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ART IS AN OUTSIDER

2016

Lengths of rough garden hessian almost entirely cover the long wall of Mari Slaattelid’s studio, one Saturday afternoon in mid-August. The hessian is heavy with paint, in some places diffuse, muted earth tones, in others rectangular fields of grey or red, with hard edges, leaving a narrow border of the greyish-brown fabric. Spread across the floor is an assortment of large canvases covered in vibrant primary colours. They were painted outdoors, lying on the ground. Diluted acrylic paints have been applied, sometimes in broad strokes, sometimes dripped or poured onto the canvases, where they form small pools before drying. In places the fabric has wrinkled and buckled due to moisture in the ground and the air, giving the pictures an organic, somewhat dishevelled look. Hanging on one of the shorter walls are smaller sheets, where the paint seems to have been applied in a more conventional and controlled fashion using brushes – organic strokes and shapes that are closer to geometric fields, in which primary colours have mingled to produce greys and earthier tones. These are abstract compositions that seem like developments of the paintings Slaattelid showed at Galleri K last winter, works that the exhibition’s press material described as a long-term exploration of three basic shapes: the rectangle, the corner and the cave opening.[1] Here and there, the hessian on the wall is disintegrating; one of the strips has a hole torn in the middle, like a portal where the loose threads of the fabric barely cover the wall behind. Slaattelid talks about the placing of forms at the centre of the picture, about composition and the symmetry of motifs, about the application of paint and touch, but also about her doubts – that there can easily be too much textile, too much like wall hangings; that they become objects rather than pictures.

Someone who didn’t know better might be tempted to think these materially oriented, physically and visually coarse-grained works had been produced in a state of fumbling uncertainty by an artist in mid career who was seeking to accommodate the latest aesthetic trend in contemporary art. During the latter half of the 1990s, Slaattelid made a name for herself in Norwegian and Nordic art circles with exquisitely delicate paintings, and later with conceptually refined and technically immaculate photographs. Since 2000, Slaattelid has been among the upper echelons of the Norwegian art world, recognised by fellow artists and critics,[2] exhibited by prominent institutions, and represented in many of the country’s largest and most important public and private collections. In that year she became the first Norwegian artist to win first prize in the prestigious Nordic Carnegie Art Awards.[3] The prize brought her wide acclaim and led to solo exhibitions at major Nordic galleries and invitations to contribute to group exhibitions across Scandinavia, making her one of the most frequently mentioned artists in discussions about what many people were describing as a new discursive and conceptual turn in Norwegian painting, a trend that was seeking new justifications for a traditional medium in an era marked by mass production and the impact of digital technology. In her work, Slaattelid adopted elements of this technology and the pristine surfaces of mass production. The result was an idiom that combined an industrial and mechanical finish with a subtle and sometimes sensual use of the medium of painting and its techniques: colours and material, brushstrokes and surfaces, lighting and depth effects.

It was an aesthetic that seemed well adapted to the broader mood around the turn of the millennium, when the taste was for clean surfaces and minimalism in everything from architecture and design to installation art. For those whose artistic sensibilities had been shaped by the 1990s, the shift in the preferred materials of contemporary art that occurred in the mid 2000s came as a surprise. The aesthetic that emerged favoured a coarser materiality and what were, for contemporary art, “impure” techniques such as textiles and ceramics, which had previously been associated primarily with crafts. Thus it would be tempting to conclude that Slaattelid was simply going with the flow. But the investigations into the fundamentals of painting that covered the walls of her studio at Grünerløkka in Oslo during my August visit – the experiments with surfaces, colours, fields and formats, and the weight and resistance of materials – have arguably been central to Slaattelid’s practice from the very beginning.

 

1992

This essay will attempt a wide-angle view of Slaattelid’s work, with a particular emphasis on the period from the early 1990s to 2000, and especially her exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken in Arendal in 1996. It will also identify links between key points in her biography and artistic work. The portrait that emerges is of someone both at ease and at odds with the dominant climate of the field to which she belongs; a painter both rooted in tradition and willing to experiment and explore; an artist who claims her entitlement to the purposeless and ineffable dimension of art and who serves at the same time as the author of incisive opinions offered through the public channels of newspaper articles and reviews.[4] The development of Slaattelid’s artistic practice over the past four decades reflects changes in the zeitgeist. Nevertheless, it is possible to see connections between the earliest and latest periods of her work that reveal an unwavering consistency; a steadfast belief in the possibility of establishing links to something essentially intangible, something conceptual, or to an ideal form of artistic practice, using down-to-earth materials.

