Genre in Low Sun

A Conversation between Mari Slaattelid and Ingvild Krogvig
des. 2020|Conversation

On Templates, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 2020

An inverted photo of Lars Hertervig’s Forest Lake (1865) – golden and crackled like an ancient Japanese folding screen – was one of the most noteworthy works on display at the National Gallery in Oslo in the spring of 2004. The centre of the picture featured an indistinct smudge, like a black sun, created by the flash’s encounter with old varnish. Solitaire, as both the picture and the overall exhibition were titled, was the culmination of Mari Slaattelid’s years-long dialogue with Hertervig’s art. This dialogue resulted in everything from small, painted paraphrases to large photographs of Hertervig’s paintings either awash in intense flashlight or disrupted by etchings in film.

But what made the picture so noteworthy? The fact that the inverted photo was just as beautiful and mysterious as the original painting did leave an impression, of course. That the exhibition only consisted of photographic reproductions of Hertervig’s paintings was another factor, although photographic appropriations were on the verge of being comme il faut in Norway as well. But when Solitaire and the other photos created a stir, or at least a genteel murmur, among some of the vernissage guests, it was also because the works were being displayed at the National Gallery – the very home and bastion of Norwegian nineteenth-century painting.

Something had definitively changed. And Slaattelid herself had been a leading figure in the transformations that had taken place in Norwegian art from the early 1990s. Not as an educator or agitator, but as an artist who methodically explored what a painting could be after modernism’s notion of the fine arts as a purely visual phenomenon, unchained from rationality and language, had begun to fall by the wayside.

For Slaattelid, Solitaire did not represent a change but was rather a stage in an already ten-year-long analytical and practical investigation of landscape painting. In this endeavour, painting landscapes was no longer a matter of merely exploring colours, planes, and spaces, but also of examining the genre itself as an historically, ideologically, and technologically influenced representation. The radicalness of such a break with tradition is evident in light of the enormously symbolic power that landscape painting has had in Norway, beginning with the stridently national-political agenda of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism. This was followed by paintings that accentuated a sense of personal belonging with nature, from the intimate close-ups of late-nineteenth-century neo-romanticism to the works of the local landscape painters of the 1920s to the 1950s. The landscape genre then transitioned to lyrical abstraction in the 1960s, figurative and socially engaged representation in the 1970s, and fiercely expressive painting in the 1980s. All of these movements formed the backdrop for Slaattelid’s efforts in the 1990s as she began her critical exploration of the genre itself.

When was the first time landscapes turned up in your paintings?

I exhibited my first ones in the late eighties. Their colours were often silvery or heavy, and they were moistly painted, though fairly objective. The type of painting I was interested in exuded a self-assurance that I sought to practise – it had an ear for colour, so to speak. Even though the works were small, they were influenced by the German and Italian painting of the eighties, which many were interested in, both at the academy and elsewhere. I was just disinterested in deformed figures, and large-scale works were just beyond me.

Even though they were well received when they were shown at the group exhibition The Language of Silence at Kunstnernes Hus in 1993, the small-scale works were out of sync with what else was going on in the nineties.

Photography and video were well and truly on the rise, and painting was no longer relevant, as people pointed out. Institutional criticism was everywhere, as were identity politics and exploring the social as an artistic theme: mingling and cooking were the state of the art. The art scene was a sort of co‑existence without any discussion, where all of this was simply taken as natural and good. Joint projects needed no further justification, whereas a secluded room or a studio was something you ought to move on from.

The break from earlier landscapes occurred with your Template paintings in 1996: blocks of landscapes whose bottom edges are cut off, but where vegetation is meticulously reproduced above. What led you there?

A few years away from my work, I think. When I returned, I had an idea of doing things differently and simpler. I experimented with landscapes that resisted the genre’s nostalgia or conservativism, as well as its earnestness, as associated with for example landscape depictions from Western Norway, where I come from. The colours were reduced to grey hues and versions of black-and-white, and I began painting on aluminium in order to avoid the soft surface a canvas creates. In the resulting simplicity, I could see and assess what was required – what it was in a landscape that made me recognize the feeling of a world.

A couple of photographs became important. They were taken at Norderhov in Ringerike in 1990. They showed a flat woodland profile with scattered pastures. Everything glowed in the low sun, but the evening and landscape also incarnated something universal. For me, it was a generic place – it was a flat rural area somewhere in the world, something you might just as easily see from an InterCity train somewhere in Germany as from a hilltop in Eastern Norway. The photographs had just what I was looking for – a mood that wasn’t too invested, in the way that Western Norwegian landscapes were for me, or in the way that for example the nature of Telemark is in Norwegian art history.

I projected the photographs onto small, white sheets of roller-coated aluminium and painted the silhouette as accurately as I could. It gradually turned out that this was a motif I could use over and over again. The single, sophisticated line of treetops, which a photograph could retain, was appealing enough. From a distance, these paintings are black rectangles against a white or black background, but two metres away something happens. A backlit woodland silhouette is both an elegiac moment and an expression that could scarcely be more economic. And even though the place is in fact specific – Norderhov – the recognition is general, without a toponym.

