Name and Not Redeem

Hans-Jakob Brun
jan. 2002|Article

… is the title of a text by Mari Slaattelid from 1999. The phrase is also characteristic of the reflective attitude that guides her artistic activity – and of the surprising shifts and twists that typically mark our experience of her work.

Whereas Slaattelid attempts to name – to identify, specify, make visible – the results in no way confirm or "redeem" our initial assumptions. Such an attitude and experience are both demanding and rewarding – for her as well as for us. On one level it is simply a question of pictorial perspective. In the end it is all about forms of understanding. The important point is that these two questions become one and the same in Mari Slaattelid’s work. All this may sound complicated, but these pictures actually deal with such issues in a rather straightforward manner.

In a text from 1997 about a series of paintings with dark silhouettes of landscapes, called Templates, Slaattelid writes that the representation of the landscape becomes "a weak, almost abstract reference to human understanding." The emphasis here is hardly on the connection between the motif and the picture. Instead, what is highlighted is the theme of the picture. The shift of emphasis is significant. In Norwegian art especially, the landscape has such a prominent place that, as a motif, it would dominate the entire effect of the painting were it not consciously toned down and clearly assigned the peripheral role of a pictorial non-assertion. It is important to remember that Slaattelid’s work has evolved from a painterly tradition that treated the landscape as a pretext, a point of departure for the act of painting. In the Template series she had to move quite a ways to distance herself from this almost habitual coupling of Motif and Picture. At the same time, she wished to take this venerable point of departure for Artistic Expression – the landscape – one step further. If one is going to proceed into unknown terrain, starting out on familiar turf can have its advantages.

Artists of Slaattelid’s generation have typically shared the ambition of making art that on some level is also a reflection on art. The importance of such self-reflection is tied to this generation’s need to move the focus away from the values of handcraft associated with peinture bien-fait. In this tradition, the development of craft was intimately related to both one’s professionalism and personal self-realization, where the painter strove towards what was considered the ultimate goal: the authentic, that is, the unmediated or artless. This was further bound up with ideas concerning the unconscious, which we now regard a tad more suspiciously. For many of today’s artists, it has become necessary to turn away from traditional genres like the landscape, away from the very arena of intuitive self-development. In Slaattelid’s case, however, the answer didn’t lay in abandoning the landscape. On the contrary, it had to be confronted, and with new eyes.

To achieve this, Slaattelid reduced the landscape to a simple reference. In the "Template" series the landscape is present and recognizable, but what is important is that it remains unspecified and carries no excess artistic baggage. It has become so abstract that it is immediately identified as pictorial matter, as visual material in its own right. At the same time, the process of abstraction isn’t taken so far that the abstract landscape appears as an interpretation. These are demonstrations of pictorial thinking, not demonstrations of Slaattelid’s personal relationship to the motif. It is for this reason I mention her earlier work. It provides a useful introduction to her pictorial thinking, a mode of thought which is valid no matter what motif or theme she chooses to work with.

This point, however, can also be taken too far. For it is indeed also a fact that Slaattelid is well-schooled in the craft of painting and has been recognized from the beginning for her finely developed sense of color. She makes use of these skills and qualities, but she uses them as devices rather than as self-sufficient objects of demonstration. It would, at any rate, be a mistake to overlook them, because even this secondary aspect of her work has communicative import. Communication on several levels is among the premises Slaattlid has set up for her work. At the same time, these concurrent levels of communication generate their own new premises for how the work is to be understood. She is therefore dependent upon our willingness to follow along, and she secures this by making use of both our aesthetic awareness and our unconscious reservoir of codes from many fields of experience. The picture is to contain a lot, but at some point everything must be subordinated to the picture’s existence as an object in the world – to its iconic effect. It is this iconic effect, tied to the aesthetic and crafted material provided, that conveys the picture’s insistent gesture to the viewer.

It is here Slaattelid’s work is situated in the wake of a modernistic tradition – in spite of the fact that it clearly also belongs to a post- or perhaps post-post-modernistic tradition. The delicate "make-up samples" she made a few years ago clearly have the autonomous, abstract character of the previous century’s monochrome and serial painting. At the same, time they contain equally strong references to today’s marketing of image-based identity. Both-and, not either-or. The series of pink and beige-colored rectangles with rounded corners bring to mind compacts with rouge or eye shadow. They come across as abstractions of skin, just as convention-based and "readable" as the coloristic thematics we are accustomed to view within modernism as "pure" painting. As a parallel to women who use such make-up samples, we read meaning into these paintings because we are led by both the visual signals and their art historical authority, by titles and inscriptions and their suggestive force, and – not least of all – by our own experience with similar phenomena and the authoritative mandates of an ever-present cosmetics industry.

