A thing and its essence. Joseph Klibansky
Joseph Klibansky’s work examines the relationship between a thing and its essence, between what we see and what an image implies. The sense of precarious equilibrium that can be found in his recent paintings and in his sculptures reveals just how sadly dystopian an image can be that, at first glance, appears happily utopian. It thus reveals how utopia and dystopia can coexist within the same image.
Klibansky ventures into the territory of phenomenology and revisits matters related to perception that have fascinated philosophers and art historians, and have equally captured the attention of artists. In his recent paintings, Klibansky juxtaposes architecture with slices of urban and natural landscapes, the majority of which were photographed by the artist himself during his travels. Butterflies, birds, nymphs and impressionist-esque shimmers are mingled with images projected on giant screens, street signs and sparkling automobiles. Although nothing can reflect reality more effectively than a photograph that was taken to remember a place where one has been, in order to tell the truth Klibansky takes advantage of a lie.
In an effort to shed light on the formal and conceptual dynamics through which Klibansky approaches his phenomenological investigation, we will first consider the cycle entitled Dreams of Eden, begun in 2014, which symbolizes a turning point when compared with the earlier New Urban Wonderland (2006–13), in which the artist reverberates social condemnation.
As we mentioned, Klibansky applies to the surface of his painting numerous photographs that he himself took throughout the course of his travels. While assembling them he alters their proportions and does not adhere to the rules of perspective. Once the formal construction of the landscape has been determined with the help of a computer, Klibansky creates prints on cotton paper, to which he applies watercolours using tones that are typical of computerprocessed images and that also evoke the psychedelic colours of the sixties and seventies associated with the utopian outlook of the hippie culture. The sense of accumulation along with the quality of the colours put into play an illusory and ideological vision of the world that has been shattered, as is the fate of all utopias. Finishing off the painting is a perfectly transparent resin cover, with rounded sides, and a signature which is always printed the same way on every work, as if it were a logo, conferring it the effect of a giant postcard.
If we were actually dealing with reproduced images on postcards, Klibansky’s Dreams of Eden would not depict a real place, but rather a sort of ideal urban landscape that collects the distinctive elements of different cities. Together, they result in the manifestation of a metropolis in which distances are nullified and cultural connotations are multiplied. By bringing Dubai, Paris, Venice and New York together under the same sky, Klibansky presents a scene that has the potential to be the most desirable place in the world for some, and a nightmare for others.
In fact, what could be more gratifying than the idea of finding oneself in a city that allows one to visually appreciate all of the places one has wished or wishes to visit? And how terrifying of an idea would it be to find oneself in a place where reference points negate, rather than give, information about that place? Therefore, if Klibansky’s panoramas were to be reproduced on a postcard, the writing on the front would not say “Greetings from Paris” or “Greetings from London”, but rather “Greetings from Klibansky”. Paradoxically, such postcards could be sent from any location; but what is equally paradoxical is that they would fail to identify a location. Klibansky’s entire work suggests contradictory messages, making contradictoriness one of the founding elements of his phenomenological investigation.
By ridding history of every element reproduced in an environment devoid of identity, the Dreams of Eden paintings highlight the crisis of a humanist point of view, as they illustrate the fractured relation between an individual and his cultural context. The relationship an individual has with a place is comprised of visits and memories that become stratified in time, resulting in a sense of belonging. As soon as a landscape surrenders its history to a context that is able to receive all things, an individual can lose the awareness of his position in that environment. Since Klibansky’s landscapes annul the concept of a border through which one defines one’s belonging to a place, they end up representing a world-nation in which different identities annul one another by overlapping. In the absence of a border, one might see a place that can finally welcome all people. When faced with the Dreams of Eden paintings the spectator is, then, compelled to take a position regarding the architectonic transformations that have been put into place in the major cities of the world over the last few decades and that are truly the most visible aspect of a profound metamorphosis. This challenge relaunches the initiative of the active spectator, who, when viewing the world through a window, finds a mirror in which he sees himself. These paintings are to be approached with the concepts of a window (man who views the world) and a mirror (the world that shows man the image of man himself) in mind.
Hans Belting has revealed how in Western culture the mirror and the window have governed and legitimized the production of images, awakening in man the impulse to control the world with his very gaze and to arm it with instruments. As much as the drive to look has always been present in man, says Belting, the history and the iconology of the gaze do not coincide with the history of perception, because a gaze is primarily the expression of a personality and of a social behaviour. In other words, the dynamics of a gaze vary from culture to culture.
