Rolf A Kluenter
Soft Core: works in paper and stainless steel
Kluenter has the handmade paper he uses blackened with coal dust during the manufacturing process --"the initial step in empowering the material and creating the ground" for ongoing work. "The combination of black pigment and cellulose," he says, "atomizes the surrounding light, transforming it into a delicate shimmering surface, thus creating a subtle experience of pure materiality". Introducing stainless steel into his work for the first time Kluenter says his intention is to "join the most ancient of materials with the most modern."
THE FIFTH SEAL
Calligraphic-Icons / Kalligraphikons
an essay on the paintings of Rolf A. Kluenter
To appreciate the paintings of Rolf Kluenter, one must do no more than pause and look.
Stillness and motion A stilled motion A distilled motion
Or if not a book we look down on from above, a carpet for our ride, a flag waving in the wind -- stillness in motion -- with a single letter announcing its origin, its annunciation, enunciating its dispersion from unfathomable sound to fathomed space
To recognize Rolf A. Kluenter's appreciation of the space in which he inhabits (inhibits / exhibits) color and form, one must proceed slowly, one must fall back to the discipline the artist sets for himself. In that (de)sanctified space the letter A (pronounced Ah) precisely rendered in a myriad of ancient Indo-Tibetan scripts, vibrantly rendered in primary colors, cedes its meaning / seeds its meaning in balanced and harmonious geometric compositions.
To enter the space Rolf A. Kluenter opens up for his evolving vision, one must free one's self from the perspective of looking out or of entering, one must in fact be already there, floating -- landing or taking off as the eye moves with the background, or the foreground. Setting oneself free from perspective as the artist did in turning from canvas and oil, in experimenting with paint on wood and clay, in playing with composition defined by space and objects in space, and finally in taking black handmade Nepalese paper made from the Daphne plant as his medium of expression. In that absorptive realm, Rolf projects letters as symbol and icon that can define or be defined by space.
We can follow the artist into this space without hesitation. The basis for discovery is there in the deliberate execution of line, in the interplay of paper and color and in the feel of movement, of dimensionality, in the play of letter and shapes. These paintings, these Kalligraphikons undertaken in 1997 and executed throughout the spring of the following year were a long time in coming. Rolf had already explored the relationship of space and form through composite work in wood and clay and had discovered through his study of traditional Newari manuscripts the potential of handmade Nepali paper in painting. He was familiar through years of practice with ancient Indian calligraphic scripts and had already experimented with symbol and letter in his work on clay and wood.
When craft and skill is developed over a twenty year period and when work is executed with a similar craft and deliberation, the role of the fortuitous is heightened. Not only in the work itself, but in the living of an artistically directed life. It was while researching ancient Newari manuscripts that Rolf came across the handmade paper he now relies upon. In 1985, Rolf discovered a stack of 150 pieces of unused black manuscript paper in the house of an old Newar priest. The priest told Rolf that his family had manufactured Nepalese manuscript paper for many generations. Rolf convinced the priest to sell him the paper and, driven by his fascination with old manuscripts, immediately began to paint on it. Attracted by the qualities of the paper and its potential use in painting, he began to have hand made paper (including an entire new range of thickness, and size and shapes) manufactured from the bark of the Daphne plant in Solo Kumbhu region of Nepal.
The pages in the ancient manuscripts are in fact long paper strips. It was the shape and size of the page that was part of its attraction. In his previous experiments with wood, Rolf had worked with combinations of vertical and horizontal lengths of wood. His intention had been to explore spacial arrangement in non-conventional media. A chance noticing of a design in a Greek restaurant in Antwerp led Rolf to add another dimension to this manipulation of painted objects.
"I sat waiting for my dinner in a simple Greek Restaurant in the harbor quarter of Antwerp; the place was packed. Then I noticed, opposite me, just below the ceiling, this meandering band, light blue on white, as Greek as could be. It immediately occurred to me to turn this into a major theme in my work; merely the result of free association, not unlike the way viewers see my work. I suddenly saw such a meander in three-dimensional form. On a napkin I made a quick sketch. That was the original impulse for the creation of the wooden meander. They vary in size, but I often produce them in 39x150cm. size. I construct the meander with five components. This meander is a symbol one finds all over the world, in all cultures."
Rolf has worked extensively with this pattern in wood and in clay, but initially he painted a "red meander" on handmade Nepalese paper. Therein a red meandering line passes across two white fields placed in the top left and the lower right of the black manuscript paper. "These two fields, being of different sizes", Rolf says, "create a notion of perspective. At the same time, the red line establishes a link between them, thus defining the quality of space in its most elemental form." It was not just the design of the meander that attracted Rolf, but the interplay among its component lines and its involvement with the surrounding space.
