Erik Lindman: Meaningful Abstractions by Norman Rosenthal, 2014
Is there really such a thing as 'the abstract' in art? There clearly is something like this around us, but where and in what, essentially, does the relevance and reality of 'the abstract' find itself today for the young painter?
These are good first questions to ask when confronting the new paintings of New York bred and based 'young abstract artist' Erik Lindman. He is indeed a New Yorker through and through by birth, art education and residence. New York, now getting on for three quarters of a century, has been the headquarters of a tradition of abstraction that was first seriously taken up there by Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Smith and the rest, and carries on to this day with significant artists such as Richard Serra and Christopher Wool. Before these American guys came onto the scene, the principal locus of abstraction - with the exception of Mondrian and the world of the De Stijl in Holland - was the Russia of Kandinsky, Malevich and El Lissitsky, and a larger group of other talented and committed practitioners, many of them women. Their art was - like that of Mondrian from the perspective of Theosophy - grounded in mystical, quasi-religious realities not always obviously apparent, yet explicitly close to Russian Orthodox, and sometimes, in the case of individual artists, to Eastern-European Jewish mystical thought. There is no doubt that Kandinsky, whilst painting, saw visions of the saints as they rode through the sky, and that Malevich looked at the vestments of holy men where he found his black square and white cross. Abstraction, even later on in New York, became a modern route to overcome the apparent impossibility of describing the God Head and the sublime. In the Russian icon the image is not a depiction of the God Head. It is the God Head or the Saint in all its reality, and is to be worshiped as such through the medium of the image. The great abstract art, that was made first in Russia and later by American Abstract Expressionist artists, are objects that achieve a sense of realness and equivalence that belies the term abstraction, in so far as the term implies a total absence of content. Even with as 'pure' an artist such as Ad Reinhardt, a painting is made legitimate by the subject matter of its own essential materiality, making nonsense of formalist theories and practices that ultimately only lead to the decorative.
Erik Lindman is by his own admission a painter who is not trying to change things as such. From his writing alone, one can gauge that his is a serious intent, nonetheless to add meaningfully, for his own time and generation, to the complex discourse of abstract painting in terms of its inherent content and subject matter. His earlier paintings reminded this viewer of the more simplified advanced abstractions, executed both as painting and as coloured paper collages, by Ljubov Popova and Olga Rosanova – two of the so-called 'Amazons of the Russian Avant-Garde'. These works made during the utopian years of the Soviet dream, were perhaps crudely executed, but perfectly calculated colour abstractions, trying in their radicality to even outdo the achievements of their master, Malevich. Lindman's 'early paintings' of a few years ago seemed a recollection of what sadly became in Russia a lost and betrayed cause. Lindman declared in his booklet On Painting of 2011 his lack of ambition to be modern and new. In it he declares that 'painting is successful for maintaining its contemporaneity in defiance of the novel.' Today, Lindman attempts to achieve in his paintings a personal imagery that in its own way is part reminiscent of the Russian icon tradition. He amazingly succeeds in doing this in spite of the heavy burden of the abstract tradition of the last hundred years, first as it took place in Russia, and still now actively continues in New York, where those artists Serra and Wool are very much on the top of their game. Lindman is finding a new mediation of those traditions, which in the best sense is both original and gently eclectic. Each painting is, remarkably, an individual event with its own dynamic and sense of situation within a longer tradition of art. Just to take one painting, Gabe's (2013), we find a collaged image that recalls, mysteriously, white profiles of Picasso and a wooden background that seems to echo the frottage of Max Ernst, and equally the knots in the wood seem to stare out at the viewer. In that sense the abstraction finds its own meaning and reality that goes far beyond any formalist concern. In another large painting, Donatist (2013), the found surface inserted into the carefully calculated 'red' hemp canvas reminds the viewer of a beautiful ancient Chinese or Japanese landscape that has only recently been revealed. Or for that matter there is that other immutable history to recall of an even longer period of history of 'no change' - that of Ancient Dynastic Egypt, where fixed iconographic formulae held sway for more than three thousand years. Yet to the refined and thoughtful eye, things do change subtly from one often short lived Dynasty to another, though the activity on the surface seems unchanging, as though forever. There is a wonderful tactile aspect to each of Lindman's paintings: the rice on rag paper white collages are like bandages waiting to be peeled. The solitary horiontal abstraction, Festive (2013), has an encaustic, waxy quality that generates a genuine perspective like a shelf. The thousand year old Byzantine icon tradition is arguably centered on the abstract depersonalized and immutable depiction of the face - the male face of Christ and all his many Saints, and the female face in the case of the Virgin. In abstract painting the issue is that of the non-specific rendering of a finite or an infinite space. Sometimes it acts as a veil or a bandage that hides and protects the space 'behind. Lindman investigates both possibilities. He is calling this show 'Open Hands', conjuring an image of naïve honesty and even of submission in the face of what he finds. He hides nothing as he contemplates found flat surfaces of wood and metal that he appears to insert into other surfaces; these are usually held in place by supports made of rough hemp stretched over a frame. The surfaces of these 'found' flat surfaces seem indeed like once-used, now useless, objects such as are found by the artist in skips on his way to work. The chosen white or black boards, and those too chosen because they seem deliberately devoid of colour, seem like arbitrary signifiers of past, now irrelevant activity. And yet the paintings on close inspection are full of subtle colour. Blacks are in fact deep blues and hidden between the white layers there are subtle shades of pinks and reds that are wonderfully and openly suggestive. They are generationally one step further towards a deliberate and radical anonymity, even when compared to the graffiti- like scratches of Cy Twombly, whose own signs are there to conjure up for the viewer palimpsests, remnants of lost ancient cultures of the Mediterranean.
Lindman is more than satisfied in his current campaign of painting with his chosen, conscious task of renewing and recalling the rich culture of abstraction that goes from Malevich to Reinhardt and beyond. For instance, the painting he calls Duck (2013) seems at one level to be a meditation on those two artists specifically, though who knows what else was really in the artists mind as this work was executed in his studio. Yet, the painting too feels like a doorway behind which lie ambiguous worlds to be revealed. The content of Lindman's paintings seem evocative, linguistically and politically, of a patched-up urban landscape. New York, the centre of such a rich tradition of abstraction that always used to imply a moral, sometimes even religious imperative, is also the throwaway capital of excess, the center of conspicuous wealth, but also of conspicuous poverty. The image we have of an icon is of it being held up high by the priest at the head of a procession, carrying the sacred object around a church or onto a sacred site. In contrast, the image of an abstract painting today is of something to be hung in a modern gallery space on white walls, onto which we, the viewers, are allowed to the specific extent determined by the artist, to project our own dreams and experiences. But the painting, wherever it is, has its independent imminent life, its own memories, its own culture as it were: it becomes for the sympathetic and informed viewer a living thing in its own right. Erik Lindman, through the works he allows into the world, is beginning to sit in the tradition that he clearly values and through which, in his thinking and practice, he gives subjective and personal importance. He asks us, like all other artists of ambition past and present, who share his interest in 'abstraction' and its power to generate meaning and a language, to engage with a similar passion.