Ralph Fleck

Lothar Romain
The Structure of Colour
If the arty set calls somebody a "Malschwein", a "painting pig", it is more an endearment or an expression of admiration than anything else. It is meant to describe an artist who fights, energetically and obsessedly, again and again the everlasting fight with paint as materials and its colour-quality. It seems as if he couldn't pile enough of it on the canvas, scratch it off again, build it up once more, unable to bear the slightest smoothness at the canvas' surface. The technical term for that is paste painting, but it tells us very little about the virtually existential struggle, performed under great physical effort aimed at an assessment of the limits of the weight-bearing capacity of the canvas and the layer-building capacity of the paint to a point where their evoking and structuring powers change completely to mere material.
Ralph Fleck is such a "painting pig", but by no means a fetishist who revels in the paint "mash", but somebody who tries again and again with hearty courage and cool reason the link between structure and colour, and who looks for the point in time when form changes to colour structure and colour structure to painting form. His pictures - and this applies to the panoramic views of cities and sceneries as well as to the close focusing on plants - live from two possible ways of observation. Closeness and distance are for the painting itself and for viewing it later of decisive importance. The individual distance from the canvas causes a different manifestation of the picture and sets the degree of abstraction for those generally representational scenarios.
All this is primarily about a visual experience, which had been utilized repeatedly for painting purposes. With greater distance things get clearer and change with increasing closeness to structural details. This is shown to the extreme in Fleck's paintings of plants and details of fields. Here the painter succumbs entirely to the close view and is focused on the colour experience, which distances itself increasingly from the encircling, crowding, sketchy form and concentrates on the colour, which turns itself into form. And here, in return, the observer recognizes the picturereleasing subject only from the distance, approaching it more closely he virtually dives down until all guidance through form and structure is disbanded. But those experiences can be applied to the distant views of cities and sceneries as well, which convey a similar discovery. What seems to be a seemingly realistic portrait of a city or a landscape proves to be, when watched from a closer distance, as the colourstructuring analysis of the formal image and its implied emotional values.
The basis of Ralph Fleck's work is representational. For him, distance is not just an approach to the subject but a graduation of the emotional inner relationship, which only on the face of it leads to totally different picture results. When he watches from a semidistance, even if his eyes or the camera - often his "notebook" - are rather close to the objects, the pasty, blotchy details of the picture appear as a diversity of form and structure, which is, as it shows stems, petals, nevertheless defined as a representational subject. But the closer he gets to the subject, the more the pictureevoking, representational outlines vanish in exchange of a, all-over impression, which transforms organic, individual forms into the structure of the complete picture. This is ruled by the rhythm of the paint-application, from the change between colour dots and blotches, which come in layers, sometimes almost piled up and create an additional surface movement, raised in relief, and by the contrasting and complementary colours.
The onlooker, though, goes through a reverse process of reception. What seems to be at first glance like a strongly coloured, abstract composition, proves to be from a distance a picturesque transformation of flower- and vegetable fields, animated scenarios of mostly warm red and gold shades, which seem even more luminous through sprinklings of their complementary colours or set each other favourably off in a dialogue of red and yellow orange, yellow and green. The painter has, for the sake of this colour-happening, removed much of the distance to his subject, which means that he doesn't stand in front of a landscape anymore, which is structured by fields with different vegetation, but has "zoomed" a detail so closely that all contours and orientation marks vanish and only the inner motion of the colours remain.
One can't help thinking of Monet, as Fleck stands here in the illustrious tradition of 20th century painting, which is derived from the master of the "water lilies" and influenced not just the European, but the New York School as well. This doesn't refer to the technique, where Monet moves to more extensive surface area over the years, but the principle of the late Monet to change the formerly three-dimensional picture with its perspective into a disorientated colour structure without front and back, above and below are meaningless and an imaginary, incessantly changing space can be only derived from the mutual togetherness of warm and cold colours. Fleck "translated" this into his own language, which lends a three-dimensional quality to the brush-strokes and colour dots and to the colour via its substance its own unique form and structure. The rich, pasty application becomes the inner structure of the painting, but never totally letting its representational origin out of sight.
It was Informel, more precisely action painting, that for the first time so consequently has set free colour to find it's own structure and form through turning it into a spontaneous gesture. To save such a gesture from becoming too vague it was frequently - see Emil Schumacher - deliberately held back by the cumbersomeness of the thick paint mash. In Fleck's work 8 this procedure occurs as a quotation i.e. not a spontaneous, but an emphasized nevertheless self-conscious and controlled application of paint, which derives its intensity, density, three-dimensional quality and restriction from the given subject and not from the substance of the subconscious.
Wolfgang Längsfeld describes Ralph Fleck as a "painter of analysis and synthesis. A painter of the physically explorable reality, the explorations of which he displays as a source for knowledge by delving passionately into its structures as far as they are conveyable to the painter.
