Coastal Work/ Art Work

Steinar Sekkingstad
jun. 2019|Article

In Mari Slaattelid’s series Kystverket (2018-19) a number of variations on the same familiar scene are repeated in a large group of new paintings. The motif shows a landscape with a horizon line that divides the painting approximately at the middle and forms several layers inward in the picture. From the position of the viewer on firm ground we look out towards a fjord and an island beyond that meet in the sky.

In Mari Slaattelid’s series Kystverket (2018-19) a number of variations on the same familiar scene are repeated in a large group of new paintings. The motif shows a landscape with a horizon line that divides the painting approximately at the middle and forms several layers inward in the picture. From the position of the viewer on firm ground we look out towards a fjord and an island beyond that meet in the sky. A male figure can be seen high above the ground. The placing is striking, as he looks as if he is hovering in the sky. In reality he is standing on a ladder leaning slightly forward as he works on the top of a lantern – or a navigation marker, one of the navigation aids placed along the whole of the Norwegian coast.

In one of the paintings the figure leans backwards, presumably strapped into a safety device, and reinforces the impression that he is floating weightlessly in the air. In some of the paintings the navigation marker is centrally placed in the picture with the male figure like a monument elevated on a plinth in the upper middle of the picture, while in other versions he is more integrated in the landscape, raised high on the left-hand side of the picture. In the related series Lantern (2018-19) the man has been omitted and it is the navigation marker that is accentuated with the geometrical shape of the mast as the bearing figure in the picture.[1]

The composition is classical, like a Poussin, but disorienting in its painterly execution. Slaattelid alternates among just a few selected details and compositions, repeated in versions which in other respects are very different. From one painting to the next, formal slippages arise, from earth tones in green and grey to powerful, almost psychedelically distorted renderings of the light that bathe the landscape in strong yellows, pinks and azure tones. Colour and temperament vary from relatively detailed depictions to almost total dissolution in fragmented expressive strokes, over­­paintings and sketch-like suggestions and hints. The various versions adhere to different art-historical traditions, from impressionistic landscape painting to a psychologically charged idea of an (inner) landscape. Like the French painter Pierre Bonnard, for example, who dissolved everyday motifs in optically flickering colour combinations and obliterations of the form to various degrees, the painting is in this case less a question of reproducing something observed than an attempt to convey the actual perception of the observed.[2]

As an overall group of paintings, the various versions flicker and shimmer as if they have been drawn from thin air and developed photographically on the surfaces of the paintings, each filtered through its own unique, fine-tuned frequency. Despite the fact that the same observed motif is the starting point for all the Kystverket paintings, each one constitutes a new articulation, and a new painterly statement. The observed landscape is mediated by the apparatus that is the act of painting. Some are intensively elaborated with repeated overpaintings and a dense, almost impenetrably thick layer of paint on the outer surface of the canvas. In other cases the colour is thinner, sunk into the materiality of the canvas, so that the textile fabric shows through. The painter’s various choices and judgements in the course of the process lie open as discernible traces of the actions that have been performed. The pictures can be read as activating or manoeuvring within a catalogue of fabricated effects of painting, examples of how land­scape and atmosphere, water, air and sunlight can be produced with a background in an accessible vocabulary of accumulated experience and internalized, craft-based knowledge.

This balance between the depicted motif and the painterly resources is fine-tuned, and from one painting to the next the relationship is weighted differently. Sometimes the painting’s materiality – as physical object in the space – starts to take over from the painting as picture. The subject disappears into the background and it is the pain­terly execution itself that confronts us first with its tactile, objective presence.

If on the other hand one searches for a more symbolic meaning in the subject, the uncomplicated situation immediately becomes open to interpretation and charged with visual connotations. Against the backlight the figure in the mast becomes anonymized, a symbol more than a person, weightless as he stands against the sky and at the same time ‘earthed’. The circle embedded in the triangular shape of the lantern for its part becomes an eye. The spiritual dimension that is already present in both classical and romantic landscape painting is reinforced by the coupling of man and heaven and the connotations of the divine all-seeing eye.[3]

The subject also has a resonance in the context in which it is shown, made as it is for an exhibition in the harbour city of Bergen.[4] The title is thus linked directly to a surrounding landscape, and to the national authority for “coastal administration, safety at sea and preparedness” from which it borrows its name. The horizon line in the painting thus also represents the Norwegian coast, where the coastline with navigation lights becomes a segment of the long ‘line’ that marks the transition between land and sea – perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Norwegian land­scape viewed in the macro-perspective. The coast also constitutes the interface between the mainland and the marine resources outside, and an opening towards trade and traffic by sea between Norway and other countries.

