Peter Krausz: (No) Man’s Land
Through January 16, 2010
745 Fifth Avenue, 5th floor, New York
Per Deuteronomy 21, when a corpse is found in the wilderness, an elaborate ceremony ensues that is clearly intended to disrupt the regular routines of the townspeople living nearby. The judges and elders determine which city is closest to the crime scene, and the elders of that city take a young calf, which has never been yoked, to a dismal valley, which could never sustain agricultural life, where they break the calf’s neck. The Levites then arrive to observe the elders washing their hands over the bloody calf and declaring, “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes perceive it. Therefore, God, forgive your people Israel, whom You redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to flow amongst your nation, and let this blood atone for them.”
Everything about the episode of the Eglah Arufah – the broken calf -screams desolation, wilderness and boundaries. Since the murder victim is found outside the city limits, culpability is measured by the closest city, perhaps because that is likely to be the killer’s hometown or because that city should have better policed its outskirts. The calf, like the victim, is pure sacrificed potential, having never been worked, and the valley is so remote that even the flora avoids it. What better place for contemplation of the corpse and the atonement than the wilderness which cleansed the Israelites after they departed Egypt and which helped mold prophets and leaders like the shepherd boys Moses and David?
Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 14.” 2008. Secco on panel. 24 x 80 inches
Just as in life, it is necessary to set boundaries in art, although there are of course different sorts of boundaries. In a drawing, lines are used to capture the contours of objects (negative space), while paintings are shape based (positive space). An artist either draws around an object or paints the actual forms of the object. In a C?zanne still life, an apple ends where a pear begins, and in a Thomas Cole landscape, the horizon line separates a stormy sky and a mountain. But though it is necessary to set borders in art, not all artists are thrilled about the notion of setting limits.
Montr?al painter Peter Krausz knows enough about borders – the real sort, not just the aesthetic ones – to be suspicious of them and the people who tend to set them up. Krausz and his family escaped from Eastern Block Romania in 1969, which has led to his “long-standing preoccupation with the concept of borders,” according to a press release from Forum Gallery, which is showing his work through January 16, and with “the frontiers that sometimes follow natural geographical features but which are often arbitrarily, even brutally, imposed on nature, landscapes, and human beings.”
Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 9.” 2008. Secco on panel. 40 x 30 inches
Krausz created the 15 works of the Forum Gallery show using a mixture of high and low-tech techniques. Using satellite photographs from Google Earth, Krausz identified “no man’s land” areas, which are either unoccupied or disputed. He traveled to the areas and photographed them. Based on his photographs and the satellite images, Krausz painted the areas from a bird’s eye perspective, which he compares to Japanese emperors looking out over their land from a high vantage point as a way of owning the land. It also resembles Moses standing on Mount Nebo overlooking the land of Naftali, Ephraim, Menasseh and Judah, as well as the sea, the south and the plains, and as far as Jericho and Tzoar – all effectively no-man’s lands to him.
Krausz, who was born in 1946 in Romania, trained at the Bucharest Academy of Fine Arts. Today he is professor of fine art at the University of Montr?al. He uses a painting technique called secco, where he starts with a dry plaster surface and then applies a series of thin layers (like watercolor) of egg-based paints. The paintings have rich, earth tones, and seem to go on forever, since Krausz crops out the horizon line. This has the effect of making the landscape look like a story sea of continuous waves (even if they have trees on them) for as long as the eye can see. In the documentary “Peter Krausz: No Man’s Land” (Doina Harap Productions, 2009), Krausz says he also removed figures from the landscapes to arrive at an “almost biblical,” pre-human sort of scene. “Before the houses, the roads and the telephone post,” he says, “a universal landscape.”
Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 6.” 2008. Secco on panel. 36 x 80 inches
In the documentary, Krausz explains that he learned he was Jewish when he was the victim of anti-Semitism. “I could say I became a Jew the moment my little schoolmates called me a dirty Jew – that’s when I realized I was one. Because otherwise there was nothing else in my surroundings in Bucharest to let me know I was one,” he says. “So when that happened I became one and it stayed with me. Especially the history – the history of the Jewish people is of particular interest to me. Why this ongoing persecution that never ceases and is still continuing?”
Anti-Semitism has become a part of some of Krausz’s other series, like “De Natura (Humana),” where out-of-focus images of a man in a public bath echo Concentration camp iconography. In their book “Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust,” Shelley Hornstein and Florence Jacobowitz argue the images’ sense of “vulnerability” and “menace,” coupled with Krausz’s larger body of work, suggests a World War II theme. Krausz himself says that the photographs, coupled with an installation of long keys reminiscent of factory keys to open valves, evoke the Holocaust, and “you cannot help but think of the concentration camps, of the shower rooms where people were killed, gassed.”
Peter Krausz. “(No) Man’s Land No. 7.” 2008. Secco on panel. 40 x 30 inches
But even where Jewish themes and content is not so blatantly apparent, one gets the sense that Krausz’s work has a Jewish component to it. “For many years, even crossing the border into the United States was hard. We arrived at the border and there was … a little fear,” he says. “This might be hard to understand for Canadians or Americans, but for us the border still represents something dangerous and closed.” When Krausz returned to Berlin in the late 1980s, seeing the Berlin Wall, which was “extremely visible and heavy,” his fears of borders were renewed.
But no matter how much fear and pain bred Krausz’s work, the borders in his paintings are created by a generous hand, which seeks to understand the landscapes rather than to enforce rigid limits on them. It is a clich? amongst art instructors to tell students to allow the paint (or charcoal) to speak, but that is exactly what Krausz does for the landscapes he observes, studies and then recreates. It would be presumptuous and coy to call his mapmaking Tikkun Olam (the pop-Kabbalistic notion of repairing the world) or even progressive (in Hegel’s sense), but some viewers may well see a redemptive aspect mixed in with the wilderness of the no man’s land.
“It is often said that when you’ve left your home and you’ve immigrated and traveled, you’re always trying to rediscover the landscape of your childhood,” Krausz says. “So when I started focusing on landscaping in my work, I wondered if it was because I was trying to find this landscape that I had not seen again until 1994, when I returned to Romania after 25 years.”
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.