The Virtue of Ambiguity: The Paintings of Rafal Olbinski

      As is often the case, one’s first encounter with a new work of art, especially if the artist is unknown to the viewer, is both personal and emotionally complex. This being the case, feelings may shift back and forth, from exhilaration to an equivocal indecisiveness. Such responses are not unusual among those who visit New York galleries on a regular basis. Occasionally, one may experience a special moment upon discovering an artist whose work transmits some unidentifiable, overwhelming attraction. The Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz spoke of this attraction as a subtle rendezvous where one feels an ineffable bond with an artist’s work. In such cases, a sensory connection occurs, almost beyond explanation. Apparently this happened to the art gallerist Ken Nahan when he first discovered a small painting by Rafal Olbinski in 1990, which he soon after presented to his wife, Sherri. The couple’s attraction to Olbinski’s paintings was instantaneous and soon became unstoppable. The connection has persisted for more than two decades and still continues to grow.
      Although I had heard of Olbinski both as a designer and painter, my initial encounter with the artist occurred recently. I was invited to his studio in midtown Manhattan where he paints when he is not in Europe (where he frequently exhibits) or voyaging elsewhere to exotic beaches in the southern hemisphere. My first impression of his New York atelier was a kind of “installation art” with its narrow, darkened environs cluttered with paintings, some of which were finished, while most were clearly not. Generally modest in scale, the newly completed works sat in piles or were rolled up, waiting to be measured, stretched, and framed. Smaller paintings appeared on tables with half-filled cups and glasses, along with pairs of eyeglasses, thus signaling the artists precision and delicacy made evident in each of his works. Other paintings were placed on shelves among books and antiques, many either sent or brought from Warsaw or other parts of Eastern Europe. The dingy, lustful, overstuffed, and unmatched furniture crowded out any possibility of excess space. One must carefully negotiate a path carefully from one end of the studio to the other. Somehow these compressed, old world quarters matched perfectly with Olbinski’s brilliantly complex and paradoxical imagery, filled with mutated classical-style figures, fish, birds, buildings, statuary, costumes, and landscapes in a various stages of metamorphosis. The intensity of the artist’s demeanor was present throughout the studio. Writers and critics coming from fine arts and design have referred to his paintings as Surrealist, often comparing his approach to the Belgian artist, René Magritte (though temperamentally he may be closer to yet another Belgian painter, Paul Delvaux). These affinities may be found not only among Olbinski’s paintings but in his graphic works as well, many of which have been commissioned for various plays, ballets, and operas, including Oedipus the King, Woyzeck, The Magic Flute, Swan Lake, The Marriage of Figaro, among other elegant, haut bourgeois performances.
      If one were to remove the language from almost any poster designed by Olbinski, such as the name of the opera or play, along with that of the composer or author, the image would still hold. This suggests that many of his graphic works could function just as well as paintings without the print. In fact, many of his paintings are simply variations of earlier graphics and visa versa. In either case, the rigor and density of Olbinski’s imagery tends to provoke ambiguity. Put another way, it offers a kind of seductive uncertainty, whereby the image points in many directions simultaneously rather than in a single direction. By allowing his figures to exist in an ambiguous space, their meaning becomes autonomous. They are suspended in time, but never facile in their appearance. This autonomy of meaning gives some of his work an aura of relative inscrutability, at least upon first glance. A good example would be the painting titled Declaration of Righteousness (2011). Here a tuxedoed man wearing a red wizard’s hat stands to the left in an empty room partially illuminated by sunlight. The room has two arched windows that face the open sea. The man is holding the corner of a painting on canvas supported at the opposite on the right by a bird with fluttering wings. The subject on the canvas is the rear view of a nude woman seen from the buttocks upwards as she emerges from the sea in the painting that shares the same horizon as the actual sea that appears outside the two arched windows. Her brunette wind-blown hair goes to the right, thereby suggesting a wind from the sea. But is the wind from inside the painting or outside the arched windows. In either case, the wind is merely a specter within either the painting of the painting or the painting itself. Her neck and head extend beyond the upper reaches of the canvas being held by the man and the bird as if to suggest she is both physically in the room as she is also a painterly illusion. As we peer to the lower right of the painting within the painting, we notice a small paper boat that seems to coexist with the clipper ship visible in the distance near the horizon outside the window. Olbinski's Declaration of Righteousness is replete with ambiguity from every angle, from every point of view. Yet in spite of its complexity, the paradoxical aspect of this work stands steady. Everything fits within the system of the painting. It is a philosopher’s painting that stretches the relationship of the imagination in terms of both reality and illusion, finally questioning the existence of both.