In the paintings Slaattelid dwells on a distinctive architectonic element in the otherwise untouched landscape, and an ordinary working situation that is elevated beyond the ordinary. The work that the man on the mast is doing is necessary maintenance and fine-tuning of a central element in the infrastructure that surrounds the coastal landscape.[5] The subject spans the prosaic, the poetic and the political, and inasmuch as the figure, absorbed in his work and unaware of the gaze of the artist, is elevated out of the situation and turned into a universal symbol, the subject is opened up further.


In any painting the subject or motif has a structural function as a compositional tool for the painter. At such a picture-building level the Kystverket paintings are not significantly different from the Classical and Romantic landscape painting we know from the history of art. Nature in itself forms a framework for painterly composition, with horizontal lines, foreground, middle ground and background, closeness and distance. In Slaattelid’s paintings the horizon line is an effective way of dividing the rectangle of the canvas into an upper and a lower part. Correspondingly the mast and the male figure become vertical composition elements, and the triangle of the lantern adds diagonal lines. Thus the subject functions as a geometry in a fundamental meaning of the concept.

In a parallel series of paintings (Templates, 2018) the horizon motif is far more radical, and becomes repeated graphic ‘stencilling’, where the monochrome silhouette of a landscape is suggested in what was originally the by-product of a painterly action.[6] Slaattelid discovered that during the work of painting straight lines with the aid of masking tape, an area of arbitrary paint strokes occurred on top of the tape itself, and resembled coastal landscapes in backlight. In these paintings it is the painting’s own materiality that takes on a resemblance to nature, rather than an impression of nature depicted in the painting. In the Templates series, Slaattelid re-presents the original randomness that arose in different variations and material qualities. In contrast to the landscape in the Kystverket paintings, it is also striking that the actual horizon line in these paintings vacillates in and out of level; sometimes strictly horizontally, like water in the landscape, sometimes diagonally and out of true in relation to the outer edges of the canvas.

Throughout Slaattelid’s oeuvre we can recognize this use of certain selected motifs as an underlying structural framework. Her output is marked by a rich variation among different painterly modes of expression and approaches to painting as a medium, to the extent that it is impossible to point to a signature style in Slaattelid’s oeuvre, in which she alternates among formal strategies; from figurative to abstract and from expressive to rigorously defined. All the same the different motifs are rela­tively few in number. A judicious selection of images or image categories are repeated in series, from one painting to the next, sometimes over long periods, and seem inexhaustible in their painterly potential.

Slaattelid zooms in on apparently trivial objects in her immediate vicinity. The motifs include a graphically stylized rendering of an empty easel which generates complex geometrical figure variations (Non-food Items and Promesse de bonheur, 2011); or a light switch from the artist’s own studio, photographed and painted over, with a quadratic form that alludes to a stained white canvas (The Soul’s Bravery Enlarged and Purity of the Heart One to One, 2014/15). In other paintings letters and punctuation marks fill the canvas and become visual figures as much as semiotic and linguistic signs (Figured, 2016); or a ceiling painting by the Renais­sance artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is simplified such that only the painting’s ornamental outline remains (Ceiling, 2012, Tiepolo, 2013 and Sky Centre, 2013).

In several of Slaattelid’s ‘abstract’ paintings we can recognize a similarly organized, underlying geometry, soberly underscored in explanatory titles like Green Middle (2016) or White Middle (2016): in these paintings four different colour fields flow over the picture surface organically, but still in planned positions over, under, to the left and to the right of a white or green middle field. The Kystverk paintings cover the whole range of Slaattelid’s vocabulary in this area: from a relatively faithful depiction of a landscape to various levels of abstraction.

This calculated organization of what appears to be spontaneously executed, even abstract, paintings breaks with the idea of abstraction’s intuitive process. For Slaattelid, however, a freedom is created in the painterly process precisely by repeating ‘the same’ motivic model, executed in different ‘takes’ in the studio.[7] And perhaps it is exactly in the intersections between intuition and the planned that many of the modernist masters of abstract painting are also to be found. Even without a represen­tative image, the same ‘motif’ is repeated time and time again, also by painters like Jackson Pollock (all-over dripping), Barnett Newman (monochrome surfaces intersected by vertical stripes), and Mark Rothko (vertical stacking of diffusely fluid rectangles). A painter like Barnett Newman, however, was an explicit opponent of any kind of underlying geometry in the picture: “The fact is, I am an intuitive painter, a direct painter. I have never worked from sketches, never planned a painting, never ‘thought out’ a painting before”.[8] This is hard to believe when you look at Newman’s rather schematic repetitions of stripes and colour surfaces, something one could easily see as a predefined design. However, Newman worked first and foremost to arrive at a painting that was to be neither design nor abstraction (based on a model in nature). Rather, the painting was to take on its own mode of existence as a unique presence in the world: a living, active thing and “a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex”.[9] In many ways this is also where Slaattelid places herself, although far more prosaically than in Newman’s metaphysical super­struc­ture. The ostensibly unrelated motifs become – in each painterly articulation – singular and telling entities, operative and active both as material presence and abstract thought.


