Roland Flexner and Japanese Bronzes of the Edo Period
Sargent’s Daughters | September 12 – October 11, 2015
This pairing of drawings by Roland Flexner with bronze vessels from the Edo period is both beautiful and thought provoking—so much pleasure and intellectual acuity, combined in an exhibition of real depth. Roland Flexner, born in Nice, France but a resident of New York since 1981, has been making “bubble drawings” since 1995. Here the drawings, all from 2001 and previously unexhibited, are presented in a line, equally spaced and positioned at the same height as the bronze vases, placed on white plinths. Together, the dark and small-scale drawings, made with India ink and soapy water, and the five Japanese futabana (two-flower) bronzes punctuate the gallery walls with focused concentrations of contemplative energy, drawing the viewer into a meditative appreciation of precision and an inventively developed form that spans two centuries.
Flexner makes his bubble drawings by blowing (in a way, as subtle as breathing) the ink and soapy water through a straw or hollowed-out brush, producing a bubble, which he then observes and, at a decisive moment, allows to burst onto paper. Each image is unique. This process, contingent as it is, recognizes the infinite repetition of fleeting singular moments. The stillness of each drawing is clear, yet even when the split second taken to create them is known to the viewer, a sense of unfurling mutability remains. They bring to mind microscopic aspects of biology, the enormity of celestial space, and the complex layering of geology.
Flexner has spoken of his admiration for Jacques de Gheyn II’s (1565–1629) painting, Vanitas Still Life (1603), the earliest known vanitas in European painting. This painting features a bubble above a skull. The bubble, in its rendering with thin layers of paint, is, to quote Flexner, “making the ephemeral happen.” The bubble represents the fleeting duration of human life and the inevitability of death—a vanitas image. With directness and simplicity, Flexner’s own work can recall, and make us mindful of, just these technical and intellectually apprehended issues. Some of the drawings here, all Untitled, appear to sculpt out visual space, swirling and overlapping in a multiplicity of fine detail, consisting of gradations of tone and light, emerging from a chiaroscuro vortex. Others seem like the upper halves of atmosphered globes, or again, granular surfaces that, at their periphery, are spiked with a surround of miniscule splashes. These splashes are a surprise, as they evidence the process in a literal way whilst, at the same time, seem descriptive of it.
The futabana vases (From the Edo period, late 18th–19th century) are one consequence of a distinct Japanese tradition originating in Buddhist ceremonies that included the arrangement of flowers on an altar. Flower arranging was a vital part of Buddhist ritual and traditions of humility. Originally based on Chinese bronzes, the futabana vessels evolved slowly to incorporate natural forms, including waves and lotus flowers that take on a symbolic representation of spirituality through abstracted nature. Together with the drawings, a dialogue is established that, with grace, compels a meditation on both solid form and flat surface. The sublime that lies within and beyond objects perceived through aesthetic appreciation and thoughtful speculation is present here in abundance, not through any distancing technology, but rather through humble and mysterious crafting.