RETURNING THE GAZE
David Kleinberg confronts us with startling and arresting images of the human head. Severed from their usual bodily contexts, faces emerge out of mysterious fields of colour, resolving into what are deeply resonant images of human communication, and yet studies of the human being as a solitary animal, lost in the remote wilderness of existential uncertainty.
Nimbly straddling the vocabularies of both figurative and abstract art traditions, these paintings evoke the late portraiture of Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), while developing the complex observational practices associated with the School of London. Kleinberg engineers a literate and highly individual response to his artistic forbears, bringing the focus of his subjects’ piercing gaze firmly to bear on the visual tropes of our media-saturated culture. Ours is a society saturated by images of unattainable perfection, CGI effects and airbrushed enhancements of reality, a phantasmagoric visual culture which appears to change at an exponential rate, and yet to give the consumer very little of substance to hold onto.
The situation is both a challenge and an opportunity for an artist such as Kleinberg, who, deeply committed to exploring the expressive and ethical weight of the human form, offers deconstructed versions of celebrity figures and of his own most prominent collectors. With their pronounced emphasis on the visceral, pleading eyes which stare out at the viewer, they provide a trenchant and moving response to the problems of contemporary visuality. One of the most immediately noticeable elements of Kleinberg’s paintings is the deliberate contrasting of patches of acutely observed detail against areas of flat colour. This method resonates with the portrait painting of Giacometti, an artist who was most famous for his elongated, de-individuated bronze sculptures of the human body, but who was also celebrated as a painter throughout his career.
The Swiss-born artist became a famous figure of the Parisian avant-garde, striking up deep friendships with iconic intellectuals Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Satre. Given the company he kept, it is unsurprising that Giacometti’s depictions of the human form as isolated and tenuous are often interpreted as images of the human soul in extremis. The artist’s mature painting style was fully evident by the 1940s, and, as in his sculpture, the paintings are notable for a sense of ascetic beauty they evoke; the cadaverous physical form of the human body and the scratchy, expressive marks with which it is rendered, suggest a reflective state of spiritual isolation.
During the early part of the 1960s, Giacometti painted a number of moving portraits which depict the sitter staring wide-eyed into the middle distance, the head surrounded by a cloud of expressive, but muted colour. As in the work of Kleinberg, an unerring understanding of human anatomy underpins these portraits; a believable image of the human body is accomplished with the minimal of brushwork. The emotional center of paintings such as 1962’s Annette is the face, which is depicted with the most detail. Moving away from the face, detail recedes, and we realise that Giacometti’s subjects are hovering in a suggestive plane of space whose precise nature and proportions are teasingly unknowable.
Giacometti may, like many great artists, have exceeded the limits of any one artistic category, but what is clear is that his testing of the limits of the figurative tradition has much in common with the seminal British artists who, towards the end of the Swiss artist’s life, came to be known as the School of London, another key area of influence on David Kleinberg. Including indisputed masters such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and many others, the group came to light in the wake of The Human Clay, an exhibition curated by R. B. Kitaj, and named after W. H. Auden’s poem “Letter to Lord Byron”:
“To me Art’s subject is the human clay
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cezanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.”
While abstract and conceptual art were gaining ground elsewhere, The Human Clay was a controversial show which reasserted the centrality of the human figure and the importance of the artist’s ability to observe it. Its polemical character was underlined by Kitaj’s introductory essay with its blunt rejoinder against “the fools who say … that painting is finished”. Yet Kitaj was equally against prescriptive ideas of “holy art” and the exhibition deliberately blurred the lines between figuration and abstraction, as exemplified by the presence in the group of Howard Hodgkin. The group produced some of the most characteristic and influential techniques in the history of British art, encompassing the intense observational work of Freud and Reginald Gray, the aggressively sculptural application of oil paint by Frank Auerbach, and the contorted, muscular compositions of Bacon. Many of the artists treated the body as a central motif within compositions which tended towards abstraction, as was the case with Auerbach and Michael Andrews.
