In the Midst of the Painterly

Erlend Hammer
jan. 2020|Interview

Mari Slaattelid wants to paint – not the way she is, but the way she needs to be for the picture’s sake. This summer, her work can be seen at Bergen Kunsthall.

This year’s Bergen International Festival Exhibition at Bergen Kunsthall will be a colourful affair. Mari Slaattelid (b. 1960) has taken her starting point in a series of photographs from her own archive, reworking their imagery in a series of paintings for which, according to the artist, she has allowed herself the use of every painterly device at her disposal. The photographs show a lighthouse keeper adjusting the signal in a lantern somewhere along the Norwegian coast. The coastal landscape is an oft-used motif within Norwegian landscape painting, and entirely appropriate for an artist whose studies include a stint at the art academy in Düsseldorf, where the pre-eminent Norwegian National Romantic painter Hans Gude was a professor from 1854–1862. In recent times, the theme has also attracted the attention of artists who work in other media, from Inghild Karlsen’s outdoor installation Fugleskremsler(Scarecrows) in 1979 to AK Dolven’s iconic video works from Lofoten in the 1990s and 2000s. The fact that Norwegian painters largely abandoned landscapes in the 1990s may be due to the historical baggage of the genre. Thus, explicitly working with landscapes in 2019 can be read as a radical gesture.

    Since her debut in 1990, Mari Slaattelid has responded to and incorporated aspects of art history that extend further back in time than is common in Norwegian contemporary art. Due to the institutional position of the Festival Exhibition, Kystverket (which takes its name from the Norwegian Coastal Administration) will also be inscribed into Norwegian art history. The curator of Bergen Kunsthall, Steinar Sekkingstad, describes the works in the exhibition as “remarkably singular,” even though they all share the same subject matter. When I view the paintings at Slaattelid’s studio before they are packed up and shipped to Bergen, the great variation in colour certainly supports his claim. Although the subject matter is repeated, the works do not have a serial feel. On the contrary, each appears confidently centred around its own axis, even as it also remains open to the project as a whole and to the world outside. Likewise, they evade the notion of a distinction between thinking and perception. As they stand here in the room alongside myself and the artist, they convey a sense of having both body and soul.

    Kunstkritikk: You have taken many different approaches to painting. Do you have a love relationship with the medium?

    Mari Slaattelid: I don’t think I would call it a love relationship. But I think painting is infinitely fascinating, and that fascination hasn’t been lost after so many years. I also think it’s fun, and I always enter my studio with a sense joy. Perhaps that is to love something – being able to stick with it for so long? But I don’t want to proclaim that I love painting. The labour is far too tough for that. But I allow myself to approach it from many angles, and I find that there is always something to be found there. If I can surprise myself and my own manner of painting, something has been achieved. If I can paint, not the way I am, but how I need to be for the sake of the picture.

    You seem to be a philosophical artist. While many artists use painting to think about painting, it would appear that you also use painting as a way of thinking about completely different things?

    Painting is part of the world. I can’t imagine how it would be possible to limit yourself to what is simply ‘within the painting’. Painting is a place, a scene, a place to think, and a thing in the world. So, you need to establish distance and you need to get close. Painting is related to everything, including economics.

    Mari Slaattelid, Figured 3, 2017 Oil on canvas, 160 x 100 cm. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

    Paintings always are, or contain, interpretable signs, and the creation or design of these signs is often considered the most important aspect. What are your thoughts about the relationship between the meaning of the sign and its material incarnation?

    The picture always comes first. I’m not a theorist. I’ve studied some art history, and having that foundation has been excellent for reference. But my knowledge has essentially arisen from actual practice. What I hope I have developed is a sense of what the image expresses. This may involve many kinds of signs, cultural references, or banal figurative approaches and clichés, anything that is visual in nature. Photography offers material that can be mined for painting, and for my part, it ends up as painting. Although painting is just one mode of expression within a broader visual culture, I think there is something good to be had from revolving around this one point for a long time.

    Around 2006–2007 I attended a seminar where the British artist Liam Gillick bluntly stated that the studio artist was dead. You do not agree?