I first encountered Slaattelid’s work in the early 1990s, at the long since defunct Galleri 27 in Oslo, shortly after I myself joined the painting class at the National Academy of Fine Art. The 1992 exhibition “Maleri” (Painting) was Slaattelid’s second solo show since finishing her studies at the art academies in Düsseldorf, Bergen and Oslo. She had had her debut two years earlier, a solo exhibition at Galleri Gimle (also long since defunct) in Bygdøy Allé in Oslo. “Maleri” presented a series of small, pastose landscapes in a French post-impressionist style. They could be interpreted as lyrical nature studies worthy of a plein air painter – hazy grey horizons with rooftops and church towers, forest fringes and fields beneath overarching skies, and a Roman amphitheatre on Sicily – yet their willingness to experiment with the disjunctions and anomalies of painting indicated that they were as concerned with the painted surface as they were with picturesque representations or nostalgic scenes. The picture I remember best from the exhibition at Galleri 27 was an Edward Hopper-esque depiction of a farmyard with a storehouse and barn (Tun, 1992), in which two grey rooftops merge to form a strict geometric shape. The subject matter may well seem idyllic, but the combination of tactile oil paint, tamped down in places with a palette knife, the evident formality of the composition, and a partly non-naturalistic colour scheme, were all aspects of an objective approach to the depicted elements that could only be explained by an interest in something other than rustic scenery. Interestingly, several of the pictures in Slaattelid’s debut exhibition at Galleri Gimle two years earlier had been abstract, indicating that her early work followed an unusual course: from abstraction to figuration. Admittedly, from a formal standpoint, the difference between a landscape and a purely abstract composition is sometimes quite small. Even so, the progression from abstraction to figuration suggests an approach to picture-specific issues that goes beyond the merely formalistic considerations, where abstraction is often the logical outcome of skills acquired in handling figurative compositions. From the outset, Slaattelid was more concerned with the material characteristics of her medium, the primacy of colour, the problem of getting awkward colour combinations to resonate, than with drawing – even when employing a figurative idiom. This has been a central concern of her subsequent work, with implications that are not exclusive to the traditional field of painting. At the same time, the earthy palette and the heavy brushstrokes of thick, home-milled oil paints in these two exhibitions signalled a project that looked back towards the legacy of 1980s neo-expressionist painting, while the moody greys and confident figuration showed an affinity for traditionalism and atmosphere which seemed even then to belong to another era.

 

The threshold

By 1992, the impetuous studio-based painting of the 1980s had had its day. Intermedia and the digital revolution, relational aesthetics and art as a communal asset and social critique – the idea that the artist has social and ethical responsibilities – would become the dominant headings of the art discourse during the 1990s. It is only in rare cases that these are of relevance to Slaattelid’s work. Even so, it makes sense to profile this historical period when writing about an artist who, over the ensuing decade, and somewhat on the margins of the mainstream, would establish herself as one of the most important painters on the contemporary Norwegian art scene. It seems an unlikely achievement that in the first half of the 1990s a painter could gain recognition for an artistic practice that did not cultivate ironic distance. Oslo’s National Academy of Fine Arts, which was known as a bastion of “easel painting” among Norwegian art schools, only acquired its first video cameras and a workshop for digital image processing around the time of Slaattelid’s exhibition at Galleri 27. Lessons on theory replaced lectures on art history, most students developed a clearly conceptual orientation, and the so-called young, or “alternative”, scene set up its own exhibition venues, not just as spaces for spontaneous artistic experimentation, but also as watering holes for their own crowd. In practical terms, art seemed to be as much about socialising and “events” as it was a contemplative study of form, colour and materiality, pursued in the isolation of the studio. Internationally, painting had long been a target of fierce academic criticism, primarily from the poststructuralist camp, where the 1980s revival of figuration in painting was characterised as regressive and reactionary, a stance that came to define trends in Norway.[5] It seems there was simply no space for painters of Mari Slaattelid’s ilk.

On Slaattelid’s CV, the exhibition at Galleri 27 is followed by a four-year hiatus, interrupted only by her participation in a 1993 group exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus, “Stillhetens sprog” (The Language of Silence). Even so, the latter is worthy of closer attention. Together with other painters with an interest in tradition, including Eilif Amundsen, Ida Lorenzen and Hilde Svalheim – the selection was made by the then director, Åsmund Thorkildsen – Slaattelid showed a selection of paintings with themes similar to those she had shown at Galleri 27 the year before. “Stillhetens sprog” seemed to confirm Slaattelid’s allegiance to a softly spoken traditionalism in Norwegian art, a “special sensitivity to easel painting and its traditional themes which seems rather surprisingly to have survived in Norway,” as chairman of the board at Kunstnernes Hus, Reidar Kraugerud, wrote in the exhibition catalogue. There is no need to discuss this exhibition further here, other than to note George Morgenstern’s comments in Aftenposten about the approach to colour and the materiality of painting in the exhibition as a whole and in Slaattelid’s pictures in particular, comments that are of central relevance to the current text:

The use of earthy colours is also widespread. The choice of colours and the ways they interact have an important effect. Whereas pure colours tend to “flow”, these broken colours highlight the material nature of the pictorial surface and of the painting as such. […] Consequently, it is not landscapes and houses that Mari Slaattelid portrays, but rather the threshold where pigments and brushstrokes become representations of such.[6]

There is a suggestion here of how we might approach Slaattelid’s activity as something other than the desire of a young artist to perpetuate a particular craft and tradition. Of course, red-painted barns in the Norwegian countryside and Greek amphitheatres in Sicily refer to landscapes and places with specific cultural meanings. But as interpreted by Slaattelid they serve just as much as a pretext for putting a substance – the actual paint – to work. Or to use the words of Morgenstern, we can see it as a “threshold”, beyond which something physical and utterly ordinary enters another dimension of significance. As I understand it, what we have here is an argument as to how painting can justify its place in the so-called discursive field that has now been institutionalised as “contemporary art” by appeal to its material and aesthetic aspects, and to a metaphysical tradition.

