Domenico Veneziano’s John the Baptist; a donkey chewing happily on a hay cart; Vittore Carpaccio’s gondoliers; a poodle; a square, hairy-winged angel; a woman on a cellphone; an airplane called A4; a Lithuanian stone-paved alley; the night sky: These are just a few of the images populating the sweeping vista of Leo Ray’s Infinite Painting.
Infinite Painting, as indicated by its name, is a work in progress, from which this exhibition shows approximately a hundred canvases. The paintings create sequences, mostly horizontal, one vertical, like a motion-picture’s celluloid film, spread open into stills. Towards Infinity is an autobiographical dream of sorts, as well as a dream about the history of painting. In its playful and imaginative way, the sequence is a descendant of Gustave Courbet’s 1855 The Painter’s Studio, in which the artist summons to the space around his easel, and hence into his painting, all the people who influenced his life and work.
“I wanted to have a diary without writing one,” says Leo Ray, “so I attached canvases to one another and they began expanding sideways and up. I look at Infinity not as a series, but as one growing painting or a kind of public-access diary, with the usual things one puts in a diary: What happened to me, what I like, what I saw, how I felt. That’s what I paint.” According to Ray’s own list the painting contains: “Portraits of real people, portraits of imaginary people, quotes from paintings I like (but why not paintings I really love?), memories, dreams, landscapes I’ve seen or imagined, dogs, cats, airplanes, trees, shrubs and grass, water, horses, flowers, birds, sunset reflections, color stains and spots (these are especially important), texts I copied from my old notebook, the night sky and all kinds of other things.” Towards Infinity maintains a democracy of images. A sleeping soldier quoted from Giotto is equal in his compositional status to a painted airplane as well as to an abstract stain. And, as in Courbet’s allegory, Infinity’s figures do not make eye contact with each other, but populate their space independently and separately. The relationship between them is not personal or emotional (aside from quotes of paintings which include several figures), but graphic, rhythmic and conceptual. We experience them as characters in a dream, as Egyptian icons signifying something beyond themselves, or as fleeting faces in the windows of a passing train. At times, and the more we retreat from the canvas, we might sense them in even more abstract ways, as notes and chords scattered on a stave, or like birds gathered in different arrays on electric wires. Even Ray’s basic human figure, “The Passerby”, the painter’s Everyman and subject of many of his drawing series, is rectangular and elongated.
The Passerby, a human or animal figure drawn as a caricature, sometimes in Expressionist style, represents a state of mental nomadism. It signals a steadfast refusal to settle in a landscape or indoors, in a historical period or even in an exclusive artistic style. In Towards Infinity Ray has fully fleshed The Passerby’s native habitat. Ray’s quotes from art history and improvisations on them include fragments from the works of Simone Martini, Vittore Carpaccio, Guido Reni, the Flemish painter Jan Massijs and the German artist Hans Maler, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Veneziano, Correggio and others. For Ray, this is a paying of dues to the painters with whom he shares his life. Towards Infinity quotes landscapes and figures – notably, background figures – from their paintings and interlaces them in its daily views, dream visions and memories. The art of painting and the history of painting are experienced here as a deep current running through the artist’s biography.
“Stripes with Plaid”
In Towards Infinity Leo Ray initiates viewers into a mental freedom rarely witnessed in the history of painting. The work is a bold collage of genres and contents derived from the entire tradition of painting. It contains figurative, expressionist, surrealist, cubist (mostly flattened), abstract and naïve painting, as well as art brut and copies of photographs. Asked if he was not afraid of thematic eclecticism, Ray replies: “Einstein said that once you accept the universe as matter expanding into a nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy. I’m not afraid of freedom. After all, I’m pretty limited in what I can do. The relevant question is: To what should I aspire? I believe that every good painting has something metaphysical in it. I believe that there is an ideal arrangement of colors, that an ideal arrangement of shapes does exist. There is a god of the painting. Something Platonic.” This declaration warns us, perhaps, against using the term postmodern too freely in relation to this work. Though giving Corregio’s Aphrodite a cylindrical head is undoubtedly a carefree post-modern act, believing that there is a platonic ideal to be reached is (perhaps) not. What, therefore, is the god in the work before us? What is its fundamental principal? The simple, immediate answer must be rhythm. If Hieronymus Bosch “translates” fantastic content to a figurative style, Leo Ray translates the fantastical stylistic combinations naturally created in his mind by the language and history of painting, sifted through imagination, to a traceable and abstract pictorial rhythm. The rhythm determines the success of any given sequence and of the piece as a whole. Indeed, it is Ray’s deep faith in rhythm as a unifying force which empowers him to lay out a world of realized fantasies, in generic mixtures as well as contents. Despite its extreme, circus-like generic freedom, rhythm-and-composition-wise, Towards Infinity is a painting of classic modernist artistic values and aspirations. One can easily see how naturally Infinity arises from a flattened cubist painting such as 1920 Paul Klee’s Templegärten – a gouache landscape divided on paper into three unequal rectangles.