Our gaze is undoubtedly domesticated by our daily relationship with television and computer screens. Yet it would be naive to think that the frame of Klibansky’s urban landscapes is the same frame that contains a computer screen. Klibansky does not associate fragments of urban landscapes and places using the same logic with which their images are strung together on a computer screen. Just as a traveller jots down his observations in a notebook with the intention of later transforming them into pages of literature within four walls, Klibansky gathers photographs of his travels in order to make of them the elements upon which he will base his phenomenological investigation. The images introduced by the Dreams of Eden are thus different from photo galleries that can be browsed with a simple click, bringing us from one end of the earth to the other. Phenomenology teaches us that there is a difference between the way something appears, its image, and its “scientific truth”. What interests Klibansky is the correlation between appearance and that which appears, and the way in which this correlation allows us to understand the relationship between the self and the world. His artistic style is thus alien to Surrealism, which decontextualizes images and places them in an improbable setting with the objective of creating astonishment and marvel, evoking an oneiric dimension. The roots of the Dreams of Eden cycle may be found in certain examples of Flemish art and in Cubism. They can be identified in Hans Memling’s Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470–71), and especially in The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500–05) by Hieronymus Bosch, which Klibansky himself admits represents both a formal and conceptual point of reference. Moreover, Klibansky looks to the Cubist paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso with the same spirit with which they looked to Cézanne.
In Memling’s painting the episodes of Christ’s passion and resurrection are set in a fantastic and idealized Jerusalem, quite similar to a Medieval village, but are not devoid of Middle Eastern insinuations. From the entry into Jerusalem to Christ’s death, to his resurrection and his appearance to the Apostles, everything in the picture happens simultaneously, just as day and night appear simultaneously. Similarly, in Bosch’s triptych, there is a shift from the luminous colours of daybreak characterizing creation, in which God introduces to Adam the woman whom he has created from one of his ribs, to the tenebrous glows from the eternal flames of Hell. Depicted in the middle panel is the futile dissipation that humankind makes of God’s gifts. By following the scenes from left to right, as in Western script, the narration indicates the passage from a utopian viewpoint (Eden) to one that is dystopian (an infernal place). The three panels, however, do not present a clear division of good and bad. In Eden, Bosch introduces the roots of evil in the form of a serpent grasping a tree trunk and of unusual creatures around and within the murky water of a pond. In the central panel the fragility of creation is revealed through gashes, rifts, spikes, glass bells and cylinders, berries and cracked shells that are symbols of a world that crumbles while man is distracted by his purely sensory perception. In the third panel the journey that leads humankind reaches completion. Bosch illustrates the punishment of sin through martyred bodies that are torn to shreds, devoured, digested and transformed into scrap.
Despite the work’s realistic impression, Bosch does not convey reality, but rather an interior condition. His moralistic-didactic allegories offer images that we would never see in reality; they are fantastical ideas meant for the conscience of those viewing them. In this sense, Carl Linfert is right when he argues that a realist figuration of Bosch expresses something intangible. Notwithstanding the obvious formal and content-related differences, we find an analogous strategy in Klibansky’s paintings, where the image of reality is broadened due to the visual affinity between a photograph and a pictorial representation. We can therefore conclude that in Klibansky, just as in Bosch, despite the realistic imagery, we are not in the presence of a portrayal of reality.
The conceptual structure of this analysis collides with the incidence exerted on the artist’s work by the historical period and the knowledge acquired over time. The structures, places, people and animals that Klibansky depicts merge together in his paintings through a mechanical means—the camera—and therefore through a different way of viewing and reproducing reality than that of a sixteenth-century painter.
The deconstruction of an image in order to reconstruct it, thus eliminating the concepts of space and time, is a process that in twentieth-century art saw its highest expression in Cubism. As improbable as it may seem at first blush, the way in which Klibansky approaches the process of the deconstruction and reconstruction of an image puts his work in conceptual relation with Cubism. While this theory might seem hasty, I would ask the reader to be patient and not immediately raise objections. It is unnecessary to point out that, at a formal level, Klibansky cannot be considered a Cubist. At the same time, anyone who deals with art knows that, by showing the same subject seen simultaneously from different angles and at different moments in time, the Cubists demonstrated how much distance there can be between an object and its representation. As redefined by the Cubists, the reconstruction of a model image turned into a new reality. Something to this effect happens in the landscapes of the Dreams of Eden cycle, where faraway places fuse together and coexist outside of their spatio-temporal dimension.