In 1991 Rolf, in his research, stumbled upon the Phags-pa' script, a stylized Oriental script that employs flattened elongated lines for letters, and recognized its similarities with the meander. Although his preliminary sketches for wooden meanders from this period played with the forms suggested by the Phags-pa script, he hesitated to appropriate Asian calligraphy as a basis for designing his wooden-painted objects.
It was recent the fortuitous and catalyzing suggestion of a Tibetan Lama on the orientation of Rolf's painting and the use of the letter A that overcame Rolfs hesitations and pushed him into an extended period of direct and unselfconscious creative work. After seeing Rolf's art work, the Tibetan Lama said: "I like your colors. Paint something Buddhist!" Rolf replied: "Sorry Rinpoche, but I don't paint smiling Buddhas". Rinpoche continued: "Why don't you just paint something that relates to our Buddhist tradition? Maybe you can try to use the syllable A from the Tibetan or Sanskrit alphabet and blend it with your modern art. There is also a meditation where we visualize twenty-one 'A' syllables stacked on top of each other."
Inspired by this conversation, Rolf began using Indo-Tibetan, as well as Central and South-East Asian calligraphy, as key-elements in his work. In these recent paintings, letters, in particular: the letter "A", "E-Vam", "Ya-Ra-La-Va" and "Ali-Kali" (the 16 vowels and 36 consonants of the Indian alphabet) seen as symbolic in their own right, appear as abstract form capable of rendering the space in which they are drawn as symbolic, as revelatory. Many of the paintings display the letter "Ah", the first character in the Indian alphabetical series, the unmodulated source of all other sounds, a seed symbol, and ultimately considered to be the unformed, the unoriginated, a concise representation of the absolute, in ten scripts, including the Brahmi, Devanagari, Ranjana, Kutakshara, Siddham, Prajalit, Litumol, Maithili, Tibetan and Phags-pa scripts. Prajalit and Litumol are Newari scripts. These iconographic symbols, these calligraphic icons and the space in which they are set free, Rolf, following my suggestion, refers to as Kalligraphikons.
This was not the first time, however, that Rolf had worked with a letter as an integral form in his art. Rolf had previously completed a work on clay, "red t", (1988) using western calligraphy. There, Rolf indicates that the placement and shape of the letter, an inverted red 't', in addition to defining space in a formal way, suggesting movement and expansion, calls up any number of associations beginning with the letter itself. Thus the German word 'Ton', means both 'sound' and 'clay'. Rolf claims that the "red t" can be seen as foreshadowing his current calligraphic work on hand-made paper. In fact, as Rolf's various career-long interests come together in the Kalligraphikons -- his attraction to the medium of the handmade Nepalese paper, his feel for space as concept and aesthetic reality, his work with geometrical forms and his involvement with calligraphy, their significance becomes heightened.
In Rolf's work on wood and clay, including those displaying the theme of meander, he explored space in its own dimension, i.e. in a three dimensional context. When he began producing the Kalligraphikons, Rolf projected an isolated single letter, the letter A into the space of the work. That single letter found a place in the archaic form language of circles, triangles, half-moons, ovals, half-ovals and irregular puzzle-forms that Rolf used in small scale abstract paintings and in installations of painted objects. He also followed through with the suggestion of the Tibetan Lama and painted 21 letter As stacked one on top of the other. He set the two syllables E and Vam into a relationship of polarity. The four letters of the Kutakshara script Ya-Ra-La-Va recreated the concept of the composite (separate individual units forming a whole) that was a defining element in his work with clay forms. The entire alphabet: the 16 vowels (Ali) in Ranjana script and the 36 consonants (Kali) in Kutakshara script, Rolf says, can be seen as spacial composites. The letters can be seen as objects with a formal relationship to each other and to the space and forms placed within their immediate orbit.
Space, tangentially placed objects and their patterned movements, especially those the form of the meander suggests, readily defined in clay and wood, are now being explored on paper. In his Kalligraphikons, space is thematized as it was in his painted object installations; it is a component of the paintings. The interplay of letter, line, shapes, especially circles, and space suggests movement, planes of experience, and defines for the onlooker a space of awareness, not purely aesthetic, but aesthetically derived. An iconic dimension. Script/ually, text and template for the initiate, yet more than color and form for those who view to be pleased.