Slaattelid builds up systems for painting that form the basis for both the execution of the individual work and the interrelations and connections that arise among different paintings as they become parts of a visual, linguistic network. This dialectic between language and painting is a recurrent feature in her oeuvre. It takes place most clearly in paintings where she uses words, sentences and letters as elements in the picture; but also where the work of painting resembles a linguistic, analytical process; where the painting becomes language that can be broken down, read, or analysed as a compo­sition of visual signs and interrelated systems. The critic Isabelle Graw points to how the relationship between the painting and the linguistic element has been a central part of aesthetic theory since antiquity, with literature and painting as conver­gent art forms in a close relationship, but also as contrasts where the painting is considered a medium in which it is possible to articulate something that cannot be said with language, text and speech.[10] Using a conceptual apparatus from linguistics, Graw identifies the specifically painterly signs first and foremost as material (and thus fundamentally different linguistic signs). The painterly sign puts its physical materiality in the foreground, in the sense that we read the materiality of the sign before its iconic or symbolic meaning. Thus painterly ‘gestures’ also become readable signs; or what Graw calls “haptic events”, with a concept she borrows from the painter Merlin Carpenter.[11]

Running in parallel with this kind of linguistic deconstruction of the painting is an understanding of the ability of the painting to operate on the outside of language. The German artist Charline von Heyl emphasizes how she was fascinated at an early stage by the power of the painting to operate outside what can be verbally articu­lated. In carefully wrought compositions where figurative fragments are used in an abstract composition, the ‘meanings’ of the various motifs, according to Heyl, became almost arbitrary, functioning instead as sub-components of a visual sign system: “For example, when I needed a circle for the composition, why not use a wheel or a breast? Or an orange or a pupil?” [12]

When a systematic linguistic approach is applied to painting, the extralinguistic quali­ties also become much more palpable. Both the landscape with the figure in the lantern and Slaattelid’s earlier series of ‘letter paintings’ behave first and foremost as visual semiotic systems beyond language.[13] In a lecture on Cy Twombly (perhaps the artist who has most accurately navigated the areas between readable language and non-linguistic painting) Slaattelid writes: “In painting it is of no importance whether the language is dysfunctional. On the contrary the unreadable permits what is visual to take over”.[14]


The Kystverket picture first appeared in Slaattelid’s motivic repertoire around ten years ago, when she observed the figure in the lantern during a stay in Kragerø, and documented his work in changing light conditions. A few sketches and some early versions of the painting on paper show how she made some initial attempts to translate the scene by the fjord into painting (Kystverket. Spotlit, 2011). Later the motif and the photographs have remained unused as a latent idea until materializing now in an extensive series of paintings over the course of 2018 and 2019.

One of the original photographs captures an idyllic summer scene with several people represented in the picture. A barefoot girl in a white summer dress and two male figures who in the backlight from the low evening sun become anonymous silhouettes are all on their way out to the water’s edge. To the left of these people are the mast with its triangular lantern and the working operator from the coastal authority. In the finished paintings three of the people in this photographic moment have been removed, and only the worker on the mast remains. The scene thus changes from what in the photo already appears to be a picturesque, pastoral summer idyll to an underscoring of the unusual in the familiar. The man who is raised from the ground and placed against the glowing sky in the evening sun is a strange element in the landscape. In retrospect we can see that the man on the mast is already a painting, since Slaattelid dwells on the situation. The observation itself is a painterly action, and the photograph acts as a tool for remembering or ‘noting’ the moment to be materialized later on a canvas.

Observation itself is also filtered through the history of pain­t­ing, as through an art-historical lens. The navigation marker and the male figure both evoke motifs or tropes that can be recognized from the history of painting. In the paintings where the lantern is centred in the composition like a monument at sea, it is difficult not to think of Peder Balke’s dramatic representations of shipwrecks. In some of these, a lighthouse towers up on a rock in the midst of a storm, centrally placed in the composition and elevated above the situation like a vain attempt to tame nature with human infrastructure. Similarly, one can recognize the solitary male figure placed in an open landscape, where mankind’s encounter with nature has potentially sublime qualities. The legacy of Caspar David Friedrich and Romantic landscape painting rears its head in the background, and this background is already there as the situation is played out and Slaattelid photographs the action.