The photographs of a young girl’s face with a mask of cleansing cream are both an example of face painting such as it takes place daily in front of the bathroom mirror, and a depiction of the ambiguous psychological boundary between innocence and female role play. The pictures provide the possibility of both readings. In addition, they acquire further meaning through their titles, which in themselves open up ambiguous possibilities of interpretation. We are given a lot to go on, but in principle we have to go it alone in this rather unfamiliar terrain.

Nonetheless, what we are dealing with are pictures. Both the seemingly purely visual and the seemingly purely verbal have their origin in this fact. The pictures are not least of all about color, although by no means does color in itself provide a trustworthy point of orientation in this terrain. Names Changing Color is the title of a recent piece. Not colors changing names, but the other way around. Our knowledge, our giving of names, steers our perception. Slaattelid shows us a photo of a paint box filled with traces of painterly activity: mixing, testing out, overpainting, and endless combinations created from the paint box’s usual selection of standard colors. Before long, however, we sense that there is something unusual or downright wrong about this picture. The colors aren’t where they should be, at least according to the labels in the paint box. They show up somewhere else, under another name. The wrong name. It turns out that we are looking at a negative color photograph, in which each of the paint box’s circles of color have become their own contradiction. This is a troublesome experience, and we long for the colors to be where they belong. To begin with we stood in appreciation of the beautiful and unpredictable color combinations spread over the paint box. The visual and the mental experience, the conscious and the unconscious, collide. What we know and expect becomes a source of disturbance in relation to what we actually see. If an act of "naming" occurs here, an identification of this paint box with those we are used to, then we can simply take this naming as an assertion. But the picture doesn’t fulfill or "redeem" any demands we might have that this assertion be confirmed. We see something other than what our so-called knowledge claims we see.

Or – we see more than what we in fact see. Another picture consists of a harmonious, restful composition, a horizontal expanse seemingly free of any activity or references. We see a diffuse, pale grayish-green surface, with nuances so subtle that it nearly appears to be monochrome. And then the title enters as a focus of our visual experience, located at the very center of our field of vision: Very pale greenish shade which very effectively conceals redness. An almost redundantly plain description – that suddenly has a dramatic effect. The entire picture is turned around. The visible surface becomes cover, an act of concealment, a denial precisely of the painted surface’s complimentary color, red. The grayish-green thus becomes greener, its pitch raised by its denied red opposite – which has been conjured forth by being named, although its presence is never more than implied. The picture becomes a drama of conflicting forces, a scene of negotiation between what has been, what is now, and what could come. So much can a picture contain when one employs all the possibilities that exist at the junction between the visual, the verbal, and the mental. Both-and, not either-or.

This inclusive approach to the experience of painting, if followed through with consequence, is a bold position for an artist to take. It demands not only analytical precision, but a visual strength that keeps the experience from becoming diffuse. The picture must avoid coming across as a didactic hybrid. Here Slaattelid draws on her experience with both the poetic and the sensual element of the painting process. The pictures exhibit a visual authority based on years of practice with paint, color, pictorial effects – and to an increasing degree the artist’s reflection over the relationship between mental constructions and visual experience. It is against this background Slaattelid now expands her practice to cover a range of pictorial media and forms, while at the same time maintaining the consistency of her project.

This consistency is essential, I believe, and not that difficult to grasp. It is evident in the words she uses in her titles: Reading – Witnessed – Confirmed – Unconfirmed – Concealing – Pretending – Names Changing – Approaching – Subject Matter. These are words that have to do with language and modes of appearance or presentation. Her pictures have to do with forms of pictoriality and ways of structuring information. Slaattlid works with proposals for names, that is, she deNotes. She shows how possible frames of understanding – of both things remembered and presently experienced – are conditional on the situation. They are based on the intellectual and emotional baggage we carry with us. These frames of understanding aren’t arbitrary, but neither are they definitive. They comprise assumptions and expectations that can’t be fulfilled by the picture.

This is why there is a certain connection between Slaattelid’s pictures, a connection that has nothing to do with motifs or style. They have been developed in series, groups or pairs, and are all parts of a process. In the Template series Slaattelid brought into focus the process of codification through the redepiction of a given motif. Small variations among the pictures revealed the various visual possibilities inherent in the formally rather limited material. One of these pictures, painted with extra thick paint, is called Overpainted Landscape. The landscape is no more than an assertion, fairly hidden beneath the painting’s formal qualities and by no means expressed by them. The painterly texture is nothing other than a quality of the picture itself.