Although large, and highly varied in style, many of the School of London shared a willingness to represent body frankly as the imperfect material mass it was. This frankness, along with the artists’ strong attention to human anatomy, produced some of the most psychologically penetrating studies of the human form in art history. Their ability to challenge and stir makes the artists associated with the School of London highly desirable to global collectors. This fascination was manifested in 2008 when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased Bacon’s Triptych, 1976 for over $86m, a sale which made it the 16th most expensive artwork ever sold.
The transgressive exploration of the human body as the nexus of both intense observational studies and abstraction is one of the hallmarks of late modernist art, and continues to offer considerable challenges, and resources, to the contemporary painter. The work of David Kleinberg demonstrates a deep knowledge of and engagement with these innovations as a way of penetrating the superficial visuality which is such a dominant part of contemporary culture. The images are crafted layer by layer, those which make up his exhibition at Meller Merceux having been designed concurrently to form a deeply coherent body of work.
Much of the physical experience of viewing these paintings derives from the power of the subjects’ gaze, a look which seems to defiantly address the stare of the person viewing the painting. Feminist theorists such as Laura Mulvey have long discussed the concept of “the gaze,” arguing that the position of the viewer in Western society is a privileged one, denoting patriarchal and colonial mastery. More recently, this originally Lacanian psychoanalytic concept has been refreshed, with critics discussing new forms of visuality which have the power to cut through habituated visual practice and “return the gaze” of the master discourse. Post-colonial critic Homi Bhabha similarly writes of “strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power”. This is very much our experience of viewing David Kleinberg’s work: with the discipline and visual literacy which comes from his understanding of art history the painter creates the unerring and profoundly affecting experience of the returning of the gaze. His understanding of and response to the importance of visual power dynamics situates him very much as an artist of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Kleinberg’s work shares with painters such as Giacometti or Michael Andrews an interest in process: the hand of the artist is not concealed in these works, rather it is celebrated. Very dramatically, images such as Kleinberg’s portrait of Kate Moss appear to unravel before our very eyes. The meaty corporeality of the eyes presents a penetrating stare, a pleading effort at human interaction. But from the intensity of the stare, the face appears to peel away, receding into fields of muted colour which appear to place the human subject in a kind of existential limbo, as though this were a painterly equivalent of Beckett’s Endgame. Like that of Giacometti, who was unceremoniously expelled from the Surrealist movement, Kleinberg’s work will not be easy for critics to categorise. Yet his stripping away of the body cannot but carry political echos. Working from the position of one who is marginalised, painted as it were into abstraction, these paintings have the power to speak for oppressed peoples and minorities. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre said that the art of Giacometti “collaps[ed] time between the Lascaux cave paintings and the vanished flesh of Buchenwald victims”. Likewise, Kleinberg’s images of vanishing flesh speak universally of the frailties and limits of human mortality, while suggesting an acute awareness of his Jewish heritage.
The tender yet penetrating gaze of Kleinberg’s paintings invites viewers into a curious space, for like Giacometti, he is deeply interested in the aesthetics of process, a process which he has the desire to share with the viewer. As much as these eyes seem to arise out of abstract spaces, they also appear to collapse back into them; the exquisite representational work which brings the eyes to life is offset by judiciously-placed bands of flat colour, seeming to suggest a work which is forever in process. But what does it mean for the viewer to occupy this curious pictorial limbo? Perhaps we can return to Giacometti, one of whose friends commented that the artist “would naturally delay as long as possible the decisive act of beginning.” On the other hand, the artist also stated that “the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it”. The impossibility of finishing is too, a key theme in Samuel Beckett’s work, his trilogy The Unnameable notoriously ending, “I can’t go on – I’ll go on”. Perhaps for Kleinberg, as for Giacometti, painting is an interminable process, whose pleasures and parameters must continue to reflect the ambiguous, unresolved condition of the human soul. By drawing viewers into this fascinating and suggestive space, David Kleinberg allows viewers to enjoy their own reflections on the resonances and appeal of his deeply engaging portraits. ■
written by DR. THOMAS SLINGSBY