Robert Birmelin
at Peter Findlay Gallery
October 15th - November 1st, 1997
Jesse Richards

If you have gotten used to stepping from the cacophonous streets of New York into the serene, almost otherworldly quiet of an average gallery, Robert Birmelin's current exhibition will tempt you to reevaluate that serene ideal. Birmelin's realistic paintings are consciously designed to induce stress, with their larger than human scale and their strategic portrayal of chaos. The works are organized in such a clever way as to appear disorganized, and create vividly surreal everyday scenes that invite deeply personal interpretations. Robert Birmelin

Birmelin employs familiar images in his paintings - objects and scenes that seem all too common in our busy lives. Several images run through the majority of the exhibit - an industrial cityscape seen from far away; tables overflowing with the clutter of the average business person's take-home work; a gloomy, smoke-filled sky. While the works focus on human themes, the people themselves in the works are never complete but judiciously cropped so as to appear fragmented. They can not devote all of their time even to the busy events and work depicted in the paintings. A good example of this is The Yellow Room, a piece that shows a woman's back and leg as she runs out of the scene. Books and paper fall off a table as she dashes by, but she is in too much of a hurry to pick them up. Her blouse and skirt are frazzled and her hair is unkempt. The other aspect of the picture, painted upside-down and blended-in so as to appear at first glance to be seamlessly integrated into the woman's room, is both an interesting contrast and a reiteration of the theme of the painting. It shows a man relaxing on a couch next to a coffee-table, seemingly unaffected by the chaotic goings-on of his quasi-neighbor. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the man is also affected by trouble and stress. His features are blurred and indistinct, and because of the placement of his scene, he appears to be not sitting but hanging on to his upside-down couch for dear life. His environment couldn't possibly exist, and this might be part of the reason the woman is so upset - her world is completely chaotic and dependent on a structure that, while realistically depicted, has no basis in reality.

One interesting composition that is often repeated in Birmelin's exhibit, in keeping with the upside-down juxtaposition of objects, is that of small tables and cityscapes. In Table-Cityscape-Telephone, Birmelin depicts just that - a table, with a telephone on it, merging into an upside-down cityscape. Books, papers, and even a cup of coffee spill off of the table into the sky. A hand, on the left, reaches for and grabs the phone, holding it in a gesture of triumph which makes all the stress worth it. The painting produces an interesting psychological effect in that it brings to mind the skewed priorities of modern life; any work can be disrupted by a ringing phone - in fact, the phone is often the source of much of the work (and stress). The work contains some of the most stressful images known to modern workers in its depictions of the city, work, and the phone. Even the mess produced on the table is a stressful image to many people. The city is at once the setting of the scene and an intrigal part of it - instead of relieving the tension with its outdoor view and expanse of ocean, it works to confine the viewer between its sprawling towers. This frightening sense of confinement and overwhelming business is common in most of the paintings in the exhibit; an interesting note is that one way Birmelin reinforces this psychological effect is by continuing some of the paintings onto the sides of their canvases. This combines with the large scale of the paintings (and their relative closeness in the gallery) to create an encroaching, chaotic space in and of themselves.

In fact, the psychological effects produced by Birmelin's paintings and the feelings that they stir in the viewer are the most significant aspects of the works. One of the best examples of this is Two Cities-Traveler. The painting shows a complex city scene mirrored by another city in the sky, upside-down. The most striking part of the painting is the subtle upside-down face superimposed over the scene. The face is so large that it is difficult to make out at first, which adds to its surprising effect. A hand in the lower right corner implies that someone is watching the scene from a rooftop. The most obvious implication is then that the face belongs to this person, who is dreaming of traversing to the second city (which, because of its placement in the sky, could be in his mind. This also would explain the implication of the word ‘traveler' in the title.) Birmelin's grand landscape and sweeping colors add even more depth and feeling to the painting. The overwhelming feeling produced is introspection, and this piece seems more serene than the other works in the exhibit. Birmelin produces the effect of being alone even though hundreds of cars and buildings are included. This feeling of isolation is common in city settings, and the viewer can not help but identify with it. Even though this work is more calm, stress is still inherent in the traffic and pollution of the ‘right-side-up' city - a good reason why the traveler may want to leave it.

The idea of the viewer being isolated from the rest of the ‘city' around him is also clearly depicted in News, one of the best works in the show. The most interesting aspect of the painting involves the large hand in the foreground of the picture. It is slightly transparent; this creates an effect that makes the hand appear either to be moving very quickly or disappearing, or both. Extreme speed is one of the themes of the painting - underneath the onlooker a frantically bustling highway rushes by. The wind appears to be so strong that dozens of newspapers are strewn over the scene. Birmelin creates an effect distinct from his other paintings in that the scene appears real except for the disappearing hand (In his other works, objects are upside-down or flying in an impossible way. The newspapers here could actually be floating in front of the scene.) This realism draws even more attention to the hand. Is Birmelin suggesting that the human is completely disappearing from our machine-driven society? Or merely that the person appears invisible to the cars below him, because they are moving too fast? Again, a large number of potential issues become open to the viewer; all of the questions asked are valid.

The main part of the painting that remains clearly defined for what it was meant to be is the landscape of the highway. Birmelin showcases his skill and background in realism by depicting an extremely common scene with eerie authenticity. Articles are visible on the newspaper pages, details are visible on the cars and distant buildings that set the backdrop for the highway to sprawl into. Interestingly enough, though, is the fact that, in keeping with his other works, Birmelin eliminates any other human forms from the piece. Not a single person is visible within their vehicle - reducing the cars into inhuman chunks of metal, hurtling under our viewer, the only living object in the picture.

Of course, some of the effects that seem to make the paintings so fascinating can also come across as being too overbearing. When the exhibit's brochure was shown to some friends at home, several couldn't look at the pieces for too long. One person even recoiled from one of the more chaotic pictures, saying that it caused too much anxiety and was ‘scary'. Many of the people liked the works, but had to turn the page upside-down in order to resolve both views in their mind and completely understand what they were seeing. Obviously, this is not possible in the gallery itself - which contributes to the works' overwhelming qualities. While looking at the work on display, there is really no way to sort the image out quickly or easily. This brings up the downside to Birmelin's deep personal connections and hectic images - if people are turned off by his chaotic designs, then he may defeat his purpose. Some of the objects represented in the work could be so stressful to an individual, due to personal experiences, that the viewer can not tolerate them. Unfortunately, while this reaction is an equally valid interpretation of the images, the person is unable to grasp many of the possible meanings implicit in the work simply because they can not view them in depth.

Still, if one identifies with the work enough to be scared of it, Birmelin has produced the striking effect that he must be looking for. This extreme realism combines the realistic depiction of scenes with a careful montage of psychological colors and images to strike a chord deep within the viewer. The paintings achieve great success in becoming jumping-off points for introspection and reevaluation of the hectic world of the cities in which we live. Thus, the works show a huge variety of possibilities and interpretations, each dependent on the viewer. With his unique psychological effects, Birmelin succeeds in showing today's fast-paced world directly as we perceive it, and presents realism as an ever-changing construct, dependent not only on the world around us, but on every person's memories, individual sensibilities, and imagination.

Robert Birmelin