Marta Braun, 2008

La Fenice

In December 2005, David Finkbeiner bought an abandoned ruin down the road from his own house in the north of Tuscany. With the help of local masons, he put on a roof, rebuilt the walls, uncovered the fireplace, fitted new windows and doors and over the next two years made the house habitable again. He called it la Fenice and he has given this name to this series of pastels and gouaches he made tracing its rebirth.

There are no pictures of the completed house in this series. Rather the almost-animated forms created by fractured walls, broken stairs, shattered or fallen beams and the faint traces of human habitation—the scratches on the walls, their layers of old paint—were his inspiration. Using them over and over again in different configurations and in different light he forced them to express the melancholy beauty he has found in the ruined and abandoned house. His has used pastel and gouache to create space that is at at once concrete and enigmatic, and the result is a graphic poetry that can only be called romantic. The forsaken house will be brought back to life literally; and in these pictures the artist will bring it back both literally and figuratively as well.

The first three images in the series are the most abstract. They were done in the artist's studio, not far from the abandoned house. In them, the surface of the picture plane is covered with a web of pale colours and sharp intersecting lines. But the windows, beams, walls and sky—the elements that will appear in almost every picture—are present here in their most reduced form. All is flat, and the flat, geometrical space is what links them to previous work, but the simple shapes and glowing colour hint of what is to come. The layers of paint built up over centuries by generations of dwellers will become the floating clouds of colour imagined by the artist. The lines of deep brown will become the ruined beams and rafters. These first three pastels show the harsh geometry of the neglected building. They make clear in the most summary form the ephemeral existence of the house before it was restructured by the builders.

As the builders opened up the house to rebuild it, Finkbeiner was challenged by the possibilities of the intricate structures—the fragments, holes and juxtapositions—and began to make paintings that filtered the concrete reality of the house through his artistic vision. At one level he wanted to record its derelict state and its slow coming back to life, but he also wanted to make images that would capture the aching beauty of its abandonment and testify to the melancholy poetry of its ruin. These tensions—between reality and art, the human and the organic, nature and culture—are the other subject of the pictures. This is not a new venture. Most visual inspiration in his work comes from the abandoned spaces he encounters. His desire to recreate them and at the same time to bring to the surface the sensations of melancholy and enigma he perceives in them produces pictures that hover between reality and dream. The structure of the house is visible, but it has been transformed by the painter. He transforms it in his painting as he transforms it, working with the builders, in real life. He has emphasized the ambiguity of the space. He has used colour to give a dreamlike dimension to the parts of the house, to conjure up the mystery of the space broken up from years of neglect. In almost every picture he dissolved the solidity of the structure into suggestive abstract pools of coloured light.

In 8, for example (DAVID : all numbers refer to painting numbers which he has numbered), one half of the picture is an eyewitness reconstruction of what he saw, and the rest is constructed from his imagination. The straight, deep brown rafters—one of the constants in the series—create the foundation for comprehending the overall spatial construction of the painting. But the wall floats away in shifting clouds of colour. The colours at the top of the picture record the result of years of the house's inhabitants painting the walls. But in the lower half of the painting the artist elaborates the colours into floating layers of rose and pinks that are purely imaginative.

Marking the centre of the wall we see a horizontal plane that could be bench or work table. A triangular bundle of staves appears in the upper right, projecting into the corner. Similarly, the identical but inverted forms appear in the lower left. These are the detritus of the house. Things fallen and picked up, things put aside by the workers and used by the artist to give coherence to what we see. The centre of the painting, a looming shadow, is no longer identifiable except that it might divide what could be walls. But it does have a function. It creates a deeper space that makes us aware of the floating colours made by the movement of the hand dragging and blending the chalk across the textured surface of the paper. It makes us shift from identifying objects—rafters, shelves, door frames—to perceiving pure space. The bottom part of the picture is transformed into a panel of free-floating light which projects to the front of the picture plane and flattens it. The top is suspended, receding and coming into perception as a wall enclosed by rafters.

In 6, it is the rising stairs that ground us within the frame. They are centered and stabilize the picture, but they draw our vision upward to the largest area of the picture, the open sky. Here, as we see the open air penetrating the missing roof framed and the sunlit walls deformed by deep shadows, we encounter the vertiginous pure space the artist has constructed. Like others in this series, this image of the sky and the deep blue air surrounding the house and penetrating its gaps and fissures is witnessed as if the artist were lying on his back looking up. The sky moulds the composition by defining the contours of the building.

In 3, not only the sky, but also the deep shadows created by the bright sun join in the artist's play of forms. The window holds the centre of the picture; the naked rafter connects the left side with its own shadow, forming a sharp V. On the left the wall recedes and then the lower half of the painting floats to the front of the picture plane. The artist records the way light paints the abandoned house and creates deep shadows on white walls. This subtle play of recession and projection and the invisible work of knitting together reality and abstraction is Finkbeiner's great accomplishment.

The ambiguity of spaces in a single picture—the co-existence of a flat plane of colour and a realistic depiction of three-dimensional space create a push and pull that reveals the painter's vision. Almost like a camera, Finkbeiner focuses on the pertinent detail, chooses and frames the elements in each picture. He creates spaces within the space of the house and the forms within those spaces. In 14, those spaces are coherent and rational. We look past the walls, beams and window, we see the red roof tiles and we understand that we are seeing them from the inside. But the wall behind the staircase goes nowhere and suddenly we are left behind in an empty space, an unreal space of the artist's making. In 15, its partner, the whole tone is much darker. The window and beams are still present but the painter has composed the elements more clearly from a specific vantage point and more tightly. The forms are rectangular and these rectangles are integrated into larger ones. The play of light and texture on the surface makes that geometry alive in such a way that we understand that the concreteness or realistic jumping-off point of the picture is what has allowed the artist to pervade the space with his poetry.

In other pictures the artist records the intrusion of nature and its power of time to obliterate all that the inhabitants of the house had created or left over centuries. In these images, broken stone, mud and dirt appear as important elements. In 4, parts of the building—a window or door—loom in empty space as if they were pieces of a dismembered corpse floating in the clear air, and once more the criss-crossed fallen beams ground and frame the play of light and colour on the rose and terra cotta walls. In 11, the mountains behind the house and the fallen stone and mortar dominate the ever-present rafters and the roof tiles that here are hardly visible. This is not a pastel, but a gouache, perhaps a medium better suited to painting nature because of the way the watercolor pools on the Mylar and then buckles to form surfaces that seem to be part of some primeval topography.

In the last pictures of the series the focus changes. The shift begins with the pictures that show scaffolding—the workers beginning to impose their own geometry on the geometry the artist has found in the fragmented structure. The house is coming into being, the traces of nature are being tidied away and the human is being imposed. The last three pictures depict a single room of white walls and dark floors. There is a window in the room that makes coherent the transition from the interior to the landscape beyond. The window, central to so many Renaissance paintings has, at least since 1980, been one of Finkbeiner's preferred subjects. It allows him to play with the light invading the interior and the space created by the light.

Nature is outside now; the house is finished, its desolation erased. It no longer interests the painter. And with the empty rooms he comes full circle: the painted surface, the mix of subtly blended colours, the flat surface of the paper and the flatness of the walls and floors bring us to the act of painting itself.

Marta Braun, 2008