Hard surfaces

Mari Slaattelid
mar. 2020|Article

Some people enjoy the paint itself, creating surfaces, plotting things in or marking them out with a broad brush, thick and fluid, thinning stuff out, building it up. For this kind of painting you need a substrate – paper, plastic, metal, anything will do.

I have found hard surfaces easier to use than canvas. Every kind of panel of a suitable size has been put to use in the studio. Things that don’t work out can be sanded down or scraped clean, and every time that happens, the panel becomes more interesting and, in addition, more absorbent. Panels can tolerate reworking far better than canvas. What I disliked most about canvas was the rigid structure of the weave and the way it expanded during the work process. Canvas couldn’t take the kind of zero reset I always needed, the erasing of old kludges that weren’t compatible with the new things I wanted to do. Ultimately, if it became too stiff or thick, it had to be thrown away. You could read the frustration, layer by layer, the solid weight of days wasted in the studio.

I liked using offcuts from Thaugland’s timber yard, plywood and MDF, panels up to a metre in size that I could play around with. I like materials to be a wall, a surface that confronts you, unshakeable. Canvas is a veritable trampoline; it makes me feel uncertain and dizzy. It wasn’t until much later that I realised why it is by far the best surface for painting, despite its conservative associations. Throughout the 1990s, my preference for hard surfaces limited me to relatively small formats. Anything bigger than two metres was just too heavy to move around. A colleague suggested I try aluminium, which led to a seemingly obvious, but no less decisive, experience. The new material itself called for a different kind of picture. It repulsed many of my habitual ways of working and stimulated ideas I wouldn’t otherwise have had. The surfaces I’d painted on up to that point did the job, although wood panels tend to be rounded and warm, whereas aluminium and Plexiglas, which are what we’re talking about here, are more aloof and flighty. The precision of Plexiglas is like a language where everything carries meaning. Boundaries and planes are absolute and conspicuous, painted fields multiple and simultaneous.

The Germans have a word that we lack in Norwegian: Bildträger. Although it’s as heavy as lead, is fragile and brittle, and tends to warp and sag, to collect dust and scratches, or to craze and fracture with the changes in temperature we experience here in Norway, Plexiglas has all the qualities that fire me up. In its simplest, flat, transparent form, with a front and a back and four sharply cut surfaces along the edges, which become part of the picture, it is the ideal Bildträger – or “picture carrier”. Solidly coloured, translucent (semi-transparent) and transparent Plexiglas expanded my pictorial language at a certain time, replacing the “warm” panels and the hessian and everything I had hitherto thought of as the essence of painting. On and behind the various surfaces, the colours and other choices one makes could be presented in all their glory and without obfuscation. Naum Gabo fetishised Plexiglas in the 1930s, as did Donald Judd in the 1960s. Even today it has an aura of modernism and still feels new and precarious, even from the perspective of art history.

Norwegian Art Yearbook 2017