Montreal artist Leopold Plotek is an altogether remarkable man: He fences, he plays the saxophone, he is a walking encyclopedia of opera learning and lore, he speaks five languages (and is eloquent and witty in them all), and, just for relaxation, he translates Latin poetry into English. He is also a painter of prodigious ability.
His new exhibition, opening today at Toronto's Olga Korper Gallery, is difficult, delicious, perplexing, rewarding, enraging and intoxicating -- all qualities you might reasonably expect from a renaissance man of Plotek's stature. Given the fact that his interests appear to be as literary, as philosophical, as historical and anthropological as they are painterly, Plotek here casts the nets of his omnivorous curiosity far and wide: The seven big paintings making up his exhibition bear titles like Paolo Veronese Before the Inquisition in Venice, A White Night and a Late Call: Joseph Stalin Calls Boris Pasternak, and Master of the Genre of Silence: Isaac Babel Interrogated by Lavrenti Beria.
This is a titanically impure exhibition, by which I mean that the paintings -- which vary considerably from one another in their approach to composition, in their colour range, in the complexity of what they portray -- are curiously slung between poles.
They oscillate, for example, between deliberation and immediacy. They undertake big ambitious subjects (like the siege of Leningrad, for example), and then manifest those big ambitious subjects by means of what is often a rapid, fluid brush-handling that brings them close to sketchiness. The paintings would seem, at first inspection, to land within the august, time-honoured genre of history-painting, but end up as vignettes, as crystallized anecdotes merely.
"Merely" is, of course, misleading. When you look at Plotek's Arouet de Voltaire & Emilie du Chatelet, Stargazing, for example, what you see is a couple of rather muzzily painted figures languishing near what looks to be, what might be, a wrecked carriage, gazing raptly into a eyeball-searing blue sky.
If you go on to read Plotek's printed mini-essays on each painting (available at the gallery), you find that Voltaire and the love of his life, mathematician Emilie du Chatelet, were the victims of a coach accident late one night after an evening at a casino (Emilie was an inveterate gambler). "When their servants returned with a smith to repair the axle," Plotek writes, "they found the old lovers stretched out in a farmer's field, stargazing and discussing cosmology."
This is charming. The painting , however, is not. It is deliberately not, or so I prefer to think. The figures are muddy, raw, imprecise. The sky stretching over them is intimidatingly blue. ("Blue," Plotek told me, as we walked about the gallery, "is good at being a space and bad at being a thing.")
Now, it's not as if the muzziness of the figures is something the virtuoso Plotek cannot help. And so their raw casualness is clearly deliberate. The painting, then, is -- what? The rapid embodiment of Plotek's musing upon the anecdotal moment? The way he's painted these subjects pays what he calls "the cost of immediacy." It's as of these fleeting but telling, historically grounded moments in Plotek's paintings are glimpsed and then devoured, rather than pondered.
Sometimes his rapid paint-handling wraps around its historical subject with so much authority, the two fuse into one brilliant thing as in the greenish, algae-like horror of the inquisition of the poet Isaac Babel by Stalin's fearsome inquisitor Beria. Sometimes, as in the Pasternak phone call painting (Stalin phoning Boris Pasternak in the middle of the night to ask him what to do about poet Osip Mandelstam), the fearsome, evanescent moment is treated, oddly, with a sort of Matisse-like brio. Then again, as in a painting like John Donne Dying, with his Portrait "En Transit, " the whole scene is so abstracted it approaches non-representation. Well, the entire show is a mystery. A mystery it may well take a half dozen more gallery visits to unravel. $11,000-$13,000. Until Jan. 11. 17 Morrow Ave. 416-538-8220. Christian Knudsen at Peak Gallery Given the fact that Montreal photographer Christian Knudsen was born in Denmark, it makes sense that the pinhole camera with which he made the uniformly exquisite photographs in this exhibition was constructed from a round metal tin that once held Danish butter cookies. The charming homeliness of the origins of these photographs is in no way reflected, however, in their final appearance. Presented as a series of small and mostly panoramic giglee prints, these delicate black and white photographs depict either sweeping views of old Montreal ( Cartier Monument/ Mt. Royal, rue Papineau approaching Rosemont, Lachine Canal), the people in them entirely dissolved in the course of the long exposure times required for the pinhole process, or, most impressively, views of single lily bulbs or garlic bulbs hung up to dry in velvety blackness, their roots dangling like jellyfish tentacles. These suddenly mysterious bulbs catch and entrap the only light in the photographs -- so that they hang down heavily into the picture's receptive space where they glow with a deep, burnished, rather lunar light. $250-$1,400. Until Dec. 21. 23 Morrow Ave. 416-537-8108.