Slaattelid has engaged further in this seductive and treacherous material. In the new series Subject Matter, the subject of the pictures and their physical matter are one and the same. A thick mass of paint has been squeezed between two transparent sheets of acrylic, which have then been quickly separated. The result is two sheets, with two corresponding round forms. Blotches of paint. They are, moreover, marked by the vacuum created between the two sheets and released when they were pulled apart; the blotches have eye-like bulges and are permeated with each their own delta-like pattern of furrows and ridges. And then there is the material’s color and its contribution: white, with a faint tinge of red, has an expansive effect, while a dense, red-black form nearly implodes. Although the subject here is limited to the material itself, this material begins to tell stories. The subject becomes all the possible stories embedded in the material. Here the material is on its own, not subjected to the artist’s expressive will or painting’s traditional grammar.

Bit for bit the viewer examines and tests the elements of pictorial language, together with and in relation to the verbal, iconographic, and other paths of experience we have at our disposal. It’s not strange, then, that Slaattelid has touched on such an amazingly broad range of pictorial themes in such a short span of time. We are witness to a many-sided but coherent investigation.

This open and questioning, but fundamentally level-headed artistic process contains an element also found in humor: it catches the viewer off guard. Slaattelid establishes a situation or makes a claim, and then turns everything upside down or introduces something that breaks radically with our expectations. As a humorist, though, she is characteristically low-keyed; we hardly notice that we have been caught off guard.

For a Norwegian, the national flag is likely one of the most inviolable icons imaginable. At least this was the case until Mari Slaattelid made a series of paintings she calls Pale Flags. Or Blushing Flags. These aren’t anti-flags, but rather images of how emblematic forms and the colors red, white, and blue function as projections of feelings and collective ideas, which themselves are open to interpretation and manipulation. The changes Slaattelid proposes are suggestive, and can in fact be seen as a expressive of the flag’s own shifting emotional states. It now has a psyche – Blushing Flags.

Slaattelid challenges the viewer as well as herself. Approaching Ferrari Racing Red is a whole-hearted attempt to replicate in oil paint a surface lacquered with the famous Ferrari Red. The resulting double monochrome is gorgeous, and rather touching too. Here the artist shows us that in the practice of painting, the will to imitate is perhaps just as important as the will to express. We are also reminded of the relative value of an established trademark with its connotations of perfection. The oil-painted surface, with all its traces of handiwork and toil, has attained a rich and thoroughgoing Ferrari redness that the lacquered surface can’t match in all its emblematic correctness. In a picture, even an encoded color signifies more than the code itself. In a picture, even the utmost resemblance becomes something abstract.

What we don’t know is filled out with what we think we know. Confirmed Imagesis one of Slaattelid’s latest series, a collection of images that waver between several suggestive points of reference. We see what resemble micro-photographs of blood cells, or fingerprints, or detailed studies of unidentified substances. Thoughts come immediately to mind of forensic material from the scene of a crime. Confirmed observations. But for us nothing can be verified. As long as we don’t have the key to the questions these images might answer, all we have are ambiguous visual fragments. The problem is identical to the uncertainty raised in Witnessed Image, a work based on photographs of dark stairways and overexposed interiors. Murky figures run and fall and are caught in a glimpse before they vaporize in light or are consumed by shadows. Everything speaks of uncertain situations with a threatening undertone. Here too there are codes that give rise to disquiet, but none that provide any decisive meaning. And while the titles of these pictures reinforce our thoughts of criminal acts, they don’t offer anything more than circumstantial evidence of a dubious sort: Witnessed Image, Unconfirmed Images. We have indeed all reason to distrust our observations, or rather, the framework in which we place them.

The issue here concerns the relationship between knowledge, observation and meaning. I repeat – the relationship, which cannot be grasped through reflection alone. In Slaattelid’s case no insight can be achieved except by means of perception. One must both look and ponder over what one sees. The title of the exhibition, Concealing Redness, implies that the work is about the meaning that arises in the encounter between visual patterns and patterns of thought. The latter are comprised of several levels, including the verbal, which can be just as ambiguous as the visual. In the series Read My Lips, holes that are stamped out of the pictures’ surface form words – names of lipstick colors, whose exotic sound suggests a variety of personality traits: Passionate, Libertine, Fetiché. The words intimate how we are to “read” the personalities of the women who color their lips with these various shades of red. Still, nothing here can be interpreted one-to-one. The lacquered red surfaces and the clichés stamped out of them take on a different tone as the words emerge and then disperse into the perforated expanses of color. Our visual apparatus charges the words with ominous undertones, which are further modified by the relationship between the words themselves and their stereotyped meaning. And by the relationship between the pictures’ shifting visual qualities. They can be immediately apparent. They can be formula-like. They can be indirect. And they can be solely implied.

In Slaattelid’s work we find ourselves within a web of visual signals and recalled impressions and emotional echoes. We can feel the nearness of networks and coordinates and structures from reality. The pattern of the web is fascinating, but in the end it escapes our grasp.