But the subject also evokes more contemporary examples, as in British Peter Doig’s paintings, where the isolated male figure is also a recurrent feature in large parts of the oeuvre. Like Slaattelid, Doig too uses photographic models which are processed considerably in the transition from photograph to painting. And as with Doig, it also seems that Slaattelid’s use of the photograph – at least in this case – is about pinning down a transient, telling moment which is already charged with painterly potential. After this the work remains: the translation, the treatment and the negotiation that arise in the tension between the observed subject and the painting’s own world.[15]

Photography is however a quite central medium in Slaattelid’s oeuvre, including when it functions as an artistic medium in its own right, not just as a model for painting. In Slaattelid’s treatment of the photographic, she touches on one of the central, binary oppositions in the narrative of modern art, where the introduction of photography ‘led to’ a greater emphasis on the painting’s inherent properties within modernism: expression, abstraction and self-reflection in the painting as opposed to the realism, transparency and indexicality of the photograph in the reproduction of an observed reality.[16] In some of Slaattelid’s earlier works this opposition is commented upon explicitly, and in a few cases she tries to cancel out the distance; either by using the photograph as a material support for the painting (for example in The Soul’s Bravery Enlarged, 2015), or by letting the painting’s medial self-reflection come to expression through a photographic medium (Protective, 2000).

In the Kystverket pictures it is about letting the painterly resources work their way through the photographed motif, again and again. The original scene is edited and transformed in various ways. The motif is erased to a greater or lesser degree, until some of the versions are only a small step from ‘pure abstract’ painting. Neverthe­less the motif becomes the fundamental bearing element in all the works. Inasmuch as the photographic model is clear-cut enough and is transferred to the painting, the motif functions as a visual ‘hook’; a pictorial element that is repeated throughout the majority of the works in the exhibition in Bergen Kunsthall.[17] In the distillation of several motifs from the photographic source, the original motif becomes several new subjects which in turn become the bearers of innumerable articulations of the same idea. Slaattelid herself speaks of this as ‘searching for iconicity’.[18] She looks for figures and juxtapositions that can have a bearing function for several individual paintings, and which can have a ‘liberating effect’ on the painterly execution. Speaking of the Kystverket paintings as a series is therefore in many ways inaccurate. The repetition is not about seriality as often practiced, inherited from minimalism and Pop art, where the artwork is reduplicated via technological reproduction and rhythmic repetition. In Slaattelid’s case these are unique articulations of the same visual starting point. The repetition of the motif paves the way for the repetition of the act of painting. The dialectic between the unique and the repeatable is brought to the surface. Each of the paintings is the bearer of an independent painterly presence. At the same time the notion of expressionism in the traditional sense is undermined, because everything can apparently be the object of repetition: a motif or an idea – but also a gesture, a formal combination of overlapping brushstrokes or a visual fragment within the composition. In this way too, perhaps, some of the binarity between the photograph and the painting is negated. The painting appears here with a photographic logic; as different develop­ments of an experienced reality in which the painterly ‘gestures’ can also be repetitions with equal energy and effect in each case.[19]


It is precisely at such an intersection between representational painting and the ‘abstract’ painterly effects that the Kystverket paintings operate. The figure in the lantern does not tell a straightforward story. In many ways he is present in the picture first and foremost as an indispensable iconic element that disturbs the read­ing of the painting as pure form. He acts as an opposite rhetorical pole to the (to a great extent abstract) painterly resources.

The Kystverket pictures elude any unambiguous reading, both as painted subject and as abstract painting where the painterly effects are the main point of the work. Slaattelid constantly alternates between these positions, and works in parallel with figurative and abstract paintings. However, the distinction between these is not clear-cut and what primarily appears to be an ‘abstract’ painting may be based on an outside-lying figure which forms a predefined regularity while a more obviously ‘figura­tive’ painting may have spontaneous painterly qualities that overshadow the meaning of the subject such that the effect of the painting is first and foremost triggered at an abstract, painterly level.

