarity and presence. What would Plato have to say about that?

Mr. Flexner does exert some control over the suminagashi process, though it’s difficult to ascertain how. He has a supple and, to be frank, eerie gift for working intuitively within its strictures. (The lone exception is the skull that one can detect without too much strain in a drawing in Golden’s back room.) The craggy landscapes, cosmological phenomena and fantastic bestiaries—the evocative fluidity of it all is brought to focus with an uncanny specificity. Some of the pieces will prompt double takes. Can a simple blur of paint contain that much drama? That depends on what you mean by “simple.”

Despite Mr. Flexner’s knowledge of the artistic practices of non-Western cultures, the meticulousness of the drawings is reminiscent of Netherlandish painting, Bosch especially. Mr. Flexner’s sepia-toned, often grotesque cosmos is mesmerizing and lucid, impossibly particular. Would that Golden had given individual pictures their due—the one-after-another-after-another installation isn’t as kind to Mr. Flexner’s untamed art as it could be. But that’s a small complaint given its humble and irresistible sweep.

Roland Flexner: Nocturne is at Caren Golden Fine Art, 539 West 23rd Street, until Nov. 26.

Elementary Art

Trace Elements is the title of an exhibition of abstract paintings by Nancy Olivier, and it fits. By overlapping brushstrokes, lines, runs of acrylic paint and a recurring grid on small, sometimes irregularly shaped panels, Ms. Olivier launches detailed investigations into facets of the basic principles of painting—alternately reiterating, obscuring and uncovering them.

Emphasis on the handcrafted object, establishment of illusory space, careful juxtaposition of form and the often-vexing material independence of paint—Ms. Olivier’s pictures offer a fairly relentless dissection of her chosen craft. Clement Greenberg famously suggested that painting must shed its extraneous baggage to achieve a purity of medium. Ms. Olivier’s overriding desire is to interrogate that purity. And to muck it up a bit, too.

That’s how the paintings bypass the theoretical and pedantic. Ms. Olivier knows that there has been more than enough skepticism concerning the viability of art and its ability to withstand the driving force of history. Her aesthetic pursuit admits no defeat; instead, it affirms the role that individuality and optimism can play in the regenerative potential of art.

For Ms. Olivier, painting is as much a plaything as it is a calling. An unaffected, almost childlike whimsy defines the work. Though mindful of the weight of tradition, the paintings never take themselves too seriously. Titles like Some Assembly Required and Full Contact Karaoke indicate the self-deprecating side of Ms. Olivier’s approach.

More persuasive and integral to her vision are the sharp and icy palette, the touch that’s immediate, studied and offhand all at once, and the homely wood-shop leftovers she paints upon. Hers is an art of heroic ambitions and unassuming means, rigorous methodology and throwaway improvisation. Ms. Olivier knows that being smart and fooling around aren’t mutually exclusive. And she knows that art isn’t anything unless it embraces paradox.

Nancy Olivier: Trace Elements—New Paintings is at Bond Gallery, 5 Rivington Street, until Dec. 4. With Chance and a Quick Brush, Artist Invents Nocturnal Dramas