To take apart landscapes that have been captured at different temporal moments and then reassemble them by overlapping different perspectives is a concept that recalls the strategy used by Cubist artists, who, in their still lifes, landscapes and portraits put back together what they themselves had previously disassembled. In Bosch’s visionary painting, just as in Braque’s analytical painting, as well as in Klibansky’s visionary-analytical painting, the dialectic that unites shapes is the product of the psyche of the author and therefore refers to his personal universe. At the same time, through his work, the artist embodies the spirit of time and transcends his own psyche. It is with this complexity as our point of departure that we must approach the ambiguity of the multifaceted meaning of the images in Dreams of Eden, an ambiguity that we also find in sculptures, as evidenced by Reflections of Truth. This sculpture portrays Pinocchio on his knees as he threads his long nose through a diamond ring. Made of polished bronze, the deceitful puppet is shown with his arms raised, a stance that is reminiscent of a ritual. The preciousness of the material, along with the refined quality of the details, make the quintessential lying literary figure elegant and in some way charming. Reflections of Truth demonstrates how the process of symbolization and the impulse to associate are correlated, insofar as in associations different symbols are related to each other. Exemplifying this theory is the physician and psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck, who focussed on the ring as a symbol of sexual fidelity. “If we begin with the idea that marriage means sexual fidelity” writes Groddeck, “then it becomes easy to interpret this symbol: a ring represents the female sexual organ and the finger that of the male; the ring must never be placed on a finger other than that of a legitimate spouse, and therefore represents the promise that the woman’s ring will never receive a member other than that of her spouse.”1 This example is used by Groddeck in order to emphasize the awareness that man’s life has always been governed by symbols.
The ring symbolism described by Groddeck allows us to understand the narration in Reflections of Truth. The sexual nature of the depiction is further testified by the fact that, while threading his nose through the ring, Pinocchio sticks out his tongue. Contrary to what takes place in the rite of matrimony, here Pinocchio places the ring on his own nose, directing his promise to be faithful to himself. Yet, whatever commitment Klibansky’s Pinocchio is making with himself is contradicted by his deceitful nature. The work thus illustrates the rite of promise’s transformation into emptiness. This theme is inevitably related to the concept of utopia, which is but a failed promise. It also recalls the concept of a dream understood as an aspiration to reach a goal. It could not be more distant, therefore, from the oneiric dimension that characterizes the work of the surrealists.
The sexual reference in Reflections of Truth is confirmed by another polished bronze sculpture, Baby We Made It (2016), which portrays two turtles wearing small cone hats who, like Pinocchio, also stick out their tongues. Here Klibansky drapes the act of mating in the animal world by using an element, gold, which is the manifestation of that which is sacred par excellence. At the same time, the interpretation of the golden caps worn by the two animals oscillates between a liturgical parament and a frivolous party hat. By transforming the act of mating into a ritual that is more social than sacred, the work reintroduces the concept of a lie and suggests that we are no longer able to interpret the profound meaning of images. These prehistoric-looking animals have always captured the imagination of humans, who have charged them with positive symbology. Their convex shells have been associated with the celestial sphere, while the lower portion of their carapace has been associated with the Earth. This has made the turtle a symbol of the conjunction between the heavens and the Earth, hence a symbol of harmony. And yet the turtle is an aggressive animal in its different phases of courting and mating, and its shell inspired the “testudo formation” in the military strategies of the ancient Roman Legions. In addition, it inspired Leonardo da Vinci in his design of what was the precursor of the modern army tank. As usual, Klibansky hides the truths we prefer not to see behind a shining image.
Self-Portrait of a Dreamer features an astronaut gravitating in space, but who is actually holding himself up on the backrest of a chair that looks like it could be found in Van Gogh’s bedroom. A symbol of stability, the chair attends the shape of our body and stops us from falling despite our centre of gravity being greatly shifted when we are seated. The sculpture, made in 2015 of reduced dimensions, and whose seven-metre version was completed in 2016, finds its formal equilibrium in a pot of sunflowers—another reference to Van Gogh’s work—that sits upon one of the astronaut’s feet. The chair appears to be the symbolic root by which the sunflowers can continue to bloom by travelling through the present and projecting into the future.