In a lecture with the title ‘The Luxury of Incommensurability’ the art historian Katy Siegel describes how the opposition between pure, abstract, non-representational painting on the one hand and figurative painting that represents an outward reality on the other has typified theoretical discourse in painting since the advent of modernism.[20] However, the history of art is full of examples of artists who have not accepted such an either-or position, and Siegel’s intent with the lecture is to show how painting is a particularly apt medium for complex and contrastful positions within one and the same work. In a painting several incompatible ideas, temperaments and narratives can exist at the same time and in parallel, according to Siegel. Slaattelid’s work connects effec­tively to such a tradition where the incommensurable is explored.

Long after modernism, too, such binary oppositions live on in the encounter with painting. In the 1960s and 1970s, painting (and in particular representational, figurative painting) finds a new opposite in ‘critical’ and ‘cool’ conceptual art. Later, postmodernism included contradictory positions rather than cultivating an idea of the unambiguous and pure, but according to Siegel these attempts were often misunderstood as pastiche, nihilism or relativism. It is interesting that Siegel finds the most relevant contributions to this discourse today among painters. She points to artists who, through painting, do not deliver unambiguous messages in the form of mani­festos and political standpoints, but still use painting ‘critically’, as a medium where both medial self-reflection and a surrounding social and political reality can seep into the painterly material.

Slaattelid’s twofold work Subject Matter from 2002 can be read as a comment on the eternal attempt to bestride these layers of meaning, or painting’s talent for the incommensurable, to borrow Siegel’s terminology. The words ‘subject’ and ‘matter’ are printed on four transparent Plexiglas panels along with one painted circle per panel. Both words are repeated twice, in combination with black and white paint respectively. The word ‘Subject’ is in both cases painted with aid of a stencil on the back of the transparent plate such that it is read in mirror-image by the viewer. The circles are the result of an almost sculptural physical treatment of the paint as a viscous material. A large area of paint has been squeezed together between two surfaces, so that the vacuum that arises when the panels are pressed together and then the release when they are lifted off each other create a physical reaction in the paint where a certain wave-pattern appears in the surface. The action leaves a visible tactility in the surface of the thick paint, which constitutes both the ‘subject’ and the ‘matter’ of the work.

Subject Matter is a good example of the type of painting Slaattelid was associated with in the early 2000s: conceptually clear-cut ideas in which the medial self-reflection of modernist painting is replaced by an idea-based, conceptual approach – but in which the ‘content of the painting’ (its subject matter) continues to revolve around the painting itself; the form of being of the artwork as both idea and materiality. It was with a background in a succession of such works from the mid-1990s onwards that Slaattelid was often described as a ‘conceptual painter’.[21] However, it is often added in the same breath that Slaattelid is at the same time a skilled painter and master of colour – as if to underscore that her paintings operate not only at a conceptual level but also at the sensory, material level.[22] Perhaps one can speak here of a different kind of ‘incommensurable luxury’ where so-called critical (often concep­tual) art does not in fact stand in opposition to painting, but the painterly work is emphasized as a critical practice in itself.

The choice of subject can also, in the case of Kystverket, be read ‘conceptually’, or at least as calculated. Here Slaattelid takes on what could be called a traditionally ‘masculine’ painterly universe: large formats that do not hold back in any area, either painterly intensity or symbol-laden content. For a female painter it is a political action to enter this field, not at the outer edges of what painting can be, but rather in the midst of the tradition of landscape painting, laden with art-historical ballast. In a number of earlier projects Slaattelid has used landscape painting, almost polemically, in an analysis of art-historical categories, often read as part of a feminist, critical project.[23] With Kystverket the political project is less analytical, more active. Slaattelid takes possession of the tradition – as painter and as woman – and uses the landscape motif as leverage for investigating how such a motif continues to find critical, operative relevance within contemporary art.

Slaattelid navigates in this space with a mature self-assurance in the painterly treatment, where the aim seems to be to test the bearing power of the painting. In an artistic climate where the relevance of painting is often linked with one of two strategies – either as a conceptual, discursive and polemical project in the marginal zones of painting, or as a formal and decorative object of investment – Slaattelid still situates herself in a productive opposition between these two. It is as if each of these positions would involve too little risk. This would be noncommittal in the confrontation with an expected acceptance on an art scene where two alterna­tives stand out as equally widespread – and equally acceptable – ways forward for painting. The heroic, romantic and figurative landscape, on the other hand, has a higher degree of built-in resistance. With her new paintings, Slaattelid seems to insist that it is possible to perpetuate the tradition-rich, well-tried painterly heritage within a contemporary dialogue about painting today.