Four years with virtually no visible activity is dramatic for an artist who is just finding her feet. In 1992, Slaattelid turned thirty-two, an age when she should have been at her most audacious when it comes to networking and securing exhibitions. Certainly, there was a clear practical reason for the interruption, namely the birth of her first daughter, which kept Slaattelid at home for two years. But a further two years were to pass prior to her artistically momentous return with the exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken in Arendal in summer 1996. What had happened in the meantime was an escape from artistic despondency to redemption; an apparent shift in direction that would propel Slaattelid to the highest echelons of Norwegian and Nordic contemporary art by the end of the decade, an ascent that is best illustrated by her receipt of the Carnegie Award. Apparent, because, as we have seen above, what had happened was not so much a radical shift as an extension of the territory open to a kind of painterly exploration that was already evident in the pictures she had shown at Galleri Gimle and Galleri 27. The road to a broader field of activity is also the result of a critical assessment of both the contemporary field and of the artistic tradition from which she came, as can be deduced from both her studio work and her writing activities, which resulted in a number of perceptive essays and feature articles over the course of the years.

 

The 1990s

A state of crisis is a latent danger for every artist, and can thus be considered normal for any life-time project that may never be seen through to completion and which can never be fully justified or explained from a practical perspective; an indefinitely protracted period of study the significance of which can be far from obvious. In Slaattelid’s case, there came a point during preparations for the exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken when she considered abandoning her activities as a painter. She found the prevailing art scene in Oslo both predictable and close-minded. The so-called impetuous (heftige) and often unsubtle painting of the 1980s had already left a generation of artists in a state of anxiety about pictures with expressive or subjective force. Slaattelid kept her distance from both camps, or aesthetics. She didn’t feel at home with the painting of the 1980s, and even less so with the social art of the 1990s.

In Norway, the impetuous painting of the 1980s was largely inspired by German postmodernism and neo-expressionists such as Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz and Jörg Immendorf, artists we can assume Slaattelid knew well from her time as a student in Düsseldorf in 1983–84, where she spent a year as a guest-student at the prestigious German art academy. At that point, another German postmodern painter of central significance, Gerhard Richter, was halfway through his more than twenty-year professorship at the academy, and it was still possible to bump into Joseph Beuys in the corridors in connection with one of his artistic actions. On returning to Norway, she studied art history for a year at the University of Bergen, before enrolling at the West Norwegian Art Academy in 1985. We need not dwell on her studies here. Suffice it to say that after two years at the academy in Bergen, she transferred to the National Academy of Fine Art in Oslo, where she completed her training in 1989. It is also worth noting here that she was already well clear of the educational system by the time the changes of the 1990s began to take effect, both those within the broader art world, which understandably had an impact on teaching at the art academies, and the upheavals within the educational system: the mergers of traditional art and crafts colleges to form art schools, and the Bologna Process – perhaps the most profound change ever to have impacted formalised art education. While not impossible, it is unlikely that Slaattelid would have emerged from a 1990s art school doing the same kind of intimate brushwork and evocative landscapes that she presented at Galleri 27. She was aware even at the time that in their process and format these paintings were too introvert to really stand out.

But at the time there was no viable alternative. For many people, the “open” structures and institutional critique of the 1990s were more a matter of terminology than reality. Slaattelid was among those who felt that, paradoxically, the world became more cramped when the boundaries of what artists could do and by what means were radically expanded. The expansion applied not just to what counted as an artistic medium or statement; within the alternative scene the presentation of art also became normalised as an art form in its own right, with the result that artists became curators, critics and gallerists without necessarily having to renounce their role as artists. The artist was as much a politicised, network-building agent in a social context as she was practitioner of a certain discipline – a conscientious and committed person who could manoeuvre in a culture where the qualities of the artist mingled with the quality of the art on show. “Criticality” was a mark of quality and institutional critique soon emerged as a career strategy within the very institutions against which it was directed. As Slaattelid remembers it, a quasi-political climate emerged that tended to be somewhat “remote and text based”, as she put it;[7] something external that consisted more in strategic positioning than in genuinely productive actions. In her view, the dominant current of 1990s art lacked what matters most to a painter: an interesting visual dimension. What it did have, however, was an insistence on “content”, even if the impact on the problems addressed could seem all but negligible. “The critique of painting that comes from the social engineers of the art world exposes a belief in what art is capable of that far exceeds what any painter can bring herself to believe,” she wrote with only thinly veiled sarcasm in a 1998 catalogue text.[8] In Slaattelid’s view, socially engaged art was more about representing a content than creating one; it was a matter of style that sent the right signals about the artist and her artistic practice.

 

Language

In the spring of 1994 Slaattelid travelled to Stockholm to see the major presentation of Gerhard Richter at the Moderna Museet. Considering how Slaattelid’s art evolved over the next few years – as an exploratory and analytical painting project that combined abstraction with figuration, photography with painting, and art historical references with the language of poetry, theory and consumer culture – one imagines her encounter with Richter’s more objectifying idiom ought to have been a turning point in a positive sense. On the contrary, Slaattelid felt an ambivalence towards Richter – not to his idiom or his artistic project, but to his celebrity status and the institutional presentation, the inflated formats, the commercialisation, and the response of the art scene as a whole, which, to use her own word, went “bananas”.

