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BANANA PLANTATIONS AND SLAATTELID’S PAINTINGS

In his essay on objective literature and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Roland Barthes describes the novel Jealousy as a liberation for its genre. In Barthes’ view, Robbe-Grillet transforms the novel into a purely visual experience that takes place in the world of material things, on the surface: “We no longer look at the world with the eyes of a confessor, of a doctor, or of God himself (all significant hypostases of the classical novelist), but with the eyes of a man walking in his city with no other horizon than the scene before him, no other power than that of his own eyes.” And the description of the banana plantation, in which Robbe-Grillet explains with minute and mathematical precision the rows of banana palms and their system of planting is perhaps the clearest example of what Barthes refers to as objective literature. A literature that makes no attempt to refer to anything beyond itself: 

In the second row, starting from the far left, there would be twenty-two trees (because of the alternate arrangement) in the case of a rectangular patch. There would also be twenty-two for a patch that was precisely trapezoidal, the reduction being scarcely noticeable at such a short distance from its base. And, in fact, there are twenty-two trees there.

But the third row too has only twenty-two trees, instead of twenty-three which the alternately-arranged rectangle would have. No additional difference is introduced, at this level, by the bulge in the lower edge. The same is true for the fourth row, which includes twenty-one boles, that is, one less than an even row of the imaginary rectangle.1

Slaattelid’s latest paintings look as if they have been painted primarily to be seen. As with Robbe-Grillet’s description of the banana plantation, the guiding principle is detail and surface; they eschew psychology, message, interpretation and theoretical framework. The rows and terraces of Robbe-Grillet’s banana plantation are replaced here with horizontal and backward sweeping lines, surfaces abutting with surfaces and generous gestures that don’t refer to anything (unless you want them to). And although, or rather because, it makes perfect sense to see Slaattelid’s paintings in a broader context, where abstraction enters the history of art and where painterly gestures can be defined with the certainty and precision that causes the meaning of meaning to implode, reducing what one sees to what one knows, the challenge is to ignore all such. Because only then can they be seen as the incomprehensible tangles they really are. Just like the banana plantation that simply can’t be imagined as anything other than text – it is de facto impossible to imagine – these brushstrokes present themselves primarily as pure gesture, at least when it’s the eye rather than the intellect that does the describing.

But just as I am unable to avoid reading desperation and desire into Robbe-Grillet’s novel, so too am I unable to refrain from seeing connections to art history when I look at Slaattelid’s paintings. I cannot help but ascribe emotion to Robbe-Grillet’s protagonist when he describes the hands of A…, her hair, or the repetition of events of negligible significance, or the path of the sun in front of the veranda, and not least, I fill in the strange and otherwise meaningless spaces that arise in the arid description of the banana plantation. And just as I ascribe a state of mind to the narrator (perhaps he’s in shock on finding himself so alone in an existence he thought he could share; perhaps, in his grief, he turns to mathematics and natural phenomena so as to have something tangible to cling to, something he can see with the naked eye, as if defending himself against the visions of horror his mind is inclined to fabulate), I similarly (and no less reflexively and involuntarily) ascribe intentions to Slaattelid’s paintings.

Perhaps it’s just me, or maybe our brains just aren’t capable of leaving meaningless spaces meaningless. Or perhaps Roland Barthes was describing a utopia; art cannot be objective. In which case it is at least a consolation, or a compromise, to be able to view things as absurd, whether it be a banana plantation or a painting. Art that can be described as absurd also avoids the anxiety of having to acknowledge that something might not have any meaning on a deeper level; a quality that, when applied to either art or life (in a Camusian spirit), captures the paradox of seeking any kind of meaning whatsoever.

Neither Slaattelid’s brushstrokes nor Robbe-Grillet’s banana plants are part of a holistic universe; instead they belong to the same absurd superficies. They present themselves as solipsisms, in which horizontal and back-swept lines, a crosswise gesture with two countervailing movements, form “an oblique row [that] begins at the log bridge, at the right, and reaches the left corner of the garden. It includes […] thirty-six plants” – whereby one brushstroke is repeated within the other, despite their differences in colour, length and thickness. The only reason they belong together is their shared direction, which, thanks to the “alternate arrangement makes it possible to consider these same trees as being aligned in three other directions: first of all the perpendicular to the first direction mentioned,” where the coarser, rather heavy brushstrokes, thick with paint, hang down from above, roughly in the middle, and “then two others, also perpendicular to each other, and forming angles of forty-five degrees with the first two,” the back-swept strokes that look as if they are each heading off towards their respective corners. Divided into four fields of different colours – five, if one considers grey to be a colour – the surface can also be viewed from the side without becoming disharmonious, but “these last two rows are therefore respectively parallel and perpendicular to the direction of the valley – and to the lower edge of the garden.” A surface, as the eye sees it through language.

Notes

  1. All quotes from Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy are from the translation by Richard Howard, New York: Grove Press, 1965, pp. 51-53.