Klee repeatedly disrupts the visual contiguity between his rectangles (i.e. “this is a tower”) in favor of a tightly woven rhythmic continuity, in which rectangular, triangular and softened trapezoid patches interweave in blue, orange, red and gray. The gaps between the rectangles function as breaths and as temporal or spatial displacements of the visual narrative, a technique Ray also draws on. Ray’s painting, regardless of size, reveals a very similar classical-modernist need for a unified rhythm, as well as for disrupted kinds of visual continuity: Correggio’s Aphrodite receives a loosely figurative body while her expressionist head takes the form of a flat cylinder; a stone wall in a Vilnius alley turns into a pink abstract surface; a yellow figurative chair borrowed from a Carpaccio painting translates, across the gap between canvases, to the edge of a blue chair, set with a bottle in an expressionist room. Indeed using the edges of the canvases knowingly is one important technique by which Ray creates, and attracts attention to, disruption. It is often difficult to discern, in any sequence of Towards Infinity, when one canvas ends and another begins. This sort of confusion is used by the painter to develop a rhythm which is not indifferent to the canvas’s boundaries, but makes use of them as wellsprings of rhythmic energy. Oftentimes, the painter pushes the intersection of one narrative sequence and the next some way beyond the gap between two canvases. The renewed sequence then becomes – to that gap – a syncope to a beat.
“Blame it on the Boogie”
The desire to paint large narratives was born, presumably, with the first wall, and was always subject to architectonic constraints. If we were to build a place that would perfectly house Infinite Painting, we would have to build it along with the painting, as a growing, open structure, not unlike the virtual space of a blog. In aspiration, Infinity seeks to eliminate format by opening one, two or even three (when the paintings expands vertically) sides of the painting’s rectangle. Establishing the pictorial space as a work in progress gives the viewer with an unusually dynamic role. Towards Infinity hints at our physical reality: We humans are surrounded by an infinity of time and space. All our activities take place in an open-format atmosphere. We mostly choose to ignore this openness because we cannot come to grips with it. We cannot grasp infinity empirically although we are born and die into it; although, in terms of artistic work, it is our first context and our last. Still, we do have the ability to contain touches of infinity in our lives and see moments as eternity. This is what Leo Ray – a physicist by education – does by suddenly separating two parts of a narrative sequence with a graphic sign or with an abstract shape: As when, for example, he separates a Renaissance scene from a modern city street with a gray, clipped, sharp-angled triangle, and with a flat blue clipped rectangle (to the right of the nobleman, below); or by sectioning views and interlacing them (below).
These interrupting shapes are like a breath within a breath, a long metaphysical breath within a short physical one. The abstract shapes, as well as the color stains, break off the local pictorial narrative in favor of rhythmic spacing and the general continuity of the painting, thus freeing the eye to savor the painting’s new and renewing rhythms.
Towards Infinity is a voyage in blue, sometimes into blue. Traditionally, blue signifies a mental spectrum ranging from deep peacefulness to melancholy and even depression, or what Kandinsky named “inhumane chagrin”; from a deep commitment to the viewed object (even unto a state of hypnosis, or religious devotion), to a rejection of it as unrelated to human affairs. The triangular sky plane, painted on twenty canvases, is a homage to the great altarpieces of European Christian painting, reminiscences of which peek at us from various sections of Towards Infinity. It also reveals celestial blue and the great blackness behind it as the mental and spiritual backdrop of the painting as a whole (note the sliver of black background peeping from behind the blue rectangle in the sequence shown above). Infinity, it seems, invites us to view it as one views the sky, slowly or searchingly, or else glimpsingly, to check for current weather, or even aimlessly, with clouds, electric wires, birds and airplanes drifting into our line of sight and disappearing. The sheer breadth of the piece makes us walk alongside it as we walk in nature. Its rhythms enable us to build up a type of repeated or concentrated observation, usually associated with the natural world.