Whereas several commentators have pointed to a transition in Slaattelid’s work in recent years – from conceptual painting to a colouristic, painterly project – one can at the same time trace a continuity in the oeuvre. From the Kystverket landscapes, one can draw a line back to her earliest works, for example in the exhibition “Painting” in 1992, where she showed a series of landscape paintings done in a post-impressionist style. In an article on Slaattelid, Arve Rød has pointed out how these landscape paintings contrasted starkly with the trends in contemporary art of the period in the early 90s.[24]

In retrospect it is perhaps possible to see this too as a strategic opposition, or a reaction in the confrontation with the dominant art discourses; a way of putting painting to the test in the encounter with a prevailing climate that was mostly sceptical about painting. But in awareness of the risk of rationalizing the artist’s choice of subject in 1992, it suffices in this context to observe how Slaattelid, already at this point, seems to maintain an unusual focus on the potential of painting.

Slaattelid insists that what happens within the (quite concrete) framework of the painting is enough to accommodate a complex analysis of the effective scope of an artwork, and on letting the painting in itself be the voice that persuades us of this. It is a matter of a focused, creative painterly practice which – although she constantly behaves sensitively towards the context within which the work appears – retains the independent nature of the work: what one might, with a concept that appears archaic today, assert to be the autonomy of the work. That the word kystverk (coastal work/coastal authority) in the title has a phonetic resemblance to the word kunstverk (artwork) is not without significance in this respect. In many ways Slaattelid’s practice, across its whole range from the conceptual to the expressive, is localized in an exploration of both the self-sufficiency and lability of the artwork.

According to several contemporary writers it is painting that has today emerged most clearly as ‘the medium’ which, paradoxically enough, seems best to accommodate the com­plex dynamic in which the understanding of the ‘artwork’ finds itself in the field of contemporary art. After modernism, painting has today, more or less as the only medium of art, become an automatic bearer of the idea of the autonomous, self-sufficient work of art. It is at the same time difficult to address any kind of contemporary painterly practice without also seeing it in the light of the wider context in which it appears. Contemporary art is in this area fundamen­tally different from modernist art’s idea of the autonomy of the work. Contemporary painting is regarded as a ‘productive anachronism’ somewhere between the autonomous and the context-dependent artwork.[25]

Much has been said and written about painting in the attempt to save it from a death that seemed imminent, even inevitable.[26] Such a rescue operation has among other things taken the form of localizing the painting as a discursive tool. Viewed this way, the alleged autonomy of the work in painting is less important, because the artwork primarily operates here in an ‘expanded field’ where at the same time it enjoys the privilege of occupying a quite ‘exceptional position’ even before a brush has even touched the canvas.[27] Thus it is rather its institutional autonomy that ensures painting a future (where painting plays a key role in the self-reflexive, institutional analysis), than the painting’s own autonomy as a work in the modernist sense. The painting has moved from self-sufficient ‘artwork’ to context-dependent marker within an institutional ‘framework’. In a situation where painterly practice is thus situated ‘beyond’ or ‘beside’ itself,[28] Slaattelid insists on the self-sufficiency of the artwork and of painting. Her position contrasts starkly with the idea of transitive and discursive painting. For Slaattelid the painting is never a stand-in for something else, or just an element in a conceptually based series of arguments; nor is it a pawn in an art-institutional game; it stands alone in its manifestation of the act of painting on the canvas and as a contribution to an always ongoing dialogue with both the history of art and the present.[29]

This must not be confused with a retrogressive longing for a ‘purer’ painting; it is rather letting the painting become the locus of the thinking.[30] The painting may turn out to be productive resistance: “Rather than being a ‘discursive practice,’ paintings are stumbling blocks for discursive practice. For when the discourse on painting traverses painting, it loses speed,” Slaattelid herself writes.[31] As one of the foremost exponents of ‘conceptual painting’ in Norway in the 00s, Slaattelid has herself in many ways engaged in a ‘discursive practice’ throughout large parts of her artistic career. Many of her works from this period can be seen as important contributions to a process whereby earlier distinctions between conceptual and ‘expressive’ art have lost their relevance. Nevertheless she insists on the value of the painting in its own right, as an appropriate contribution to this dialogue. The painting does not contribute by ‘engaging in dialogue’ with other issues in social debate, but by articulating a presence of its own.[32]

Today, when painting is no longer perceived as an ‘expressive’ (as in ‘emotionally driven’) contrast to intellectual conceptual art, and the painting can be both institutional critique and performance art, the conceptual understanding of it has become the norm. The old dichotomies, the lines of conflict and the polarizing categories have been erased. Isabelle Graw points out how this situation has made painting seem a ‘metamedium’ and thus entirely unproblematic and harmless as an artistic medium. “Although it never is,” she adds.[33] For obviously this is never the case when one actually sets out to paint.

