Concerning the Earthly in Art

Mari Slaattelid
jan. 1997|Article

“As a child, I used to copy entire books or passages from books to send to my girlfriend. I could have sent her books, but instead I sent her copies, written by hand, of books that I liked. Had I sent her books, I would have been sending her literature. This could not have been my intention. My intention was rather to say that I liked her, by sending her copies of books or passages from books that I enjoyed, copied in my own handwriting. By sending her these copies, I sent her something literal.”

– Emmanuel Hocquard (from Ma vie privée)

Twelve square sheets of aluminum, twelve dark, horizontal planes. A photographic silhouette of a forest, projected and copied on the sheets with a sharp, thin brush, making twelve landscapes. The silhouette is almost identical from one sheet to the other, but the area inside the murky dark foreground varies. The angles in the motif change in accordance with the angle of the projection on the sheets. The light-colored surface underneath is sky, is background, is primed aluminum.

I call them stampings. A low horizon, a patch of land is selected and stands for the earthly. This not for any particular reason, not because it is special, but in the hope that something special will emerge.

The landscape does not refer to a specific geographical place. As a representation it is a faint, almost abstract reference to human experience, to a complex sense of identity between man and earth. These particular qualities, and that which lies hidden or revealed in them, is what unavoidably concerns me; this is the material for these paintings, and for this text.

The authority of a landscape derives from other landscapes. Evening walks, long forgotten. Films, books, art books; the evening sky through heavy treetops, from Giorgione to Nicolai Astrup. A backdrop of internalized, half-erased events and sights, which enable us to fill even the vaguest intimation of a recollection with meaning.

A representational minimum, the stamping, replaces the majesty, the myriad of nature itself. The painting is a display rather than a story. Still, it retains a voice of its own.

When the projection tilts the landscape in relation to a right-angled frame, it changes from being a conventional, "neutral" presentation to a demonstration of the distinct act that all framing is. The distorted landscape objectifies the selected part, while at the same time underlining the indirect route of projection around an authentic and spontaneous approach.

The reduction to a two-dimensional plane is carried out without any formal/abstract agenda. What might be called meagerness refers to that which barely remains, that which prompts romantic identification with a simple cue.

Since the Romantic period landscape painting has been the ultimate cliché for indirect self-representation (a seagull cried, reflecting my most inner feelings). It professes something deep and heartfelt, on behalf of itself and the artist. If romantic landscape painting sets the landscape in debt to the soul, this project is a technique of renunciation, an exercise in returning the landscape back to the landscape, the earthly back to the earth. An exercise in letting the landscape itself remain uncanny (unheimlich), without the shadow of the artist’s inner self.

There are tree iconological strategies one might make a point of evading:

  1. Authentic subjectivity (expressionism), as mentioned above.
  2. Abstraction; virtuous and sublime geometry, or spiritual constructions as outlined in Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art".
  3. The precise mirror-image is a third tradition to avoid.

When one describes the landscape instead of mirroring it, the landscape stays where it is; oil on aluminum, painted projection, photographed landscape. The low forest line has exact reproduction as its theme without being one.

In the next attempt the cards are shuffled and differences underplayed.

Materials are both literal and disguised:

At the center of a partly white, partly metallic background, a two-part, semitransparent roller print is laid down. As a simple matter-of-course, the print alludes to and assumes the effect of realism in photography.

The thin layer of paint exposes the external side of photographic prints on paper, the typical marks of photography such as the resolution, contrast, water or chemical stains, specks of dust, etc.

“Photography” is laid down on the sheet in one take, one rotation of the roller equaling one photographic exposure. The subsequent rotation, with less paint on the roller, is identical but lighter.

A successful “exposure” requires that certain qualities are present in some unclear way, qualities that motivate belief in the picture as faithful documentation. When this succeeds, when a print appears that is something more than inarticulate matter, the result says something about photography as materiality.

At the heart of these pictures and the “stampings” lies, ultimately, photography. And the subject, the one that acts, is not me but the painting.

The painting positions itself in front, behind, near or out of sight, in interplay with the photographic object.

The task of the painting is to make the photography visible as a particular cosmology, as a conveyor of an earthly image and a rhetoric interchangeable with no other.

When the painting enters the realm of a foreign language (photography), it casts a prosaic light on two unlike materials and chemistries of expression.

Beyond being a two-way commentary between photography and painting, this involves a focus on the eyes that observe, that interpret and believe.

The earthly is displayed, not only as horizon but as material. What we see isphotography’s ability to persuade, executed in painting.

Three works on aluminum, each of them a diptych, based on a black and white reproduction of Carl Fredrik Hill’s ìLandscape in Moonlight" from 1877.

For years this photocopy has been laying around my studio. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t the picture itself, more than complete on its own. By more than complete, I mean the excessively theatrical and anthropomorphic motif, which the technically poor photocopy conveys in full measure. Such theatrics would soon ring hollow, were it not for the fact that the landscape is based to such a degree on observation.