If we imagine an astronaut in space, in the absence of the force of gravity, the fact that he is levitating is of no surprise. The chair, however, suggests that we are not in the absence of gravity, while the plant indicates that without its counterweight the sculpture would not have stability. Both the chair and the pot of sunflowers refer to the history of art, and to Van Gogh in particular. It is only by understanding, in its symbolic entirety, that the chair is the root that provides strength and stability to the core of this mis-en-scène that we can perceive the perfect equilibrium of the sculptural group. Outside of this symbolic interpretation the work appears unstable.
Something similar happens in Fishing in Spring (2016), in which a boat appears to be floating in an empty space though, like the astronaut, it is actually supported by the back of a chair. The work draws inspiration from the homonymous painting by Van Gogh from 1887. The river water, which makes the boat’s position appear normal, is evoked by the sculpture’s blue colour. Once again, Klibansky is here to tell us that a thing and its image do not coincide.
This topic is not new to the history of contemporary art. Let us consider a few examples. Damien Hirst’s pharmacy shelves display confections of medicine following an aesthetic criterion based on the size and colours of the packaging, while in an actual pharmacy the confections are organized according to very different criteria. Until not so long ago, they were arranged based on the illness being treated, in alphabetical order or by pharmaceutical company. Today, pharmacies keep prescription medicine in cases, out of sight. Following a logic alien to pharmacists, Damien Hirst’s medicine shelves are not what they appear.
Let us take another example: Garden (2000), an installation by Marc Quinn. In Garden beautiful plants and flowers are gathered together and contained within a glass case. Everything seems natural, and yet, in reality, these plants and flowers are incompatible as they come from different ecosystems. Despite their thriving appearance, they are actually suspended between life and death as they have been dipped in transparent liquid silicone oil and brought to -20° C temperatures. In reality, their vital cycle has already been stopped, so much so that they decompose as soon as the electricity that powers the refrigeration mechanism is turned off.
Klibansky’s work is akin to those of the aforementioned artists. Elements of Desire (2013) and Elements of Life (2013), for instance, capture ordinary images, with the help of a 3D printer, that ascend to popular symbolic images, like a Starbucks mug, a teddy bear, a perfume bottle, a little heart, an ice cream cone, a Coca-Cola bottle, a skull and a fetus, placing them all on the same level. These elements are enclosed and held together by a frame-like support that recalls that of the detachable miniature plastic pieces found in model building kits. Made from gold or blue resin, Elements of Desire and Elements of Life also recall ancient Egyptian gold, silver and bronze pectorals, made through openwork, whose depictions are associated with mythicalreligious narrations. The sculptures’ reference to the linguistic structure of a distant past makes of them a sort of archaeological relic for the future. It is as if Klibansky wished to seminate the elements that will be used by those who come after us in order to interpret today’s reality and that describe a society that strives to ascribe a sacred value to the consumer products that accompany us from birth (the fetus) to death (the skull).
In keeping with these same premises, in Dream Clouds (2013–16) a Klein-blue fetus embraces a golden ice cream cone within a white parabola upon which blue scribbles recall clouds thrusted by the wind. Once again, we are faced with a sculpture that transmits an intentionally ambiguous message, to such a degree that we see a torch instead of an ice cream cone, further demonstrating how disjointed a subject can be from an object. Evidence that Klibansky’s use of blue is connected to Klein’s work is found in Golden Evolution (2016), the geminate sculpture to Dream Clouds, only this fetus is entirely made of gold. The interchangeability of blue and gold is a testament to the fact that the two colours are used with the same symbolic valence used by Klein, who associated the colour of contemplation and gold with purification. In Klibansky’s work the same subjects being reintroduced with different colours and materials does not correspond to the serial logic of pop artists, but rather is the expression of a symbolic system that is able to manifest itself in ever-changing ways.
Lastly, Big Bang (2016) is the gigantic black gorilla head clad with a golden party hat and horn, in sharp contrast with the animal’s sullen gaze. Made of glossed and polished bronze, this sculpture was also realized with the aid of a giant 3D printer. As is the case with his photopictorial works, in his sculptures Klibansky allows computer technology and traditional artistic techniques to coexist. Big Bang is totemic, in spite of the party hat and horn, and reintroduces the mask motif, along with a rite’s transformation into emptiness. Despite his ability to make evident just how much emptiness can be found behind what we call civilization, Klibansky’s intention is never desecrating; the staple of his aesthetics is the recurrent idea that we must dig deeply in order to reveal what is hidden behind phenomena.
Original text written by Demetrio Paparoni for Joseph Klibansky's exhibition catalog "Beautiful Tomorrow", published by Skira