And this is precisely Slaattelid’s point. The maintenance work that the employee of the coastal authority is doing is the same work as the artist is doing in the studio. Art work and coastal work must both be maintained and sustained. This is hard work, and it never comes to an end.

[1] The navigation marker shown is directed at fast-moving vessels. It is described by the Coastal Administration as a “lantern on a pole with indirect lighting on the triangle” and belongs to the category “bottom-anchored marker with light”. Leif Arne Larsen, “Bunnfaste merker med lys” (October 2011).


[2] On Bonnard’s painting in relation to the physiology of perception, see for example John Elderfield, “Seeing Bonnard” in Bonnard (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1998).

[3] The triangle with a circle looks like the all-seeing eye widespread in mythology and religious symbolism, as we know it both from Egyptology and from the Trinity symbolism in Christianity. As a cultural symbol and allegory it is common in a variety of contexts, from the US dollar bill to freemasonry. In Slaattelid’s exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall there are also a number of paintings on paper, all showing variations on an eye motif (Eye on paper, 2017), reinforcing the impression of the circle in the triangle as precisely that – an eye. In the works on paper too, where the eye is not inscribed in a triangle, there is still a similar symbolism, for example a striking formal resemblance to the Egyptian symbol ‘the eye of Horus’ in some of the paintings.

[4] In this case the context is also a quite distinct exhibition commission. The Festival Exhibition has been shown at Bergen Kunsthall since 1953, and attracts great attention in Norway. The exhibition comes with an expectation that the invited artist shows a new project or ‘responds to the task’ with an exhibition beyond the ordinary. Slaattelid’s choice of motif can in this context be seen as a kind of site-specificity or occasional poetry. The Festi­val Exhibition is a triggering factor for the choice of motif, where all the paintings have been painted in the period up to this particular exhibition as a specific context.

[5] The lantern is part of an extensive infrastructure for navigation that helps to prevent vessels running aground and other accidents along the coast. In the course of the same period as Slaattelid has been working with the Kystverket paintings, the work of the state authority Kystverket has had a high profile in the media, after the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad and the tanker Sola TS collided in the Øygarden municipality, not far from Bergen, on 8 November 2018. Kystverket itself writes of its work in this context: “The same day Kystverket instituted a state oil protection action to limit the environmental damage after the foundering of KNM Helge Ingstad. Kystverket also enjoined the Armed Forces to initiate measures to secure and salvage the wreck such that the risk of emissions was reduced as much as possible. The oil protection action after the wreck of KNM Helge Ingstad has been completed” (March 2019). Online:

[6] In parallel with Slaattelid’s work with the Kystverket paintings, she has also painted a succession of new works in the series Templates, a motif she has explored earlier in her oeuvre (see for example Pictorial Ground, 2004, and Representative, Trivial, Subjective Landscape, 1999).

[7] The relationship between the planned and the intuitive can also be compared to the relationship between composition and improvisation in music. It is about different modes, or different kinds of knowledge, experience, craftsmanship and artistic familiarity which come together in the individual painterly (or musical) action. The American painter Amy Sillman refers to the jazz musician George Lewis to find an articulate parallel to the position she wants to occupy in her paintings. Somewhere between improvisational and structured form: “To move beyond this tendentiously posed opposition, a meaningful distinction between these different ways of knowing – the improvisational and the compositional – must inevitably turn upon the axis of interaction. Improvisation must be open – that is, open to input, open to contingency – a real-time and (often enough) a real-world mode of production”. George Lewis quoted in Amy Sillman, “Process”, in Avigail Moss and Kerstin Stakemeier (eds.), Painting – The Implicit Horizon (Maastricht: The Jan van Eyck Academie, 2012), p. 101.

[8] Barnett Newman quoted in Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1993), p. 190.

[9] Bois, p. 192.

[10] Isabelle Graw, The Love of Painting (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018), p. 19.

[11] Graw, p. 20.

[12] Charline von Heyl, quoted in Isabelle Graw, “Unreconciled: De-skilling versus Re-skilling. A Conversation with Charline von Heyl”. Graw, p. 119.

[13] The fact that the exhibition in which Slaattelid first showed the ‘letter paintings’ in the series Figured bore the title “Unlike a Symbol” seems to underscore this point. Neither the letters of the alphabet nor the painterly signs appear first and foremost to be symbolic – rather direct and ‘haptic’. “Unlike a Symbol”, Standard (Oslo), 02.03.-31.03.2018.

[14] Mari Slaattelid, “Cy Twombly og maleriet som ein lat tanke”, lecture at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, 28 September 2017.