Even so, it is worth dwelling on Richter a little longer, since his work was highly influential for Norwegian art in the 1990s. In combining abstract and figurative elements, photography and painting, Richter seemed to be searching for ways to justify painting by examining its historical and material status. For many, his approach seemed a promising alternative to the expressive and literary painting of the previous decade, one that promised a possible way out for painting in an era of profound historical uncertainty for the medium. Among the Norwegian artists with affinities to Richter we find not just Slaattelid, but also painters such as Thorbjørn Sørensen, Kira Wager, Steinar Jakobsen and Vibeke Slyngstad. “Many of them sought to emulate Richter’s monotonous, hazy photorealism, me included,” Slaattelid has said about the German painter’s influence. Despite her reservations about the lionisation of the man himself, Richter was an artist she could learn from – perhaps primarily because his work schooled the eye to recognise the purely optical similarities between photographs and painted surfaces, a quality that found expression in pictures such as Exposure 1 and 2 (1996) and Confirmed Images (2002).

In describing this kind of approach, more typical of the Slaattelid we know today, we anticipate the analysis of an essential phase in Slaattelid’s practice. Which brings us to another slightly less obvious theme that deserves some attention, one that coincides with her trip to Stockholm. Perhaps in reaction to the collective fervour that had taken hold inside Moderna Museet, Slaattelid went to bookshops and purchased volumes of contemporary Swedish poetry. What she found there, she says, had a far more immediate resonance than the art she had come to see. It is an experience that helps us to understand her work as a whole, because in Slaattelid’s case, the interest in expressing oneself in writing, and the ability to do so, is naturally associated with the articulation of the visual work. Slaattelid grew up in Voss, where her parents worked as philologists and the poet Olav H. Hauge was a family friend. Linguistic identity was a hot topic for the radically inclined students at Voss grammar school and language was a field of interest long before visual art had become an option. In more recent years, her husband Stian Grøgaard, a fellow painter, author and professor at the National Academy of Fine Art in Oslo, has been an important discussion partner.

Her interest in poetry was an interest in a condensed form of literary expression with an inherent capacity for syntactic and conceptual precision. For Slaattelid, poetry seemed to allow a greater profundity and height from which to fall than was possible in the visual arts; it represented “a more independent sphere than the art scene with its corrupt networks”. Slaattelid herself was neither a poet nor a full-time writer, but when assessing her work as a whole, the linguistic awareness and approach are a key to understanding her as a creative and expressive agent. She herself goes so far as to say that “what motivates me has to do with language, and I’m convinced that the sense of what one can write (as opposed to what one ought to write) has influenced my work as a visual artist.” Slaattelid’s writing takes the form, on the one hand, of idiosyncratic essays and, on the other, of conceptualisations and linguistic contextualisations of the techniques of painting. In addition, many of her titles carry references to poetry, as they have done since her debut in 1990. One example is the small painting Rose, Shadow and Water (1989), an abstract composition in black, grey, ochre and red, the title of which is taken from Paul Celan’s poem Schlaf und Speise. The use of language – both in titles and as concrete text within the pictures – can be seen in light of the way Slaattelid’s art has developed since 1992. Around that time, her pictures began to show a more complex content in terms of the problems they address. At the same time, they show a simplification of approach, which can to some extent be understood as an effect – albeit indirect – of the reductive language of poetry. Poetry is efficient text, and “perhaps the economy of a good poem is something that can be compared with the (necessary) irrevocability of painting”. By this point, Slaattelid’s work had evolved from painterly, organic abstractions to evocative landscapes, and she was now taking a drastic step back towards a more radical abstraction. Compared to her pictures of the 1980s, this is a new approach that has both visual and material implications. But one of the reasons for this unexpected shift was of a practical and artistically more trivial nature.

 

1996

For a couple of years, while caring for her child at home, Slaattelid was without a studio. Once her daughter was old enough to spend a few hours each day in a kindergarten, Slaattelid could resume something resembling a working life. The old procedure with oil paints that take ages to dry, waiting for interesting things to happen and for the colour to “sit”, was not an option. She needed a way of working that was more efficient than the method she had used in her early landscapes, where the colours were contained in compact layers of oil and pigment. Consequently, she began to study the American “hard-edge” painters and the geometric abstraction of the 1950s and 60s – artists such as Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden and Frank Stella, who had sought a style radically different from that of the abstract expressionism of the New York School, which had dominated American art in the post-war decades. The hard-edge painters, together with Barnett Newman, whom Slaattelid often returns to as a kind of touchstone, are regarded as predecessors of minimalism, insofar as they strove for a reduction of form and a more economic use of painterly effects. At the same time, she was also looking for something that would satisfy her desire for a new approach to painting, a greater naturalness and clarity than she had come to feel was possible via the laborious pursuit of tiny distinctions within the oil medium. What she needed was a material from outside the sphere of art, something other than canvas, which many painters felt to be overburdened by tradition and the idioms of art history.