Infinity in a Nutshell or How to look at it?
One important question raised by Infinite Painting is therefore: How does the opening of the rectangular canvas edge affect the language of painting and its functioning as a system? Furthermore, how does it affect the viewer’s choices? At each moment, Infinite Painting posits competing, intertwined demands on our attention: Should we follow the narrative or the abstract rhythm of the piece? Should we choose “words”, “sentences” or “paragraphs”? How much can we take in at once? If, for example, we focus on the five panels to the left of the Cities sequence (below), we may notice that the angel’s body with its flattened head responds to the painting’s format and becomes rectangular, in order to parallel the upper and lower boundaries of the painting. So do the cloud on the right hand side, and the deep blue and orange stains, which seem to be casting the angel’s shade on the left. All of these are “pressed down” by the canvas to become rectangular (an essentially modernist object-to-format response).
The angel’s wing functions as the left hand edge of an isosceles (a classical compositional shape), with its apex on the roof to the angel’s right (just out of sight and above the canvas) and its right hand edge stretching between the German rooftop and the inside of the black coat. This structure lends the sequence a classical, harmonic character. Other triangles are implied around the central one: The oar in the gondolier’s hand and the slanted reddish Sienese wall (a quotation from Ambrogio Lorenzetti) parallel the angel’s wing and function as the edges of expanding triangles. The triangle’s right hand edge corresponds to the slope of the black coat flying in the wind, and so on and so forth, so that, as we back away from the canvas, we feel the shapes both multiplying and broadening, along with the rhythm. In this contest over the viewer’s attention, the large colored surfaces also imply larger shapes than can be contained by the actual canvas: The blue patches on the left come together to create a free-form stain which is the beginning of a right-angled triangle (from the central perpendicular to the left). The free black triangle presses waves of straight geometrical shapes against the black block ahead of it: The scaled black stain on the angel’s right, the pants, the black coat and the graying hair, and then again, on the pants worn by the figure on the extreme right (this is a kind of Morse code segment: stain-line-stain-line). Note how the right hand side of the fragment, where the black is predominant, also has a blue upside down triangle of sky and jeans. Infinite Painting is therefore a crossroads overflowing with suggested views: Should we focus on the little triangles, such as the white-blue-black one formed by the angel and the darkness into which he walks? Or should we take a step back and see the implied larger triangles, like the one created between the slant of the quay and the yellow banister, or between the banister and the end of the upside-down crimson triangle? Or, from still further back, should we give ourselves over to the rhythm of the piece and see only diagonals, perpendiculars and stains, the narrative stripped down to abstract form? Naturally, the more we retreat from the elongating canvas, the better we grasp the scope of the work, and the more we can sense its rhythm in its entirety. This rhythm is no less than a handwriting that rises above and beyond the story it tells. Leo Ray studied painting and calligraphy at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. He stresses the important role calligraphy plays in his art as a theory of composition. Ray says he acquired the fundamentals of paintings from calligraphy more than he did from his theoretical and practical painting and drawing classes, since calligraphy emphasizes what he considers to be the cornerstones of painting; rhythm, repetition and variation of symbols, the relation of an object to an empty space, and the importance of the empty space per se. Calligraphy is also central questions of material and execution, principally the creation of a unique “handwriting”, or brushwork, the freshness and vigor of the brush touching the canvas, and the vitality of the painted sign. From this perspective, Infinite Painting appears to be an extensive experiment in pictorial calligraphy. The further we retreat from the painting, the more condensed becomes the rhythm we perceive in color and symbol. “Condensed” may sound paradoxical in the context of a work that aspires to infinity. Nonetheless, density is a deep value of the work before us. It relates equally to “quiet” sequences and to sequences that are packed with information. Infinity may be a memoir of an entire life, but this does not mean that its materials are not carefully chosen. The arrangement of materials, whether many or few, in the most rhythmic, crystallized way possible, while using the largest possible diversity of basic shapes, is the painting’s touchstone.
Perhaps this is the best way to describe how the artist, and perhaps humans in general, respond to the pressure of infinity: With a burst of abundance on the one hand, and with the most condensed expression we can find on the other, as a crystallized counter-force to the unending space that surrounds us.