Fifty years before Hill, Caspar David Friedrich turned the Nordic into a didactic fantasy, to an art historical cliché.

The Nordic-romantic scenes which are Friedrich’s trademark (alluding to the incorporeal, while Hill is deeply earthly), are not less individual paintings, but less individual landscapes. Less geographically specific. Both are romantics, (although only Friedrich in an art historical context) but in Hill’s paintings the romantic quality exists in the landscape and not as convention.

When a photocopy articulates the same as the reproduction in a book, namely that which awakens my interest and which I’ve decided is the essential aspect of the picture, what happens is that I could just as well (and preferably) not see the original.

The original can not replace that which interests me in the picture. If it turned out that the original articulates something else, this would make it a poor copy. Of the copy, because I was already convinced by the black and white Xerox.

Six landscapes (20 x 20 cm) painted on a cupboard door in Stavanger. The year is 1866, and the landscapes are painted from memory and imagination.

The artist does what he knows best: earth, sky, clouds. These small door panels are so extreme in expression, especially in the color, that they appear as caricatured prototypes of his other paintings. Three or four main colors, each one tied to a specific physical element of the landscape. The pictures are reports in local color, where everything is stated and conspicuously up-front. The panels also display the most earnestly articulated use of the color blue that I’ve ever encountered.

Can one imagine a transition from Lars Hertervig’s undogmatic, efficient cosmology of form and color to more compressed, glossy version, where the meansthemselves are portrayed?

Hertervig traveling through a Hertervig landscape. A cavalcade of six pastiches, exaggerating an exaggeration which already lies there.

Et in Arcadia ego. I also have experienced the earthly paradise. The quotation originates from the Renaissance painter Bartolommeo Gidone, who used it in connection with a vanitas motif of a skull.

A memento mori: remember, you will one day die, you too belong to the mortal.

The quotation rings less severe in Poussin's famous painting from around 1640. Three shepherds and a fourth figure, a woman, are gathering around a tomb. The words come from the dead, not as an admonishment against hubris ("momento mori" was originally addressed to the godlike Roman emperors), but rather as grounds for identification; the one resting here was like us, he lived here.

A pastoral idyll bathed in the light of the setting sun, which in Poussin's painting points back to Greek and Roman portrayals (in pastoral poetry) of a perfect, harmonious life without fear and want, but for one sole shadow cast on existence: consciousness of death.

The thought of representing Arcadia started with two photographs, two snapshots from another’s summer vacation in 1996. The first one: a strip of land with the sky above. The second one: three archeologists walking side by side through a field, their heads bent down and their backs turned towards a fourth person, the photographer. The pictures are taken in Arcadia, a district in the Peloponnese.

The first photograph has been projected and painted onto a 200 x 160 cm. canvas. Four lines of text, centered, are painted across it. The text is a surrogate for and reference to the second photograph: three young archeologists who turned out to be unpaintable and ended up as an allusion. An allusion to themselves as heirs and grave robbers, as well as to a baroque staging (three figures and a fourth, together with a text), which introduces Poussin into the picture.

Nothing in this landscape (regardless of what it invokes) would otherwise connect it to the mythical Arcadia.

By bringing the great baroque painter into the painting in this manner, an aura of authority is bestowed which can become detrimental, because the symbolic weight lies with Poussin and not in this canvas.

I assume that Poussin lets himself be put to such use, and surmise that the text brings him, together with shepherds and archeologists, back to the Peloponnese, precisely by bringing him into the picture.

Time has cast a rather comic light on Kandinsky’s title “On the Spiritual in Art”. His self-understanding fortunately precedes abstract painting’s subsequent inflation, and as a pioneer his ardent words are courageous.

Initially, I regard with wonderment and envy his faith in the spiritual as a painted object. Less alluring and more dubious is his treatment of the spiritual as a category.

The earthly is admittedly not an unproblematic concept either, but the word is ambiguous and unfathomable. It cannot be grasped immediately, but neither does it dissipate when touched upon, as does "the spiritual".

The earthly shines by the light cast upon it. By something unearthly, surely?

“Concerning the Earthly in Art” – this is to say same as Kandinsky, with a word nearing on the opposite.

The earthly insists on something physical as well as metaphysical. It is in every way religious, but must be used irreligiously, pragmatically, shall it function ambiguously.

The French poet Emmanuel Hocquard speaks in an interview of shrinking from words that shine too brightly. "I sought a flat quality in words, a neutrality; I wanted an almost objective approach."

The spiritual either shines too brightly or not brightly enough, and it fills the criteria for words which are as good as useless.

While Hocquard desires a linguistic objectivism, I imagine the possibility of a – in a broad sense – literal painting. A statement that can be repeated and cited, consistent but ambiguous and full of paradox like language.