The solution came initially from Sandvika Veveri, a textile manufacturer in Bærum, in the form of a curtain fabric with a simple, visually striking printed pattern that immediately appealed to the painter’s eye, and which could be bought by the metre. The 130cm-wide roll of fabric was divided into six brightly coloured bands, in hues of green, blue, pink, red and yellow. Slaattelid conducted a series of experiments based on the colours and lines of this pattern, developing her own geometric abstraction using tape and water-based paints applied directly to the unprimed fabric. In places, her composition worked in opposition to the colours, directions and lines of the original textile, in others it accorded with them. The pattern of the curtain fabric introduced a poster-like quality that opened a number of alternative avenues to painting that the earlier landscapes hadn’t been able to offer. She admits that these “stripe pictures” were a joy to make. They were a wake-up call that reignited her urge to paint; efficient experiments that could be planned in an evening and done the following day. Although the stripe pictures form a little-known chapter in Slaattelid’s oeuvre, having rarely been shown in public, they are crucial as the solution to a problem. They amount to a threshold of more fundamental significance, a series that points the way towards a new artistic territory, where Slaattelid would soon be hailed as a renewer of tradition and something of a pioneer.

If the stripe pictures opened a door, it was what Slaattelid presented in her third solo exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken kunsthall in Arendal, in the spring of 1996, that constituted the space in which her work found its new form. The exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken can be seen as a “before and after”, a watershed that ushers in a number of the characteristics that still define Slaattelid’s art today. It was here she introduced her Template pictures, the first in a series of variations on a basic theme that both continue and redefine the earlier landscapes. Templates 1–12 consists of twelve square aluminium panels, each of 50 x 50 cm, mounted in a rectangular array of either three columns and four rows, or four columns and three rows, an arrangement that highlights the repetitive, serial approach that underlies the work. Each panel is painted with an identical horizon, an essentially black silhouette of a forest against a pale background. The various tones are all on the grey-scale, and the graphic contrast between the figure and the background is pronounced. The figure is sharply cropped along the lower edge and on either side, as if painted using a stencil. Slight differences in the width and height of the figure, in the slant of the sides, and the positioning on the panels all contribute to the impression of a fairly casually applied template – in reality a consequence of the figure being projected from different angles when being traced onto the surface.

Despite the inference one is likely to draw from the mechanical appearance, each unit was painstakingly painted with a small brush. The silhouette is taken from a photograph of Norderhov in Ringerike. It represents a biotope that could just as well be Danish or German as Norwegian. Although it was the artist who took the picture, she offers no explanation of where it is or what it means to her. The landscapes she had painted four years earlier had titles that linked them first and foremost to geographical or cultural sites – such as At Norderhov, Farmstead or Syracuse, or to a particular artist or artistic tradition (English Landscape or Bay (after Constable)). Templates 1–12, on the other hand, depicts a generic patch of ground that could be virtually anywhere. In this series, Slaattelid develops a visual idiom that is almost iconic in its graphic simplicity. The silhouette figure, which she has returned in various forms since the exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken, is disciplined by means of a repetition that makes it teeter between figuration and abstraction. Template is a landscape with trees, fields and open skies. But it is also a painting that refers primarily to itself and its own creation, despite its lack of any lines or brushstrokes that could constitute a recognisable, authentic signature. Unlike the earlier landscapes, which unmistakably incline towards an artistic signature in their retention of visible brushwork, and which in their own quiet way signal a “heroic” struggle with the painterly materials, Template could theoretically have been painted by anyone with an overhead projector. In writing about the series, Slaattelid has said that the template she used here is a representative minimum that stands in for the virtuoso aspect of nature. Here one could add “of painting”; the template effectively peels away the romantic layers of self-presentation that “advertise on the artist’s behalf something interior and emotive. Whereas romantic landscape painting puts landscape in the service of the soul, this project is an exercise in renunciation, an exercise in returning the landscape to the landscape, in giving the earth back to the earth, in allowing it to be unheimlich once again, without being obscured by the artist’s inner.”[9] Thanks to the frozen form of the projection, Template comes across as an anti-painting that severs the link to 1980s expressionism – a seemingly mechanical representation which, seen in this perspective, carries greater conviction and weight than emotive painting. The landscape is no longer the mirror of the soul, but is left “to exist where it is: oil on aluminium, a painted projection, photographed landscape. The forest silhouette raises the issue of faithful representation, without being one.”[10]

The Template pictures represent “a detour around the authentic approach that has been allowed to dominate in Norwegian painting,” wrote art critic Lotte Sandberg a few years later.[11] This is a remarkable observation when we consider that Slaattelid’s contributions to “Stillhetens sprog” at Kunstnernes Hus, just three years before she presented Templates 1–12, had led to her being described as a practitioner of a distinctly Norwegian form of traditional easel painting. It is no exaggeration to say that the Template series marks a dramatic change, with implications not just for the formal and technical aspects of her work, but also more broadly for its conceptual dimension. At the same time, it is in these works that Slaattelid manifestly declares her interest in the painting as a picture-object, an interest that one can identify, at least with the benefit of hindsight, as latent in Slaattelid’s paintings prior to 1992, those which in Morgenstern’s view depicted the “threshold” at which the pigments and brushwork are as indicative of the paintings’ objective nature as they are of their respective subjects and moods. The rustic scene in Farmstead was handled as a series of five images that shift progressively towards greater simplification of the surface and a de-naturalisation of the subject, and towards a purer treatment of light, colour and form. When we look at Farmstead without our plein air gaze, little remains to distinguish its images from the abstract Rose, Shadow and Water from 1989. Significantly, the paintings of Farmstead are currently the last Slaattelid did in a traditionalist style. They still convey something unresolved, though again with the benefit of hindsight; they signal an awareness of the relationship between the picture as object and the picture as representation that points the way to both the exploration of primary colours and basic figures at Galleri K in 2016, and the Template series with its cooler treatment of pictorial elements.