When the onlooker encounters THE FIFTH SEAL, an exhibit of paintings from the Radheshyam Saraf Collection on permanent display at the Hotel Yak & Yeti in Kathmandu Nepal, the clarity and confidence of work by Rolf A. Kluenter that integrates calligraphy and abstract painting is made manifest. The paintings on handmade Nepalese paper have the feel of pages from the medieval illuminated manuscripts on palm leaf and black paper that Rolf extensively researched during the 1980's. Yet they are assuredly modern works.
Of course the calligraphy, the isolated letters drawn in the various ancient scripts, center the paintings visually, thematically and with a steadiness of hand. The variety and intricate beauty of the scripts themselves are apparent throughout the exhibit and are most readily seen in the large painting, The Eight Mother 'A's (referring to the eight mothers, asthamatrika, and using the Brahmi, Devanagari, Ranjana, Siddham, Prajalit, Litumol, Tibetan and Phags-pa scripts) and in the triptych series for each of the eight scripts. Based on this mother-painting, Rolf says, he executed three groups of eight smaller paintings featuring the letter A in each of the scripts. Each triptych displays the letter A singly and then entering a silver circle and finally in a group of 8 'A's. For Rolf the three times eight smaller painting are an homage to the 24 power spots in the Kathmandu valley.
While calligraphy anchors the individual work and thematizes the entire exhibit, (introducing through the seed syllables an iconic element apparently external to the paintings, but in fact resonating within them), it is the play of color and form that brings out Rolf's underlying aesthetic. The works that present a heightened classicism, that resonate with the calligraphy itself, that are in fact calligraphically dominated, are those where the subsidiary strokes replicate the strokes of the letters themselves as in Red A Bindu and the Two two Meter Square 'A's in the Ranjana script. The assurance of the letters, their assertiveness imbues the entire paintings. Letters are not the only iconographic element in play in Rolf's work however. Contextualizing, encountering and most often subduing the free floating calligraphy are circles or circular shapes or rounded areas of shading -- haloing, encountering, passing through, or interlocking with the letters; or standing forth as singular icons in their own right as in the title painting The Fifth Seal.
In Ali (16 vowels in the Ranjana script) and in Kali (376 consonants in the Kutakshara script), letter and circle are separate but equal, existing simultaneously on separate planes or superimposed on each other -- the red and white circles functioning as stamps or seals in Kali; the hollowed blue centered chalky white circles, in Ali, not defined enough to be seals, more like drops of water dissolving the letters until a deeper look draws them back to the surface. In most of the other works this opposition is unmarked, letter and circle, letter and drop, letter and bindu complement each other, though the calligraphy is thematically dominant, the triggering force in the relationship. The key to understanding the process at play here (though to speak of 'key' is to privilege the defined letter over the encompassing shape) is to be found in the triptych series -- single A, A entering a circle, and Eight 'A's. Circle counterpoints letter in all three phases, though in the final phase with the massing of the letters, a humming formation of 'A's, the enclosing shape, the hive of their swarm, no longer defined as circular is absorbed into background. Though in effect in all three phases stasis dominates (unless the viewer moves with the work sounding the depths of motion on his own), in the middle phase Rolf has identified motion as movement into, not as movement out; an entering, not an emanation.
Before we speak of color -- and color must be spoken of, for these are paintings not just calligraphic texts -- and not overlooking the medium in which Rolf is working , the handmade, highly absorbent paper and the broad strokes Rolf overlays the paper with in many of his paintings, the enclosing and backgrounding strokes, the drone behind the play of string and horn, let us consider this interplay of circle and letter in what I consider the four major works of THE FIFTH SEAL exhibit -- The Eight Mother 'A's, the Meter Square 'A's in the Ranjana Script and in the title painting, The Fifth Seal.
In The Fifth Seal the Phags-pa alphabet is written in six columns that comprise the entire length of what appears to be, by its shape, a page from a medieval manuscript. The flattened geometrical Phags-pa script, written in meandering bars itself, is set as the background for the painting. In a reversal of form, Rolf foregrounds the five circles, or seals -- stamps, I suppose, to register the finality or authenticity of the message contained therein. Forms in their own right -- red circles with a thin white circumference and a substantial white center. The ragged border reminds us of the Daphne paper and its absorbent quality; the blue/white gray letters seem, though highly defined, to be absorbed themselves back into the paper; the seals are freely floating above, drops of liquid that hold their shape, red lozenges, murky yet clear enough for us to see through to the vertebrae of the script beneath. Were this a stream we could imagine the remains of bone, of cartilage, under the clearing waters. But no, these are row houses in a city marked for destruction, the red circles markers on an aerial photo -- the white center pinpoints the target; the circumference, the range of destruction; the bloody heart of the image telling us what manner of creature lies below.