" Passion is all over his pictures - sometimes dramatically dedicated to the entity, sometimes rather brittle already in the beginning, but it is controlled, not succumbing to the mere status quo or visual attractions. In spite of all that it powerfully fights for restraint. "To perform art", as Frank Auerbach, another master of thick paste painting, put it, "means to create order out of chaos." But such order, and that applies to Ralph Fleck's pictures as well, is not aiming at a final status, a termination, but is, from his subjects and technique one of progress, of action, of (de)formation, to prevent fixing and settling of stillness and self-satisfaction. That helps the pictures to acquire their restrained ferocity, beauty and at the same time sets a distance so they may evoke more than just revelry.
The landscapes and city views are only outwardly strangers to that, as outlined above. They are, in fact, reversals of that procedure. They are about the colour structure of the distance, how from the distance that realizes the representational guideline still pictorial harmony evolves. Like hardly any other painter, Ralph Fleck has a lot of pictures over many years - on Paris alone there are almost 500 - dedicated to the "City" topic. A difficult venture, as a look at the second half of the last century proves. For the majority of painters this seemed to be doomed to failure. With the exception of Pop Art, which was mainly interested in the image of the urban consumption circle, though, painting showed little interest in metropoles, although their streets and interior views played such an important part from the beginning of the Modern Arts to Expressionism. Only with the advent of the 'New Wild Ones' and their neo-expressionist painting subjects like that could be found again, the urban ambience as place and expression for a new awareness of life, a metaphor for boisterousness and a passionate desire for life, a Moloch of the spirit of the age. The 'New Wild Ones' found in the urban architecture the static backdrop for the restlessness of the traffic and one's own doings and in the pubs and taverns the appropriate place for the pictures of nocturnal booze-ups and at the same time fear of any form of intimacy. No doubt all this separated the pictures from their expressionist ancestors with their intoxication with cities and at the same time bathos of anxiety, but they found their limitations at the objective boundlessness of the Moloch called Megapolis, to which they had nothing to answer back but their awareness of life.
Ralph Fleck does not belong to the circle of the neoexpressionists, even though his painting doesn't repress its expressive qualities. They are for the artist an undeniable part, but not the essence of his work. This becomes clear in his handling of the urban architecture. Seen from a distance, he avoids any insight into their core. He isn't interested in any snapshots, even if the broad avenues and streets show some vehicles and even pedestrians. But even those are, compared with the daily chaos on the streets of the metropoles, only sparse. His city views are those of a view from above, which are removed from noise, but are dedicated to the laying out of the city and its various architectural conditions.
The metropoles of Paris, New York, Lisbon or Madrid are shown as sometimes grave, sometimes light structures of buildings with the streets as blood vessels. The vertical dominates, diagonally or crosswise cut through by streets as guidelines for the directions of the architectural frontages and roofs. If the close-ups of flowers and field details show a dynamic, all forms embracing rhythm, the pictures of cities show more a static structure, the severity of the lines of the buildings, the formality of the architecture. This is not glossed over by impressionist means, but shown rather coolly and through close scrutiny. The artificial world, like the organic one, has its own structural principles, but it is, different from the latter, not subject to quick changes, but is, in spite of all changes over the centuries, ever trusting for a newly thought period of time.
His painting wouldn't be more but an illustrative snapshot, wouldn't Ralph Fleck, although he strictly observes the guidelines, here too create an all-over structure of the application of paint. The closer one gets to the pictures, the more dominant Fleck's paste painting becomes, the significant penetration of the scenic guidelines with the help of the multi-layered paint application. By his chosen details he sticks to the vertical and diagonal lines, but the application of the paint glosses over the mere addition of buildings and their higgledy-piggledy structure to achieve an illustrative painting culture. Only this changes the detail into a pars pro toto, it closes up what would otherwise remain a mere conglomerate, in spite of all town planning. A photographic image, even if carefully selected, will remain an image of the moment, of an episode, which tells about a specific situation at a specific point in time. Ralph Fleck's painting sheds those random moments and creates a pictorial finality, which is derived from the all-embracing structure of the paintings. It has the aura of permanence, albeit a vibrant one, proven by the application of the paint and the surface of the painting. But that is why it can perform according to the guidelines of the city sceneries, so that it, with its own means of colouring, gives itself its own form of permanence, a permanence, which corresponds with the similar claim of permanence of the architectural guidelines, yet relativizes it at the same time by confronting it with a structuring medium and instrument as a pictorial actuality, which is, in fact, non-existing in reality.
The landscapes should be seen in a similar way. Here, too, the distance created from a higher perspective as a contrast to the nearness of the close-ups of those details of fields and pictures of flowers. Landscape and city as pars pro toto, the primary status quo of the divide of earth and sky, mostly showing wide open spaces with an unapproachable foreground because of the view from above, no idyllic, but rather barren landscapes, desert, volcanoes' craters, mountains on the horizon. The observer is not invited to settle here or even just to stay for a while. Any attempt to approach will fail because he is, similar to the city paintings, kept at a distance by the pasty structure of the paint. The illusion of the familiar is destroyed by the individual pictorial characteristics. But the latter - and that makes Ralph Fleck's work so special - is not a means of mere alienation, but the pictures' own truth, which is derived from this special way of painting, such a truth, which only art can show, the entirety as structure and possibility, which we have, as a concept, in reality and fact, lost long ago.
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