 

Photography

It is worth noting that the use of aluminium, and later Plexiglas and composite MDF, amounts to more than just a practical solution. For many painters, these industrially produced materials have offered an alternative to the historical associations of canvas, and almost two decades were to pass before Slaattelid returned to the use of softer surfaces such as paper, canvas and hessian. In a note on her own works published in conjunction with the solo exhibition “Kategoriske bilder” (Categorical Pictures) at Galleri K in 1999, she wrote: “I want to avoid the pathos or full-voiced tone of traditional painting. By ‘cooling down’ my pictures, making them flat and hard, I reject that accommodating corporeality of the paint medium and the shortcomings of the canvas. It is my hope that this will give the pictures a more sober, freer, lighter voice. If you situate yourself within a tradition, a certain tonality is part of the deal. No matter what you do, painting with a capital P sings through – tradition takes over.”

The work on the Template series soon led to other forms of automation in the quest for a machined look, and simultaneously to a more incisive link between the tools of painting and a photographic aesthetic, as in Exposure 1 and 2, which were also shown at Bomuldsfabriken. Here the paint has been applied to the aluminium plates in thin layers using a roller, producing the impression of “images within the image” as a result of differences of shade between the central rectangular fields. At first glance, the picture seems to be an abstract composition, perhaps alluding to details from a landscape, but as with the Template series, the more we look, the more it becomes evident that it refers primarily to itself, to its own materiality. Exposure differs from Template, however, in that it lacks a reference to anything concrete outside the picture (a landscape); here the picture has been produced entirely by means of a rubber roller. What we see is merely the pattern of the paint as deposited by the roller, plus patches of solvent and impurities; the result is a spectrum of shades where the roller has passed in straight lines across the hard substrate. The roller itself has become a producer of images; a mechanical intermediary that holds authority in a climate where traditional methods and materials can no longer be perceived as neutral and self-evident.

Slaattelid compares the roller’s imprint to a photographic exposure, a manual handling of the photograph, where the painting’s material appearance replaces the impression of reality produced by the photographic image. Figuration emerges within the layer that is rolled onto the surface; pictures are “developed” on the flat material according to the random characteristics of the tool. What we have here is images generated by tools and chemistry, a painted “photo-lookalike”, a kind of reverse realism that stems from our expectation of something being there (a phenomenon familiar even to Leonardo da Vinci, who advised artists to stare at a dirty, mottled wall, and to use a little imagination to discover usable ideas within it). Exposure resembles a photographic surface, the outermost layer of photography on paper: “What one sees is the persuasiveness of photography rendered in painting.”[12]

The interest in a photographic aesthetic is perhaps the most obvious factor relating Slaattelid to the “Richter culture” and the attempts of its proponents in the 1990s to define a valid domain for painting. Slaattelid has described the work on Template and Exposure as a painter’s quest to find the essence of reality and documentary. Photography’s place at the top of the art-media hierarchy has to be explained, at least in part, by its authority as documentation and witness, in an era when the “return of the real”[13] was persuading many artists to become camera-wielding ethnographers. What Slaattelid does with the roller is appropriate a neutrality of reproduction through the use of mechanical processes that correspond to the logic of photography, understood as something material rather than as a means of representation. Slaattelid writes that the process requires an eye that “interprets and believes. […] A successful ‘exposure’ presupposes that what it takes for me to have faith in the picture as reliable or documentary is in some unclear way actually present.”[14]

This must be regarded as an invitation to a discussion with few participants. In the 1990s, photography was “the truly central medium and the norm for spectacular visual arts”, as Slaattelid remarked in 1998. “Photography talks naively about one thing or the other and resembles commonplace, straightforward communication. It is photographers who hold the right to representation. It is virtually on its own as a means of freezing reality. By the 1990s, photography was as self-evident as painting had been in the past.”[15] Both documentarism and the various social strategies of art in the 1990s promoted a communicative attitude towards art that Slaattelid found alienating. Her choice of painting – albeit in a form with similarities to photography and the conceptual approach typical of art in that decade – can be attributed to her recognition of what one might call the “authority of the thing”, the idea that things have relevance and point beyond themselves in ways that are more confident, but also less perspicuous, than actions or opinions. Painting is a realm of possibility where things – the materials and the studio process – have to be tested. This means one has to take opportunities where they happen to be, and to leave the question of what a picture says until after the work of searching for new variations and fruitful niches for exploration. According to this logic, one cannot know what one is doing before one has done it. As an attitude to art, this implies that the intention is latent in the paint and the thing; it signals a “materialism” that remains untouched by the social art of the 1990s, which Slaattelid felt could only communicate meanings that already existed – and which therefore inevitably ended up where it started out. In Slaattelid’s painting, the intention never dictates to the materials. Even so, some of her key works from around 2000 do seem to invite political interpretations.