Reversal of role, yes, but the same opposition is at play: domination/submission. Perhaps the fundamental dialectic working through the Kalligraphikons is not between circle and letter, but between stroke and shading. The circles retain their shape, and so are of the same genus as the letters -- iconically conceived. In the Eight Mother 'A's, where the singular letters are haloed in a soft impressioned white, undeniably after-images of circles, drops, bindus, the blue/red letters are floating free from their cocoons. As diffused light leaves the enclosures behind, emergent, distinct, the 'A's pass free from their gossamer veils. It is only with the 'A's in Ranjana script that we realize how convoluted is the struggle for form to be embodied. If these were slides under a microscope we could see how integral are circle and letter; how within the letter the texture of previous strokes coagulates, how imposed is the containing line, so refined and definite. If this were a flag, then A would be waving in the wind and perhaps we would see the letter fall back from the space around it and the enclosing space emerge, a letter itself defined by the same sure strokes, the reverse image of the A, yet somehow contained within its own sounding, so that we could not say what was sounded. Were these truly letters of an alphabet, we could not sound what was said.
It is color that saves us from this destiny of knowing. Color, which often serves as the handmaiden of definition in the Kalligraphikons, substantiates the claims of the letters to our attention. Color heightens, color clarifies, color embodies the vibrancy of the stroke; color is contained within line and letter; color is knowing. The Red A Bindu in the Ranjana script offers us letter, circle and clearly defined contrasts; the subversive force of the paper is subdued. Circle and letter stand forth in the same space distinguished solely by size and number; the blue stroke effacing the red A could be a partial pronouncement of another larger letter. What we discover throughout the paintings is that letter and color are separate, yet identical, but occasionally, as in the Eight Mother 'A's, circle and color can breathe in each other's air. Circle is enclosure (opening that encloses) that can diffuse itself into its surroundings. This is the absence of defining stroke; this is the absorption of paper; this is the diffusion of form.
How are we to speak of color in its own right? Either contained within the defining strokes or absorbed within the medium of its expression, absorbed within the previous layer of color, it substantiates the realm of its application, but does not define it. Abstraction sets the Kalligraphikons in motion, distilling its blues and reds in a language of form. A still born language of forms? A language still to be born lies within the colors themselves. In unsteady alliance with the paper, its unfinished edges, its ever absorbing nature, color fears speaking out on its own. It is spoken of in the touch of each stroke, in space defined by the sentencing of each line -- there, we are to see. What is felt in that seeing other than the clarity of being seen is color. When the Meander in its incipient language blocks in the darkened white, the gray, and wants to block in the red, the muddy red, demarcating its realm, the ragged edges of the paper remind us there is more to be seen than this imprinted scrap, no matter how regal its trappings. That color can be absorbed, but not contained. Unless, space cedes its rights and unbounded, resonating color unto color...
The most threatened of Rolf's colors, his yellows, knowing not yet how to be tamed like the obedient blues and reds trumpeting their service, move through the Triptych, around its edges, assessing its center, unsure to be gathered into forms one could speak of with eloquence. When finally announced in the Kutakshara script (Kutakshara 1 & 2), are we assured it is yellow speaking? In the Yellow Ma of the Phags- Pa script, is it the color I see or the usurping form of the letter on its flag waving? In Evam, which closes the collection with the assurance "Thus (have I heard)" inscripted in red in the Ranjana script, it is the yellow stripes which are not really stripes, for the color will not be held back by the bars, whose light would move from the surface and catch our inner eye, enclosure opening unto itself, light that will not be contained that knows no bounds. Not yet radiant, unsounded in the syllables of its annunciation like its sister waiting behind the letters in Maithili script (Maithili A 1 & 2) it is all that need be seen.
The paper is arrayed on the studio floor; the artist stands above, a master leaning to his stroke as he turns from one painting to the other, bringing forth what he sees. The elegant shape of the letters, passed down in unbroken chains, clarifies his enterprise and steadies him to its completion. The paper which he has found to suit his needs, mothers this search for the (in)expressible. Not yet blinded by his charge: "May the unexpected be spoken; may the realized be known."
Detailed introductions to the main scripts Kleunter has used in his paintings can be found in the scholarly articles included in the catalogue that accompanies the Radheshyam Saraf Collection, a collection commissioned by Arun Saraf to reflect Nepalese culture in ways that are modern and unusual. The Saraf collection includes: 48 Kalligraphikons plus three additional paintings (the personal calligraphy of Arun (Saraf's name) and Radheshyam (Saraf's name) and the red Meander (on the back-cover of the catalog).