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HOW TO MISSPELL A PICTURE

Written in large letters on one of the paintings in the top-lit hall at Kunstnerforbundet is the word NON-FOOD. As if stamped twice onto the upper left corner, the terse term reaches out to us as we enter the venerable exhibition space. In addition to this, the picture consists of an accumulation of semi-recognizable forms or geometric structures; stars and artists' easels lying on their sides or floating in space. For those who know Mari Slaattelid's recent work, these shapes and the other visual devices that occur in the exhibition amount to a distinctive artistic signature. Easels, flags, lace patterns, indeterminate painted blobs and repetitive, graphically flat landscapes are all features that Slaattelid uses as symbols and signs in a discussion she has been pursuing for the past two decades about the role of painting in art, about the force and meaning of images, and, quite simply, about what a picture is.

Non-food. Non-art. Nothing. Not nothing. Contemporary art has long shown a wily interest in exploring the opposite of what has traditionally been viewed as meaningful. One example is the "non-place". To those of a modern, or hyper-modern mentality, "non-place" is synonymous with a location that most people find utterly meaningless due to its anonymity. An airport or a supermarket. A hotel or a motorway. In the public sphere such places tend to be "interstitial" architectural spaces that are undefined or lack any kind of rational use; the spaces beneath staircases or between built structures, and other smaller or larger urban voids. In recent art, the idea of the non-place has been a driving force in the exploration of spaces that are ambivalent, or surplus to requirement. Admittedly, Slaattelid's art is a far cry from the urban studies and other forms of art that seek to examine our physical, social environment. Slaattelid's medium, which forms the starting point for her reflections, is first and foremost painting. What drives her seems to be the idea that what is articulated within this limited space, a two-dimensional surface, is of relevance to the world in some fundamental way. The painting is an isolated, self-contained location of manageable proportions, in which visual structures have to justify themselves and decisions have to contend with one another until the picture makes sense. Along with the verbal terms she uses, this surface provides an opportunity to take the pulse of the inherent ambivalence and purposelessness of art.

The notion of non-place therefore offers a possible point of access to a discussion of Slaattelid's pictures. The pragmatic, slogan-like text to be seen on the end wall at Kunstnerforbundet is also the exhibition's title, and as such it sets the tone for a set of pictures that treat the painting as a species of "decision-making body" (which is also the title of one of the works in the exhibition), while also probing a kind of "negative" strategy or definition, which unsystematically and tentatively addresses the issue of painting by highlighting what it is not.

Most things in the world are – of course – not paintings. What Slaattelid clears a space for in "NON-FOOD" is the painting as a potential arena for statements that accommodate irreconcilable contradictions, uncertainty and fragility. An assertiveness that embraces uncertainty may sound like a contradiction in terms. For statements, we think, ought to be unambiguous and robust. But Slaattelid conceives of statements in pictures as fictional, as if they came from the first-person narrator of a novel. Statements are suggestions, and problems do not always have solutions. The works in the exhibition exemplify a position somewhere between the defined and the impossible; they seem to balance between the valueless and the valuable, presenting artistic skill as an ability to distinguish and recognize the difference.

I have been following Slaattelid's artistic career ever since I myself started training at the Academy in the early 1990s. Back then, Slaattelid was still a relatively unknown painter with a background in German postmodernity and obscure, semi-abstract nature painting. After studying in Düsseldorf, at what was then one of Europe's most prestigious academies, she immersed herself in landscape paintings of expressionistic force in their use of colour and the materiality of their brushwork. As the trend for impetuousness of the 1980s gave way to the multimedia and relational aesthetics of the 1990s, painting hardly seemed the medium with which to build a reputation in the art world. With a certain disregard for this situation, on a few occasions Slaattelid showed small, intensely coloured landscapes, and in 1996 her simplified motifs found their form as the "template" pictures that would duly become a recurrent feature of her work. These pictures ushered in a change that was not only formally and conceptually significant but which also had consequences in terms of materials and techniques. Slaattelid swapped her luscious, pastose use of oils for drier, monochrome surfaces, often with painted textual elements that reflected philosophical or feminist themes.1 At the same time, she abandoned canvas in favour of hard, industrial surfaces such as aluminium and Perspex – and sometimes also oil paint in favour of photography – with the result that, in 2000, she won the prestigious Carnegie Art Award for Nordic contemporary art, the first Norwegian to do so. Having since become a well-known episode in the history of Norwegian contemporary art, this story needs no further elaboration here. Suffice it to say that Slaattelid's series of paintings Reading Woman, together with four photo-portraits of an eight-year-old girl sporting white face cream, in which the model's face served as the picture surface for a kind of cloud study in white (Protective), amounted to one of the most remarkable statements to emerge from the local art scene at the turn of the century – a statement that raised the artist into the upper echelons of Norwegian contemporary art.2

Like many other young artists in the nineties, Slaattelid saw the canvas as something utterly submissive and physical that was capable of satisfying the viewer almost entirely on its own. Her move to hard, cold surfaces was a reaction that forged a link to mass production and the inauthentic aesthetics of technology. But unlike many of her fellow painters who found inspiration in pop art, mass media and the chemical-mechanical or digital logic of the photographic image, Slaattelid's explorations and experiments represented a return to fundamentals. Her systematic interest in the very physics of painting and materials – the resistance of the brushstroke and of substances, transparency, light-bearing properties, etc. – which she pursued in order to bring out intangible, indeterminate or "ideal" qualities, is something I consider fairly unique in Norwegian art over the past fifteen to twenty years.