[15] Of the relationship between photographic source and painterly treatment, Doig has said that a tension arises between two extremes where one is “nearly always torn between retaining the motif and undermining it”. Doig quoted in Judith Nesbitt, “A Suitable Distance”, in Peter Doig (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), pp. 12-13.

[16] See for example Carol Armstrong, “Endings are Beginnings, A Mechanics of Fluids, and/or The Work of Painting in the Age of Photo-mechanical Production”, in Moss and Stakemeier, p. 85.

[17] The word ‘hook’ is understood as a parallel to the way the concept is used in pop music, where a hook is a clearly formulated musical idea expressed in a melodic or rhythmic phrase or riff that is repeated throughout the song. A hook is ‘catchy’ in the way it captures the attention and leads the listener further into the music.

[18] Mari Slaattelid, in a note to the author, January 2019.

[19] In her lecture on Twombly Slaattelid is concerned precisely with playing down the effect of painterly gestures: “Gesture is the extravagant word for action [....] The so-called gestures are quite simply strokes. They neutralize one another along the way in the work and the last ones remain standing. What looks explosive and spontaneous is planned. Why call normal procedures gestures? What we are talking about are normal resources in painting: long and short strokes. Rhythms, distinctions of colour and shade, paint as thick as butter, as thin as juice. Thin or thick brush, roller or spray.” Slaattelid, “Cy Twombly og maleriet som ein lat tanke”.

[20] Katy Siegel, “The Luxury of Incommensurability”, lecture at Frieze Talks, 2011.


[21] Two central overview works on Norwegian contemporary art both define Slaattelid first and foremost as a conceptual painter. See Gunnar Danbolt, Frå modernisme til det kontemporære – Tendensar i norsk samtidskunst etter 1990 (Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 2014), pp. 92-97, and Øystein Ustvedt, Ny norsk kunst etter 1990 (Bergen: Fagbokforlaget, 2011), pp. 67-69.

[22] “But she stands out from other conceptual artists in also mastering the craft of painting far beyond the ordinary”. Danbolt, p. 97.

[23] The art historian Sigrun Åsebø writes of Slaattelid’s treatment of “the framework of landscape painting” in a dissertation in which Slaattelid’s early oeuvre is read through feminist theory and gender studies: “The boundaries between the gaze directed at landscapes and representation are often fluid. In many ways Slaattelid appears to detach landscape from its meaning as ‘place’, to expose the structures that help to produce it as ‘painting’. Several of the works revolve around the bodies of ‘painting’: the artist’s body, the female body and the physicality of the canvas.” Sigrun Åsebø, Femininitetens rom og kvinnekroppens grenser. Å lese kunstens historie med A K Dolven og Mari Slaattelid (Bergen: Ph.D. dissertation, University of Bergen, 2011), p. 298.

[24] Arve Rød, “Kunst er en fremmed” in Mari Slaattelid – Ideal Problems (Oslo: Teknisk Industri, 2018), p. 35.

[25] The formulations about painting as “the medium” and a “productive anachronism” are both taken from the text “Counterpoints – Painting as the medium” in Moss and Stakemeier, p. 76.

[26] The narrative of the death or end of painting has arisen and been refuted repeatedly, for example in the 1920s, the 1960s, the 1980s and in the encounter with the abstract painting of our own time, when the killed-off medium continues to exist undaunted as ‘the living dead’ (in so-called zombie formalism).

[27] Isabelle Graw in fact argues that painting has maintained an “exceptional position” after the turn of the millennium as part of “the often-invoked post-medium condition”. Graw, pp. 10-11.

[28] As in one of the most quoted and cited texts of recent years on contemporary painting: David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself”, in October, no. 130 (2009), pp. 125-134.

[29] Arve Rød is on the same track in his article about Slaattelid: “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.”

Rød, p. 303.

[30] To “think through the painting” is another formulation that is repeatedly used as part of the theorizing of recent years about contemporary painting. See for example Isabelle Graw, Daniel Birnbaum, Nikolaus Hirsch (eds.), Thinking through Painting – Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).

[31] Mari Slaattelid, “Painting Abides”, in Gavin Jantjes (ed.), An Appetite for Painting – Reader (Oslo: Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design, 2014) p. 104.

[32] When a seminar at the National Museum proposes in the discussion of an event that “Painting (today) has retained its ability to grapple with present realities”, Slaattelid responds by asking rhetorically “Isn’t painting itself a present reality?” Slaattelid, in Jantjes, p. 105.

[33] Graw, p. 13.