    For me, this is a practical question. I can’t take all these things with me, so travelling and residencies are very inconvenient for me. I like to be in control. I spend long days in the studio and that’s how I like to work. You obtain a familiarity and a mastery with your medium that is also useful when using other media. Insisting on painting the way I have done may seem static, but it suits me better than constantly having to familiarise myself with new things. Like when you do large-scale public works, and need to act as a contractor and all sorts of other things you are not, spending your days tracking down subcontractors in the Yellow Pages.

    Blue Star Walking 2013 Lacquer on plexiglass, 160 x 160 cm. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen.

    The way I see it, your work constitutes a project that is critical of pictures and imagery. But it is still perceived as something other than what we now look back on and call ‘critique of representation’, not least because such art often has a vein of anti-visuality running through it.

    Well, that doesn’t apply to me. Quite the contrary. I look for the possibilities inherent in images rather than for their limitations. I remember that back when I made the “eye shadow pictures” [Reading Woman,2000] there was something powerful about discovering a potential picture somewhere I never expected to. I was at the department store Steen & Strøm, and I suddenly saw these make-up items as enormously potent visual possibilities, probably also because they were accompanied by such an insistent rhetoric of persuasion aimed at me as a woman. It became an image of how consumer society makes use of exactly the same thing that I myself am looking for in my work. These small, brilliant objects are made by top designers, but everything is manipulative, not least the stupid colour psychology, and is intended to generate capital. For me, this was a major discovery. And in my case, this became what is often, when I use text, referred to as “conceptual painting.” Larger gestural works are often called Expressionism. I suppose I actually think such distinctions are a little artificial. I would say that good painting is always expressive, and painting, like other things, needs a good idea.

    From the series ‘Reading Woman’, 2000 Oil and engraved text on plexiglas, 60 x 90 cm.

    Can that idea be primarily painterly?

    Yes, that’s exactly what it can.

    So-called conceptual, processual or ‘idea-based’ painting has been much celebrated in the last ten years…

    Yes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be boring. Perhaps it’s simply a case of having had a bad idea? There’s been this kind of injunction on painters to work on the outskirts and margins of the medium. You’re supposed to skulk around the outer edge of what can be called painting and cause some small shifts. Doing as little as possible is the ideal: ‘hands-off’ is better than ‘the gesture’, which is too expressive; the brushstroke is an excess of self-expression, you show too much, say too much. So one should bypass and avoid the most obvious thing to do, which is to actually make this poor neglected brushstroke. Painting is supposed to be kept at arm’s length, as if that were possible. All that effort is also expressive, after all.

    The idea of doing as little as possible on a large canvas is getting old. What is truly most risky these days? Maybe figuration? Traditionalism? Not as a result, but as a place of entry, entailing a danger of being perceived as something you don’t want to be seen as. Using the entire repertoire of painterly devices is interesting, and this includes colour work and the use of decorative possibilities. If you’re not going to make use of the decorative aspects, you restrict yourself as a painter. You don’t need to go entirely joyless.

    Unlike a Symbol 14, 2018 Acrylics and oil on canvas, 180 x 150 cm. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

    For the exhibition in Bergen, I have positioned myself right in the middle of the medium, in what I know as my own, Norwegian and European tradition. It’s an experiment: entering a place I love without knowing if I’ll be able handle it. I worked with landscapes in the early 90s, and have always had a penchant for great landscape painters. There can be no doubt that the landscape paintings I knew were the reason I wanted to start painting. I have picked this up again now because I’ve wondered about what might be done better.

    While I haven’t developed this idea into a fully formed theory, I think that there is an important difference between painters and artists-who-paint. In recent years, we have seen a tremendous rise in the second category. Lotte Konow Lund has described a feeling of being something of a pariah when she defined herself as “painter” while studying at the art academy in Oslo in the 1990s, whereas doing so was the most natural thing in the world for an artist like Olav Christopher Jenssen. Perhaps you could be said to occupy a kind of middle position in this regard?

    Painting is democratic. You can simply buy the equipment and get cracking. It’s tagging. Painting isn’t exclusive, but at the same time it is the very epitome of art. And painting is regarded with suspicion and derision at the academies, partly due to the status it has.