      In short, there is no single definitive meaning given to the paintings of Olbinski. Instead, his images offer the viewer a bizarre, often elusive (and illusive), connotation that exceeds the limits of the text. Take, for example, the artist’s bravura poster for The Egyptian Helen, perhaps one of the least successful operas by Richard Strauss. Here we discover Helen as a toga donned, nude-breasted elixir, who rides not inside a wooden horse, but reclines atop the shell of an eroticized scallop. Instead of posing nude while standing upright within the fluted half-shell a la Botticelli, Helen alludes to her alter Ego — an enormous scallop with swooning red lips — suggesting the classical, yet seedy allure of Jayne Russell. Standing to the right side of our narcissistic Helen in the background near the sea, Olbinski blithely represents a miniature modern-day fashion model, posing as a nude Proteus while standing beside his eternal trident. The irony is magnificent. Helen of Troy is transformed into a semiotic ploy, an obverse allegory. What we expect from this mythic heroine suddenly reverts to the unexpected. Olbinski has transformed the heraldic Helen into an ironical pin-up, a slothful playgirl who admonishes our sense of hyper-reality. It would appear that the artist has given Strauss phantasm a cosmetic face-lift in tandem with the philosophy of Heidegger, who advocated that Greek legends should be performed not on ancient stages but in contemporary time and space where the power of the allegory becomes renewed by way of ambiguity.
      The notion of representing an opposition, such as dawn in relation to dusk, or a normally small object that suddenly appears large, within the formal structure of a painting was frequently used by Magritte. When two opposites appear united in the same painting, as they often do in a Magritte, this ambiguity constitutes a paradox. To paint an eagle soaring over a mountain is one thing. It is something else to transform the eagle into a stone mountain. This Surrealist approach to painting is borrowed repeatedly in the work of Olbinski with one major exception. No matter how convincing the fantasy may appear, it is never irrational. The signs within the painting are as rational as a game of chess. In Eternity Lost (2002), where the familiar Chrysler building in midtown Manhattan is painted horizontally on a lesser scale in the middle of a forest, the resurgence of the Freudian phallus is contingent on fantasy. Nonetheless, the formal structure of this painting is completely rational. One might argue that nothing is out of place, which is generally true in the paintings of Olbinski. The fact that nothing is out of place (in the formal sense) only further reinforces the presence of ambiguity. The opposition folds in upon itself and provokes us to think as to where we are in this painting. How do we come to terms with what we are seeing? The scenario may appear irrational from the point of view of the external visual world, but in the painting everything holds together perfectly. What we are seeing in Eternity Lost is not the external visual world but the artist's fantasy, which in terms of painting is formal and entirely rational. One might further suggest that this paradigm is also within the practice of psychoanalysis to the extent that what appears rational in the mind of the patient is paradoxically irrational in the external everyday world. But art is not psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysis in not art. One cannot neither prove nor disprove the content of a painting. This is, perhaps, why the truly great analysts of the past sought the company of works of art that reified signs of ambiguity.
      In the previously discussed Helen poster, both paradox and ambiguity are present. There is no doubt. But to grasp the paradox depends largely on knowing the “literary” and historical reference taken from the Greek myth. The metaphorical irony of this juicy red-lipped scallop hidden inside its shell while the temptress (Helen) reclines on top is to predict the siege of Troy. The seduction is very real. Without the presence of the seductress, the virtue of ambiguity is disabled, impotent, and therefore unable to perform. Paradox and ambiguity are important in an Olbinski painting. To paint a purely literal interpretation of a scenario is to reduce its affect. Without seduction, there is no real paradox and no ambiguity. There is no irony that connects us to our humanity. Just as a well-constructed opera or play reveals the irony present in our everyday lives, so Olbinski’s paintings aspire to do the same. Irony is what makes us laugh and cry, and it is what gives these paintings their subtle force. Without the seduction of the temptress — even when disguised as the forest glade that invites the Chrysler Building — none of this happens.
      Let’s compare two Olbinski paintings in the current exhibition, Casual Temptation and Intimacy Revisited (both 2011). There is a paradox visible within each painting. While the artist may have considered external “literary” references, they do not appear essential to our reading. In Casual Temptation, the focus is clearly given to the central figure; a young woman scantily clothed in a bathing suit fondles her pearl necklace. As if to beckon our voyeuristic delight, three inverted triangles are visible on the horizon between sea and sky, one of which falls directly in line with the woman’s sex. Even so, we view the woman almost nonchalantly— concurrently — with the sailboats that glide across the sea. Her allure is phantasmagorical, yet ultimately seductive. Intimacy Revealed is typical in terms of the artist’s irony but different in approach from Casual Temptation. Here no figure is present. Rather we are looking at an empty, brightly sunlit room. Most likely, the room is the office of an analyst with certificates framed on the wall. The cumulus clouds in the sky outside of window connect with another cumulus cloud that rests inside the room on a couch designating for reclining. Above the couch is the artist's reproduction of an abstract portrait of a woman by Picasso, Le Reve (The Dream), (1932). A small cat lies on the rug in front of the couch, and an open book with a demitasse sits on a small table nearby.
      A poetic quality exists both within and between these two paintings, revealing two sides of a woman. In Casual Temptation, the seduction is more direct. In Intimacy Revealed this quality is perceived more indirectly, more erotically, in the form of a cloud that symbolically reclines on a couch. The two sides in Olbinski’s work are complementary. In each case the seductress takes a different form, as the paintings themselves test the air between men and women from a transformative, dream-like, even voyeuristic point of view. The sexual subject matter is pervasive in the work of the artist, but it is also complex, as I have tried to suggest. There is literally more than meets the eye. One senses that the eye of the artist is rarely detached from the body, which further suggests an involvement — no matter how detached or discrete — not only with the design of the figures, but with their hidden imaginative aspects, almost as if somehow his figures were removed from time and kept still within the space of a dream.

— Robert C. Morgan