The inscrutability of the verbal terms she uses, the depth of her oil colours, and the hard, cold surfaces of her industrial materials, are all used to convey contrarieties and mutually complementary elements. Paint is applied to the substrate, then sanded down, removed and applied again multiple times. Slaattelid turns some of her pictures back-to-front, restricting herself to painting on one side of a pane of glass, leaving the front clear and transparent. She has pressed painted surfaces together, drilled holes in the surfaces to let paint flow through, passed sheets of Perspex from one set of hands to another, allowing the fingerprints to remain as a gesture and indicator of the painting process, or she has depicted works by other artists – famous historical paintings photographed with an intense flash that appears like a bright sun reflected on the glossy varnish, obscuring the picture's motif.

This might sound like a recipe for a glorious mess. But just as striking as the will to experiment with materials is the colouristic subtlety and delicacy of the end result, which is sometimes a surface of almost sensual quality. The means by which painting functions are inverted with a consistently steady hand, and where the painterly gesture threatens to overheat the idiom, Slaattelid introduces language to serve as a kind of thermostat. In reviewing Slaattelid's 2008 exhibition at Galleri K, I described her project as a "manifesto of uncertainty" 3; an ambivalent and paradoxical combination of fascination for the artistic material, bordering on fetishization, and textual phrases that create a distance to that very material, and which suggest something more intangible and abstract, something in the conceptual realm.

The artist's interest in poetry (she stopped painting entirely for a period in the 1990s, and toyed with the idea of going over to the written word) is accompanied by an awareness that artistic practice also requires theoretical and analytical reflection on that very practice. Slaattelid has thus gained a reputation as a conceptual painter who distances herself from experience-based, "authentic" art to focus instead on analysing the technical and discursive properties of painting. But in Slaattelid's art, there is nothing mutually exclusive about beauty, empathy and a sharp eye for the material and historical aspects of the medium. What we are invited to reflect on is painting, and in a broader sense all art, as an arena where it is possible to articulate the tension between rigid certitude and fundamental scepticism – something essentially useless that is capable of offering essential insights; a statement in which nothing is said; like something that sets up a current between, on the one hand, that which is trivial and valueless and, on the other, something profoundly serious and capable of tackling life and death.

Painted to look as if it had been applied with a template, the word NON-FOOD in Slaattelid's picture constitutes a specific reference to the crates of emergency supplies air-freighted to global disaster areas. In that context, the template signals inedible contents (anything from medicine to clothing, tools, electronic goods, toys, etc.). In general, "non-food" covers most of the goods that cannot be categorised as food. As a metaphor, it can be interpreted as food for the soul. We can take Slaattelid at her word, quite literally, and see the painting NON-FOOD as a crate full of tools. The star and the easel figure can be understood both as depictions of actual objects, as shapes in a geometrically structured composition, and as symbols with a more or less clearly representational function. The star is probably the simplest in this respect, used in everything from political decoration (heraldry) and revolutionary propaganda to commercial sales posters. In other words, a graphical form that is intended to carry a powerful, simplified, and politically or commercially obvious rhetorical message. By contrast, the easel is a less triumphant symbol. It refers to painting as such (each of the easels that occurs in the exhibition holds a small square picture – again, a picture within a picture), to studio work and the processes of art, and consequently to the actual uncertainty and doubt that are characteristic of art – the purposelessness of an object that cannot easily be pinned down, or reduced to rhetoric, survival value or any other specific function.

But then, neither is Slaattelid's use of verbal terms particularly rhetorical. The fact that they can be seen as simplistic and almost naive suggests that here as well the effect is calculated. We perceive them as demonstrative attempts to set the picture chattering by turning it into a poster. But what do these seemingly misplaced slogans, such as "decision-making body", "ideal problems" or "precious", really convey? The latter is represented in the artist's own handwriting, and even includes a misspelling, with an s overlapping the c in the middle of the word. It is of course a calculated gesture; the misspelling is meticulously rendered in fine brushwork and occurs twice. And here perhaps Slaattelid is indeed resorting to rhetoric – if one interprets the misspelling as an ironical comment on her own use of English and, more broadly, on the Anglicization of the language of art and perhaps also on the wholesale uniformization of international contemporary art. But even if this is so, it still seems to miss the point. The misspelling is a pointer to art's hybrid or bit-of-both nature; art as heroic anti-hero, wavering between something and something else, between reason and feeling, somewhere between absolute meaning, existential meaninglessness and practical uselessness – a vagabond in a world of categorized order that has no quick fixes to fall back on. The misspelling represents tentativeness, the realm in which authority fails, where words become ideas, or ideal problems, and art becomes precious, cherished and priceless in its uselessness.

Arve Rød, 2011


Notes

  1. These terms took on philosophical and political connotations in virtue of the artistic context in which Slaattelid set them. In many of her works from this period it was in fact the language of the cosmetics industry that Slaattelid took as starting point for her reflections on colour, language, perception and psychology.
  2. The list of Slaattelid's exhibition since 2000 includes solo shows at Astrup Fearnley Museum and the National Gallery, and participation in group shows at several key institutions throughout the Nordic region, including Kiasma in Helsinki and Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. In the same period, her works were also purchased by a substantial number of Norway's most important public and private collections.
  3. Dagens Næringsliv, 18.10.2008.