    Olav Christopher Jenssen’s generation had a kind of protective layer of fat sheathing their nerves. For them, painting was so natural, and they were entirely without paranoia and without anxiety. Getting started now is a bit more difficult. But perhaps it’s just an advantage that it all boils down to a few, and that those few are being run ragged at bit. They need to defend themselves against those who think they ought to do something else, something more useful; they have to think carefully about what they do and defend their corner. On the other hand, if you look at the art scene as a whole, and at the galleries, there is always a lot of noise coming from painting.

    Lantern 6, 2019 Acrylics on sized linen canvas, 235 x 135 cm.

    In the catalogue accompanying Nordea’s art collections, Sverre Wyller quotes you as saying that “a good image is a sensation.” The Swedish painter Torsten Andersson supposedly had a bonfire outside his studio where he would burn everything he was unhappy with, and the pile of ashes eventually grew quite considerable. When gallerists and collectors came to visit, they would also see all the unsuccessful attempts which underpinned any painting they actually saw. Have you burned many pictures?

    Torsten Andersson is a great painter, but that’s a bit theatrical. I don’t think you should burn art. But I understand the need to get rid of things that are bad; after all, most of what you do are simply attempts. You need to destroy, forget and try again. Only once in a while do you get the feeling that you’ve really struck gold, allowing you to leave the studio jubilant. But it does happen. I work a lot, and when you work all the time, ten hours a day, and have a deadline, something obviously happens. After all, I’m terrified of the idea of being left with bad things when an exhibition is due.

    With the exhibition in Bergen coming up, we come to the unpleasant question of whether or not you’re happy with what you’ve done.

    For this exhibition, I only had one year to prepare – and that’s not a lot – but I knew that this would be productive. You get your act together and make every effort to get things done! This doesn’t just mean that you simply become a good trooper carrying out a task; you also get good ideas because you bring everything you have, including mentally. The Festival Exhibition is a big deal, you so you go all in. I sometimes hear colleagues saying that the most important thing isn’t whether something is good or bad, as long as it “feels right.” That kind of attitude is completely foreign to me. Good and bad is what I have to relate to.

    But, yes, of course some things in the exhibition are better than others. I have a hierarchy, for my own part. At the same time, some of the things I care less about can still appear to good advantage in a particular context. A work is not necessarily brilliant in all contexts, but nevertheless I would argue that some pictures can survive everything, poor installation, yellow light, anything. Some paintings are small wonders all in themselves.

    Lantern 3, 2018 Acrylics on sized lined canvas, 235 x 145 cm.

    One of the problems facing painting is a lack of expertise – for example among critics. Isn’t it the case that, as a group, Norwegian critics are not really interested in painting?

    A lot of painting is probably criticised on the wrong basis. On the one hand, Barnett Newman was afraid of metaphysical superstructures, while more ‘disinterested’ modern painting of similarly large formats is dismissed as “crapstraction.” All that’s really required is the ability to get close to each individual work, see what happens, and to find a language for that. Instead, we see that a lot of work gets dismissed in superficial and prejudiced ways because of a failure to see the difference between what has value and what is just nonsense.

    If you are going to criticise something, you have to get close to it. Some things are nothing really, and some things are good. But in order to see the difference, you need a certain amount of experience, a familiarity with the themes, the materials, and with art history.

    In a text published by Kunstkritikk in 2004, Marit Paasche defends your work against another critic from the same period – the often reactionary Tore Næss. Næss claims, according to Paasche, that your work has an “underlying longing to return home to traditional painting.” She disagrees completely, and diligently musters a counterargument: semiotics, Julie Kristeva, myths, problematisation of power relationships, etc. These are what Paasche finds significant. What is interesting today is the extent to whichPaasche’s reading appears dated, a classic ‘defence’ of painting by a critic who is not really interested in painting. What do you think of this? Was Tore Næss a bit right?

    There’s something to what he says. Who doesn’t yearn for the best that traditional painting had to offer? It is true that as a category, “traditional painting” is a rather difficult term; we have had Pop art and Conceptualism for sixty years, so what is really traditional? But a sense of longing will always be one aspect of working with painting. Art is a sensual phenomenon. Sensory inputs move us, and painting will exercise this sensitivity. This is powerful stuff. It can embed itself in ways you may not fully comprehend. What one senses affects what one thinks. That is not without political significance.

    May 2019