The constant repetition of the template motif makes it somehow iconic.

Something happens when things are repeated. And a few ideas prove to be durable. The iconic is perhaps about that – it’s a kind of unwavering effect, which certain things have.

The template paintings you have created for this exhibition are nevertheless quite different from those you worked on in the 1990s?

Yes, they have been painted fairly loosely on soft canvases – that’s a big difference. After a while, I also saw that a dark silhouette against the sky could form the lower line of a “sky piece”, so that I could operate with two types of templates, one above and one below the horizon. In 1996 I painted a double sky – two skies over each other – on a 50 x 50 cm sheet. Because it introduced skies as things, as closed forms, it is a key picture in the series of template paintings.

The exhibition’s five new, standing canvases explore this doubling of fields and horizons. I use the same old silhouette from Norderhov, but this time as a mirror image and more approximate. The tall formats cry out for horizontal divisions. These are put in play as positive and negative forms, alternating between sky and earth templates.

The large, lying canvases in the right-hand gallery when you’ve come up the stairs at Kunstnernes Hus, with bands and strips stacked on top of each other – I also call them templates. The forms are based on long strips of tape I had previously used to paint straight lines. The paint that remained on the tape had one straight line and one with a loose edge, and resembled landscapes with a waterline. I photographed and projected these forms, magnified them, and organized them as stacks of undulating landscape profiles, or coastal views, as such profiles are called in cartography.

Rather than inventing a mountain range, I use randomly deposited forms that have an expressivity I could never have imagined myself and produced. In the painting, random brushstrokes on a strip of tape become a new, absolute fact of the world – a strip of land. Some of the strips are more believable as nature than others. In the most recent of these pictures, Mountain on My Mind, I’ve borrowed an actual coastal view, namely a coastal profile drawn by Dutch cartographers working in Norway in the mid-1800s.

Some of Gerhard Richter’s Seascape pictures play around with what a horizon can be, just as your pictures do, albeit in a different way. From a distance they conjure the perfect illusion of a classical seascape. But if you move in closer, you discover that the clouds in the painting’s upper half are actually the frothing sea. So there’s a sea below and a sea above, only divided by the horizon line.

I actually haven’t seen that, but Richter does have a large repertoire. Few people have worked as diligently as he has in the nexus between photography and painting. Take the secretary [Sekretärin, 1963], whom he paints as nicely as he can, in greyish hues. Then he takes a squeegee and drags it over the surface, and just like that the painting is nearly as believable as a photograph. It’s an entirely mechanical intervention, but the outcome resembles a blurred photo, or a painting made with baroque brushstrokes.

The most important thing I’ve learned from Richter pertains precisely to how technologies are convincing in different ways. In a small picture I call Exposure [on the back wall in the left-hand gallery], I deposited a thin layer of white paint with a roller on a sheet of aluminium. Then I sprinkled chalk and grit and a few drops of turpentine on a sheet of glass, rolled it in with a smidgen of greyish green, and applied it to the centre of the aluminium painting. Two rotations of the roller created a dark and a brighter “exposure”. After some trial and error and a little bit of luck, the picture simulates the materiality or the surface of an older, analogue photograph, just like Richter simulates something photographic when he swabs out the contours of a precisely painted picture. He begins with the mimetic, while I begin with the roller’s imprint. Both techniques are primitive approaches to an illusionism of sorts, in both instances with oil painting, but with different tools.

Lately, you’ve been working on large canvases where coastal views hover above a perfect rectangle. The encounter between the figurative and the nonfigurative, the shapeless and the specific, can of course be seen as an allusion to a fundamental and nearly hundred-year-old dichotomy in art history. For my part, I get this Rothko-like feeling of standing face to face with something irrefutable.

Can you talk a little bit about these two paintings, which you call Bedrock?

The landscape form in these pictures is sprawling and primitive and may bring to mind a living being. It’s also sloping, something a waterline or a horizon per definition isn’t. It’s placed above a plinth of sorts that fills most of the picture, and that introduces a visual language that is foreign to the figurative. The unwieldly thing and the nonfigurative must live together in the same picture. The idea is that both drive each other’s effects and intensify each other’s essence.

I don’t use sketches in these works, but I often have a pattern I follow, like the templates or the coastal views – something constant that is repeated in order to avoid too much inventiveness and imagination. Creating large paintings without sketches usually means I have to make corrections and move things around. The advantage is that the painting incorporates, and exhibits, all the decisions that have been made under way. It does not look like a finished work, one that has been blown up from a sketch to a large-scale format. Another benefit of repeating forms is that you can concentrate on the colours, juxtapose them with one another, give them space, and let them become characters in the picture.

The landscape genre has been stretched so far that it virtually collapses here?

Yes, or it transitions into something else. It’s things like that I’m trying to find out.