 

Appropriation, text

Slaattelid’s contribution to the Carnegie exhibition in 2000 is worth noting in this respect. Two series of pictures – Protective, consisting of four photographs, and Reading Woman, a set of four dichrome paintings – seemed to combine a number of the characteristics that we now recognise as typical of Slaattelid’s art. It is here that photography first features in her work as a medium in its own right, as something more than just visual source material and a conundrum for painting. Even so, Protective is still fundamentally about painting. In each of the four photographs that make up this series we see a child’s face with a rough covering of white face mask. The child in the portraits serves as the “canvas” for white monochromes, with underlying warm skin tones like in old-fashioned landscapes. The skin is overlaid with the white of the therapeutic mask fluid, a substance barely distinguishable from patchily applied paint – in places thin and almost transparent to the colour of the skin, elsewhere a thick pastose layer that conceals the skin beneath.

The paintings of Reading Woman can be seen as a visually delicate elaboration of a form of art-historical appropriation that Slaattelid first showed in her exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken. In addition to the Template series, in 1996 Slaattelid made her first paraphrases of works by the Swedish landscape painter Carl Fredrik Hill and the Norwegian Lars Hertervig, two figures from the history of art to whom she has returned repeatedly. Covered, Opened, Hill consists of three diptychs based on Hill’s Måneskinnslandskap (Moonlit Landscape) (1877). Re Production Hertervig consists of variations on a landscape by Hertervig, with ancient trees, vivid blue skies and solid-looking clouds. Despite the romantic associations of these depictions – which are further underlined by the fact that both Hill and Hertervig suffered from episodes of melancholy and mental illness – here as well Slaattelid’s pictures are painted so as to seem almost “flat”, as if they were meant to elaborate and embody the rejection of the conventionally picturesque that she first articulated in her stripe pictures of 1994. Her interest in Hertervig in particular has resulted in a number of notable works, culminating in the exhibition “Solitaire” (Solitary) at the National Gallery in 2004 – a purely photographic project that explored new aspects of the material and the symbolic potential of photography and painting, and which ascribed a psychological dimension to the landscape genre that alluded both to Hertervig’s biography and to the supposedly melancholic pull of artistic work in general.

This art-historical orientation has been a recurrent feature of Slaattelid’s project in the form of straightforward appropriations, as in Blowup (1999), which closely scrutinises a detail of the landscape in Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation from 1472–75 (and which takes its title from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up), or less explicitly in the two-part painting White Surrender (2002), which, with its elegant handling of red and white, subtly references the colour-field paintings of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Slaattelid’s visual idiom often combines such allusions to historical artists and specific paintings – from the rococo painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo through to the avant-garde Kazimir Malevich – often in combination with text, providing a point of access to the discussion that is latent in all her work, and which has a range of implications. In talking about the Carnegie Award, she herself has said that it is important to “recognise how your picture is shaped by the rhetorical figures of historical paintings, and how words and titles influence the way we read things visually.”[16] Textual elements appeared in her work as early as the exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken, but became more incisive in the paintings in the Carnegie exhibition. In the years that followed they assumed the form of increasingly poetic and bombastic slogans, often single words or phrases that lacked clear meaning in the context, but which invited interpretation, thanks to their philosophical and political overtones. Examples of such texts include “Campaign”, “Non-food”, “Subject Matter” and “Ideal problem”. Discussing this use of verbal fragments in his catalogue text for Slaattelid’s solo exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in 2002, the museum’s director Hans-Jakob Brun wrote: “we find ourselves among words that revolve around language and the ways things manifest themselves […] and among pictures that revolve around pictorial forms and ways of structuring information.”[17] This use of verbal expressions can be understood as a demonstrative attempt to make paintings speak – to entice them to “spill the beans” by pursuing a poster-like quality, something eye-catching that puts the form upfront before the content.

Returning to Reading Woman, this is painted on panels of black Perspex. Each panel has two upright rectangles with rounded corners painted in soft pastel tones, like coloured blocks in a make-up box. Beneath each pair of rectangles is a single printed word – “sophisticated”, “elegant”, “sports”, “active” – taken from a classification of female types that Slaattelid found in the product catalogue of the cosmetics firm Chanel. In its statement, the jury wrote that Slaattelid’s work possesses a “visual beauty that embraces the entire history of painting, from body painting to the late modernist monochrome”.[18] The references to the realm of women in these works is obvious, not just in terms of the appropriation of the language of advertising, but also in the title of the series, which alludes to the reading woman as a typical theme – and to Reading Woman as a typical title – of a historical genre of painting. Similarly, the photographic portraits of children can be seen as images of motherly care, where the traces of the hand can be read as white caresses. The invitation to give these works a feminist reading seems obvious. But Slaattelid is reluctant to attribute political intentions to them. In the catalogue for the Carnegie exhibition she is quoted as saying that she does not view them as especially feminist or critical. “I affirm certain categories, which are subversive in themselves. This fluctuation between agreeing and disagreeing with what’s suggested is what constitutes the work.”[19]

 

Close to the heart and foreign to the world

Ambivalence with regard to clear interpretations runs through Slaattelid’s art like a common thread. For Slaattelid, painting and the studio process represent a practice that is fundamentally purposeless; something that cannot be regarded as part of any purposeful programme or as having any objective other than itself. Superficially speaking, Reading Woman could be about both women’s experience and modernist colour-field painting, but for Slaattelid these pictures should be considered just as much as figures of rhetoric or persuasion, works in which “two colours make a stronger statement than just one”.[20] Sixteen years on, she writes about Reading Woman that “the rhetoric of flattery directed at women is effective even when no one believes in it. Transferred into painting, such statements acquire a depth that can encompass all our ways of forming meaning.”

