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Montreal
Tammer El-Sheikh
Benjamin Klein at Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporaine
May 30, 2018

Wake up adrift in a canoe on a clear night and the reflection of the stars will make it feel like you’re flying through space. We are all, at 1000 miles per hour, in canoes, asleep in our beds, or awake, on what we take to be firm ground. This is the enchanted insight Cree playwright Tomson Highway draws from a childhood experience on a lake in Nunavut. Benjamin Klein’s Shifter Bender Striker at Pierre-Francois Ouellette art contemporaine also scrutinizes the line between how nature is given directly in child-like reverie, and how it’s mediated through names, grownup habits of mind, and learned interpretive frames.



Benjamin Klein, Diver (eclaircie pastorale), 2018, oil on canvas

During my visit, Ouellette gleefully recalled finding residue from pressed palms and foreheads at waist height on the front window of his gallery. Kids had evidently leaned in for a peak at the blue tortoise sailing between a sky crowded with bulbous, candy-coloured stars and planets, and a body of water imperfectly reflecting the heavens in Klein’s Navigator. Beyond the window, in Tracker, stars hang like drippy confections and the ground below is an elusive firmament. In the cosmic soup of Klein’s landscapes, solids, liquids, gases, scales, and directions undergo a series of “dislocations” across shifting physical, metaphorical, and epistemological boundaries.

For art critic John Bentley Mays, Klein’s 2014 solo show invited the contrasting perspectives of a little girl in a Kafka story with a meandering vision, and the rational views of a modern man who casts a shadow over her as she moves “absent mindedly” down the street. Here too, the trained eye picks out ponds and gardens like Monet’s at Giverny, and stars and sunflowers like Van Gogh’s (with a touch of psychedelia). However, these references are less compelling than the meandering “sense memories” that give rise to them. For Klein “any hard distinction between Dana Schutz, Dürer, Miyazaki and the TV shows Stranger Things and Twin Peaks” (all interests at one time or another for the painter) “can’t be sustained” in imagined worlds that are ultimately more felt than comprehended.

Diver, one of the busiest canvases, shows a leaky sun and a shaft of light pushing through the jet-black and bejeweled sky. The time of day is uncertain as the sky mixes fire-red tones of sunset and the pale blue of high noon. Up front, a scattered gang of cartoon creatures, including a crazed giraffe and a see-through tortoise, awaits whatever fate the sky will deliver when it finally falls. Stratocumulus clouds just above the horizon harbour a repeated pattern of fish outlines. If they are meant to be clouds, they aren’t so distinct from the pond in the foreground. They are that water summoned into the sky and collected there, rather miraculously, though we tend not to see them that way in our hurried day-to-day lives



Benjamin Klein, Caller, 2018, oil on canvas

In Caller, the same sky glows behind an arched glade in a dark forest. The usual characters reappear with inconsistent shadows. A flat blue and yellow giraffe-icon pokes its head above the horizon casting a twisted shadow forward. The tortoise, now filled-in with purple, casts its shadow backwards. At the front edge of the canvas, blue bees can be counted among flowers that echo their shapes – or vice versa. One looks for originals and copies of these forms in vain. A symbolist reading might cast the giraffe as a sign of vulnerability and the tortoise as a sign of defensiveness. Klein has acknowledged the psychodrama in his earlier paintings of insects that surely continues in these works; but there is more at stake in his selection of motifs than anthropomorphism.

A key to Klein’s signs and wonders might be available in his ladybug paintings from 2012 to 2016. This subject proved to be an “adequate” motif for Klein when he realized its figure/ground arrangement of dots was a synecdoche for painting itself. The tortoises in the new works are morphed ladybug structures (and the giraffes are based on a cartoon fridge magnet the artist saw at a friend’s place). But the adequacy of these figures consists in their relationship to the paintings’ otherworldly horizons. Klein moves beyond a figure-ground tension to probe more fundamental structures of both painting and experience. Appearing on wobbly horizons, the giraffe and tortoise, with their long and hemmed-in low views, call attention to the artifice of the perspective construction in painting, and to the full range of our situated points of view that convention was meant to symbolize.

Horizons in Klein’s paintings are both pictorial and philosophical. They are lines from which the thinkable world advances and into which it recedes. They turn liquids into solids and masses into vapour, or, as in Highway’s canoe ride, both earth and sky into the enchanted container we are lucky enough to call home.


Benjamin Klein: Shifter Bender Striker continues until June 16.
Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporaine: http://www.pfoac.com/index_EN.html
The gallery is accessible.


Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.

 

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