From first glimpse the painting on the website caught my attention. The image was books, spines turned away from us, stacked one on top of another. In two seconds the painting, the size of a postage stamp on the website, revealed itself to me. It wasn’t about the books. It was about the holy, serene space in which the books existed.
I was charged by a painting powerful enough to communicate so clearly, even though greatly reduced in size and filtered through a variety of media. It seemed imperative to me to see the work in an empty gallery, so I went, a week before the group exhibition to see what was on view.
In the guise of still life Ray Kleinlein has a history of isolating and presenting icons of sexual identity, class, and generation. The objects he paints tell the story, in symbols, of his life and his culture. One might miss the narrative if not exposed to the long trajectory of his work. I am a long-time Kleinlein observer who recalls from earlier times the paintings of gym socks, or the shower curtain in Paris, giving way to the baby clothes of his daughter, and now to the clothes and books of a thinking man’s life and the grace notes of a marriage. The objects he paints are fragments from our material world: the chic shopping bag, the carefully wrapped gift, the ironed pinstripe shirt.
A sculptor friend, looking at a painting by Kleinlein told me once, “he sculpts with paint”. One can’t fail to notice the rich low level relief of his paint surface. It’s delicious and conscious, and without artifice. It comes from an honest core of energy, not some flashy glissando of technique. We read that honesty. It is inescapable and it is sensual.
Beyond the lush surface and the distillation of a culture, there is the space. Kleinlein isolates his objects in an environment. It’s largely white, but totally alive with the slightest cast of perhaps blue or yellow, or with the indication of a reflective surface. Seductive as the subject of each painting is, the space in which it exists is often the star. It always seems to carry a mood. I find myself trying to decipher how that ground can be so alive, so vibrant. The pinstripe shirts, rendered life size, fill the picture plane, leaving no negative space and the mood is purely male– like a lot of big guys vying for dominance, bursting out of the picture plane. The books are as meditative as an altar. The painting of the wrapped gift almost levitates in its space, clearly communicating anticipation.
A friend did me the favor of asking, recently, how I look at art in museums. It caused me to give serious thought to how one looks at art in general. I walk past almost everything unmoved, until something grabs me, and that is the work with which I develop a relationship. I square off with it, and it begins to speak to me. Usually, what I’m sensing is the original energy expressed by the artist, trapped in paint, like an insect in amber. I can feel that artist’s presence across time and space. It’s about the energy. For me, after long practice, I can read it as clearly as I can read any book. The energy that comes from the mind and brush of Ray Kleinlein is a mix of many things, among them curiosity, sensuality, humor and serenity. One feels his seeking, tastes his life. It’s all there, radiating, for anyone to see, for all time.