Robert Birmelin – 1998

robert-bermelin-essayTHE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
ROBERT BIRMELIN | September 1 – December 20, 1998

Among Others-The City Crowd

The City has long been a metaphor of the human condition in all its complexity. It stands for the highest human aspirations to civilization and glory, even as it also stands for the worst violence and degradation.  Most utopian dreams have required a perfected state of the city as their setting.  Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, the modernist architectural visions of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, even the Emerald City of Oz as the necessary pilgrimage site to receive courage, heart, and reason are all set in perfected cities.  In religious tradition, the City is also a metaphor of final perfection and salvation.  St. Augustine’s City of God is a yearning for the New Jerusalem.  Even the tragic horror of Jonestown was a demented attempt to create a perfected human community.  If the human ills that the city so amplifies can be overcome through the utopian or spiritual city, then surely the human race can be delivered.  Yet from Babylon to Gomorrah, from Dicken’s London to Batman’s Gotham, the City is equally a metaphor of violence and evil.  Indeed, at its heart the metaphor of the city is about this tension between human hope and failure, between goodness and violence.

Architect Thomas Jefferson, for example, was convinced enough of the city’s corrupting powers that he intentionally designed the University of Virginia (his utopian community of learning and reason) to be set in the countryside apart from the city’s corrupting influence upon undergraduates.  Jefferson’s utopian city of learning is a poignant example because it contains within itself the tension of this metaphor.  To the East, its façade looked back to Europe imitating the rational ideals of Greek and Roman styles as a way of acknowledging their Republican and Democratic social orders, orders which youthful American now dreamed of as capable of building a good society.  And to the West, this ideal geometric façade looked out over the chaos of the vast American continent, still a violent wilderness.  Even while Jefferson as architect used architecture to bring a metaphor of order to chaos, Jefferson as President had already employed surveyors to organize the entire continent into rational geometric grids of land.  He believed that the imposition of such geometry would help tame the violence of wilderness, just as many utopian thinkers have believed that the imposition of geometric order upon City design would reform the violence of the human heart.

Nearly two centuries later, Robert Birmelin’s paintings of the city are a kind of latter day report on such matters.  Birmelin shows us that, in reality, all human cities exist as a precarious tension between order and violence.  His powerful paintings, curated here under the title, Among Others – the City Crowd, explore the city in all its tensions.  Exuberance, relentless movement, and working class human dignity interpenetrate with failures, ulterior motifs, drug deals, and claustrophobic littered stench.

In these compelling works, the City vision is literally experienced as vision.  More accurately, as a multiplicity of visions held in tension.  Birmelin paints, it seems to me, in a kind of perceptual and psychological realism revealing both our experience and our deepest consciousness of late twentieth century urban life.  Birmelin has perfected a remarkable means of expressing the City’s complexity.  This rich complexity is signified as a visual complexity, as a series of representations and distortions which are utterly true to the experience of being in the city and to the powers of the painter’s language to signify that experience.  In these paintings we see radical shifts in perspective, charging our vision simultaneously with ordered geometry and the emotional distortion of that geometry.  These paintings advance and drop away, they pull violently left and right, creating an alternating tension between rhythmic order and breakdown into chaos.  Blurs of peripheral vision and rapid movement weave together with frozen moments of clear sight.  Vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic, drug traffic, and trafficking in sex, hot merchandise, and voyeurism all ripple through these powerful canvases exciting our senses, fears, and hidden desires.

In these paintings, our consciousness of the City heaves into the tilting perspectives of Birmelin’s multiple panels and their fragments.  The language of signs and the language of bodies break apart and reconfigure until a poetry of sweaty vernacular ecstasy is created.  Fluctuating in and out of focus, “HOTEL” and “NEWSPAPER” flicker to “HOT” and “NEW” as our field of vision jostles between open space and the surging crowd.  Bodies are fragmented into the clear surface and blurred underbelly of human urges as the overlapping of figures in crowded streets causes strangers to merge into disturbing intimacies.  A man and woman passing each other as strangers melt into a frontal embrace, a hand (perhaps merely hailing a cab) becomes a blow in the viewer’s face, while another hand extending concludes a drug deal and another appears to grab at the buttocks of a passing woman.  In these paintings, all races, ages, and genders pulse in social intercourse, throbbing with gritty energy and trouble.

Birmelin’s paintings cause us to feel a resonance with this seething crowd of humanity to which we also belong.  He involves us.  His painting is a visual poetry that belongs to one of the best traditions in American arts and letters.  One thinks of the poet Walt Whitman exploring the very same city crowds of Manhattan and Brooklyn as he knew them one hundred years ago:

The blab of the pavement, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb…
The meeting of enemies, the sudden oath, the blows and fall,
The excited crowd, the policeman with his star quickly working…
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls
restrain’d by decorum,
Arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptances,
rejections with convex lips,
I mind them or the show or resonance of them—I come and I depart.

Wayne L. Roosa, Art Historian
Bethel College