You read a bit of poetry. That is a genre characterized by economy and density, which often causes resistance to any notions of immediate transparency. The same may be said about your pictures. They give the viewer the sense of standing in front of a compressed mass of meaning – but exactly what this meaning consists of is hard to articulate.

I think an artist must trust that a hint of clarity or meaning is enough. And the unclear must be said with conviction. In this unclarity lies everything that is required for things to attach themselves inside you, and perhaps even change you for life.

But the undetermined can also be a lack of concentration. A detailed surface in a painting may be captivating, but it might still not sing. A surface sings when you gather it into something compact and deep that comes from inside the picture itself – the same way a colour also comes from inside, like a light of its own, and makes a picture less dependent than we think on being illuminated from outside.

Colour and light. Those two words somehow capture the essence of an exhibition where all artificial lighting has been turned off, and only daylight and the semi-darkness of the twilight illuminate the pictures. In addition, you’ve painted this sun template, based on a computer simulation of how the daylight would have filtered through the gallery’s skylit windows an early afternoon in February: a long rectangle of golden-white pigments that plummet from the ceiling, down towards the black linoleum floor before abruptly changing direction and ending up as a horizontal surface – only disrupted by the shadow from the glazing bars that “carry the new light on its shoulders”, as you once described the incoming sunshine in a painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi.(1) The template is a trope that has followed you since the mid-1990s. Here it is suddenly something that lives spatially, in the architecture.

Daylight and the streaming of sunlight into a room are site-specific events. When I painted Sun Template, I registered a phenomenon, but vaguer and softer than it would have looked in reality – and far vaguer than Hammershøi’s sun figures in his dark Copenhagen interiors. Hammershøi’s sun figures have a presence that resembles his white doors. Both the light figures and the doors are illuminating visits in the semi-darkness – they’re movable surfaces of light that shine in some parts of the room and shroud other parts in darkness. I have always liked what Hammershøi does in these pictures, particularly in Sunshine in the Drawing Room, where the sunlight streaming in most definitely plays the leading role and is far more present than Ida, the painter’s wife, who’s sitting with her back turned to the viewer. The sun template is living and unpredictable – it shines brightly just as suddenly as it can disappear.

At Kunstnernes Hus, the mural painting is a kind of landscape, related to the paintings in the same room, and serves as a record of how light permeates and describes architecture. I saw a sound art exhibition in one of these galleries, where the artificial lighting had been turned off.(2) It gave me the idea to do the same with pictures. There’s no doubt that paintings can benefit from both half-light and shifting light. Over the centuries, it is such half-light that has been the typical viewing condition for paintings, but we ourselves still perceive the standard, clinical lighting of art as neutral – as though pictures are to be exposed and examined, and do not themselves have the ability to gradually make their presence felt and get closer to each individual. To only faintly illuminate the exhibition with the subdued light of the spring was the intuitive response to this insensitivity. This would then bring the architecture to the fore – it would call attention to how the building has been designed to allow natural light to filter into the room from a height of ten metres and distribute itself softly throughout the galleries.

At a fairly early stage I involved the architect Knut Hjeltnes, and because architects know everything that artists don’t, our discussions opened up possibilities I hadn’t envisioned. If we were to open the exhibition in the evening, the galleries would have to be dark, unless we were to use floodlights from the outside of the building to illuminate them, and turn night into something resembling day by using the most intense searchlights we could get hold of. We had an interesting inspection of the roof, but the price and scope of such a solution meant that we had to go about it another way: if light could be let in artificially from the ceiling windows during the evening, then natural light too could be seen as an intruder. Exactly where would the sunlight wander throughout the gallery if the ceiling windows were not diffuse, but had translucent panes? For an architect who can calculate and estimate, the answer to such a question is only a few keystrokes away. We ended up choosing a time of day when the sun figure hit the double door of the lift. Suddenly, the door no longer ruined the end wall but articulated the painted light, like the frames and mouldings in a Hammershøi tableau.

When the idea began taking shape – of a painted ray of sunlight in one of the galleries – the first thing I had to decide on was the wall colour for the exhibition galleries. For weeks, I painted fields of light on the wall of my studio. The colour had to be bright enough to appear to be a white wall, yet dark enough for the fields of light to shine. In addition, it had to be suitable as a backdrop for the paintings that were to be mounted there. The tiny differences had to be understood step by step, impulse by impulse in the colour-mixing machine, yet in the end each nuance still had to be reassessed as we stood up in the scaffolds in order to paint.

After being open for twelve days, the exhibition closed down because of a pandemic. For a while, the places and landscapes inside the gallery, along with all the other closed places and landscapes, belong to the time before this present. The daylight that comes and goes there does so for no one. The paintings disappear into the evening, the nights disappear into the day. And for every week of the global crisis, the days have become brighter.

1. Mari Slaattelid, “Hammershøi”, UKS Forum for samtidskunst, no. 3/4 (1992). Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916) was a Danish painter known for his soft, understated style, as seen above all in his portraits and interiors.

2. Jana Winderen, Rising Tide, 2019

Minigraph, Mari Slaattelid, A book series by Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 2020