A Good Painting is a Sensation

Sverre Wyller
jan. 2007|Article

According to Mari Slaattelid, this means two things: that a good painting is sensed first and foremost in the emotional register - and that a good painting is very rare. In saying this, she indirectly reveals her own turn of mind. The notion that a great work of art comes along only rarely approaches latent melancholy. At the same time she works precisely towards achieving that painting. In that sense she binds herself with the romantics. We are seeing the contours of purposeful endeavour.

This is something Slaattelid revealed already in her earliest exhibitions in the 1990s, when she stood out from other Norwegian painters. Hers were reflective works. Since the trend towards reflective painting - seen particularly in the work of the German painter Gerhard Richter - exercised such great influence on a whole generation of painters, it was an achievement to produce individual distinction. Another artist who managed to stand out in a similar way was Annettte Lemieux (born 1957), who until now remained a local American phenomenon.

It should not be forgotten that this was a period when many turned their back on painting and took up digital media - particularly reflective individuals with the need for an analytical process. The interesting thing about Slaattelid is that, instead of making huge leaps between different media, she has managed to import her extensive interests into her painting and has remained with it.

It is the thinking behind the painting that is recognisable in Mari Slaattelid’s work, and not the image per se. The paintings can vary greatly, but the conceptual grip is consistently recognisable. It is repeated in her work in the same way other artists leave their signature in the physical execution of their works. In this way she introduced painting that had not previously been very visible in Norway. And, according to Mari Slaattelid, a painting deserves a good idea.

Slaattelid’s latent melancholy is also evident in her use of sources, particularly in her work with Hertervig, a Norwegian artist who during his life became mentally ill and was rejected and forgotten. The story of the painter Lars Hertervig (1830-1902) is most unusual. Hertervig’s landscapes do not call forth the landscape in us, but images of a deeply problematic psychology. In the paintings based on his work, Slaattelid has circled his story, pursuing her interest in Hertervig’s landscapes and, not least, his biography.

Slaattelid defines her own work as being within the Modernist tradition: it is about making paintings - single works. It is not about installation in space or whatever else might go beyond the work as an object. A painting in itself is spectacular enough. She points out that this, as far as it goes, is what the entire development in Modernism has shown, a development that took place on a flat medium of relatively small format. The fact that such an important experience was clad in such modest physicality gives cause for reflection.

Mari Slaattelid’s project - irrespective of how closely connected she feels with Modernism - is an oeuvre in the extended field of painting. This term, which is of course only a conceptual aid, has emerged in recent years in an attempt to give painting new meaning. It has been used to describe a number of art projects that are in the borderland between painting as a delineated surface, and painting viewed in relation to its mental and physical surroundings - painting understood contextually. For those who are familiar with international contemporary art, it is sufficient to mention the name of the American artist Jessica Stockholder to understand what this is about. Here, painting literally flows out beyond its boundaries and fills entire spaces. The extended field of painting also describes painting that draws other media to it and is inclusive of them, as for example Gerhard Richter has done with photography. Finally, it also describes a meta-painting, or painting that comments on itself and thereby also the modest formats from Modernism.

And so it is for Mari Slaattelid. She works in the painting’s extended field and it shows in a number of ways. She introduces photography as painting; and she often gives a description of how she reads her own work. This, and the inclusion of text in her paintings, adds levels of meaning to the work that they would not otherwise have. She (once more) calls to confront deeply ingrained misunderstandings: that there is a distinction between figurative and non-figurative art, or similarly between conceptual and non-conceptual art. And the clear change or break observable in Slaattelid’s work from project to project can be of assistance here; she has developed a vocabulary which makes that possible. There is a clear tendency at work: while the first series of paintings had a skimpiness approaching that of a sketch or preliminary work, the most recent ones display an ever-growing complexity.