Despite the broader ambition of this kind of statement, outwardly Slaattelid’s artistic landscape surveys the terrain of small and low-key variations, where the difference between beige and beige or between two shades of red is central to her way of working – differences that enhance a sensitivity for the significance of what is being done, and what is being done is something that follows the logic of the material. Since 2000, Slaattelid has demonstrated an astonishing range in her experimentation with the physical means of painting. The resolute combination, subversion and aestheticisation of the elements in her project result in finely calibrated surfaces that embody the centuries-old tradition in painting of juxtaposing physical substances and visual signs, a tireless testing out of the painterly gesture in all its possibilities.

A word that crops up repeatedly in Slaattelid’s own reflections on her work is “risk”. It is a term which, for her, evidently implies something fundamental, yet also fundamentally uncertain. She writes: “The individual work homes in on a quality that is not self-evident, and which involves risk at every stage. It is an objective never to allow the artist’s signature or some other form of artistic ‘affirmation’ to neutralise this risk.”[21] Art is concerned with a value that is essentially ambiguous. “Art is exception” she writes elsewhere: “What art is, or what constitutes art, is not something predefined; art shuns the use of recipes, anything done for show, or just to please. The artist […] must endure uncertainty about what the value is of what she does. So too must others. Art might be an empty gesture, but it can also be intrusive, radical, intolerant. Closest to the heart and foreign to the world.”[22]

In this landscape, art is an outsider, a drifter in a world of categorised order. It is a hybrid and self-contradictory, a mixed blessing; bombastic and vague, self-assertive and deeply insecure – a kind of heroic anti-hero, wavering between reason and emotion, somewhere between absolute meaning, profound meaninglessness and practical futility. Its orientation is cosmological more than social, a place where painting and the studio form a microcosm. It is all a matter of visual constructions, with decisions wrestling with each other for as long as it takes to make the picture and one’s life project make sense. Art is a process that takes place on the most fundamental level, and in partnership with its materials. There are no secrets to iconography other than those that are there for all to see, says Slaattelid. It is something to be touched and felt, whether in the photo-optical medium, in the difference in weight between two types of white pigment, or in the folds of a coarse garden hessian bought at Clas Ohlson’s. It is the threshold to a dimension that cannot be secularised out of existence and which doesn’t need the excuse of suitable content. The risk lies in entrusting, as one must, the task of persuasion to this dumb, physical thing called a painting, when you’re no longer there to defend it. 

Notes

  • [1] The exhibition “Purity of the Heart One to One”, Galleri K, 08.01.–13.02.2016.
  • [2] An example of official recognition from the professional community came in 2011, when the Grants Committee for Visual Artists, represented by Marianne Heier, recommended that Slaattelid should be granted the use of Grotten, the state-owned artist’s residence in Oslo, as successor to the composer Arne Nordheim.
  • [3] This was one of the most prestigious art prizes in the world. Established and financed by Carnegie, a Scandinavian investment bank, it was terminated in 2014.
  • [4] Slaattelid has written on cultural themes for the newspaper Dag og Tid.
  • [5] The American journal October and critics such as Benjamin H. Buchloh were manifest proponents of such a line. In his own criticism, Buchloh likened the aesthetic preferences of the neo-figurative painters to the totalitarian movements of the 1920s and 30s.
  • [6] Aftenposten, 13.04.1993.
  • [7] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations and references to the artist’s statements are taken from emails and conversations between Slaattelid and the author.
  • [8] Mari Slaattelid. Eit designperspektiv på kunstscena. Catalogue text for the exhibition, “Frie kunster”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, 1998.
  • [9] Mari Slaattelid. Om det jordiske i kunsten. Catalogue, 1997, p. 5.
  • [11] Aftenposten, 17.11.1999.
  • [12] Om det jordiske i kunsten, p. 6.
  • [13] Cf. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, 1996.
  • [15] Mari Slaattelid. Eit designperspektiv på kunstscena. 1998.
  • [16] Dagbladet, 10.11.2000.
  • [17] Hans-Jakob Brun. Å namngje og ikkje innfri. Catalogue essay for the exhibition “Concealing Redness”. Astrup Fearnley Museum, 2002.
  • [18] Carnegie Art Award 2000. Catalogue, p. 113.
  • [20] Carnegie Art Award 2000. Catalogue, p. 112.
  • [21] For the exhibition “Purity of the Heart One to One”, Galleri K, 2016.
  • [22] Mari Slaattelid. “Kunst er alt annet”. Dag og Tid, 29.05.2015.