Painting and The Mirror of Nature

Åsmund Thorkildsen
jan. 1997|Article

“We must get the visual, and in particular the mirroring metaphors out of our speech altogether.”

– Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 1979

Why is it that we look towards philosophy to an ever increasing degree when we discuss the visual arts? Isn’t theory something else, something essentially different than art itself? And isn’t this navigation towards philosophical problematics at least off course when discussing a painter like Mari Slaattelid, an artist with a classical talent for painting?

These questions answer themselves, I believe, as soon as one begins to speak, because it is in the words one uses - and has used for several hundred years - that the problem reveals itself. When we address the kind of painting that Slaattelid has practiced for many years, we use words like “representation”, “naturalism”, and in some cases “realism”. These words are the same ones philosophers use worry about as a profession. In general, all talk about painting and art is necessarily metaphorical, so those who wish to partake in the discussion today would do best by taking the use of language seriously. This is especially the case in the discussion of an artist like Slaattelid, who, since her initial period with traditional and stylistically assured landscapes, has proceeded via geometrical painting to a mode of landscape painting that must be deemed conceptual. Those who would partake in a discussion of this work should lift themselves to the same level as the artist’s own point of departure.

The production of both art and the meaning of art play themselves out in a field of conceptual pairs. In the case of painting these conceptual pairs shift historically and have the same area of usage and problems as philosophy. The title of this essay is a slight rewriting of the title of Rorty’s book, and a comment on its grammer is in order here. The combination of words is somewhat unusual - it would be more in keeping with custom had it been “Painting as the Mirror of Nature”. This is not accidental, however, for the title as it is also implies the latter relationship between painting and nature. Stated fully (and this of course applies even more to Rorty’s title), the title would be “Painting and Painting as the Mirror of Nature”. This is, in other words, a case of two different kinds of painting; that which is meant to function as nature’s mirror and that which is difficult to understand in this way. This difference is extremely charged, since it underlines the rift between the conventional understanding of what makes painting valuable and a newer possiblilty that breaks with this view. According to an old belief, painting has something to do with truth, just as in philosophy there exists a belief in a connection between well-meant postulates and truth. This belief is what Rorty criticizes when he rejects the idea that philosophy can ground its search for certainty in the question of truth on the basis that knowledge in the thinker’s mind is a mirror of nature.1

Painting as a purely optical affirmation of truth reached its peak in the 1960s during the celebration of high modernism. Clement Greenberg is the one critic who most clearly represented the position that hailed the monochrome as a purely optical phenomenon. His most severe critic in subsequent years has been Rosalind Krauss. She also has subscribed to Rorty’s appeal to remove visual metaphors from speech. In her address to the large Duchamp seminar in 1987 at the Novia Scotia College of Art and Design, Krauss quotes the following from Rorty: “Richard Rorty, for example, characterizes both Descartes’ and Locke’s use of this model in terms of ’the conception of the human mind as an inner space in which both pains and clear and distinct ideas passed in review before an Inner Eye... The novelty was the notion of a single inner space in which bodily and perceptual sensations...were objects of quasi-observation.’”2

Krauss quotes Rorty in connection with Duchamp’s relationship to the gaze, perspective, optics, projection, camera obscura and photography. Her concern regarding Duchamp’s interest in these things - which are closely tied to the visual metaphors Rorty has criticized - is precisely that Duchamp was among those who earliest and most radically introduced a different gaze and different eye than traditionally had been the case in the history of painting. Rosalind Krauss reads Duchamp in a way that may be inscribed in a series of conceptual pairs. I suggest the following concepts (which to a large degree follow the lead of Rorty and Krauss): “optically conscious” vs. “optically unconsious”; “visual, mirroring, transparent language” vs. “corporeal vision, clouded mirror, opaque language”. An conflict also exists between something that comprises an (implicitly) male, disembodied way of seeing and an (implicitly) feminine, incarnate mode of vision. One can extend this analysis by opposing traditional, naturalistic, realistic and abstract painting, on the one hand, to conceptual painting on the other.

Krauss sees two opposing ways of dealing with light-projected pictures - camera obscura and photography. She then points to a similar opposition between the museum as an institution and ideological entity up to the beginning of this century, and the museum after Duchamp. Although the origin of this transformation goes further back, the watershed occurs in 1966 with the installation of Duchamp’s “Etant donnes” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I quote from the discussion that followed Rosalind Krauss’ address in Novia Scotia, “Where’s Pappa?”, in which Jake Alleridge concludes his question to Krauss with: “I think that if we want to talk about Leonardo and Duchamp, we may one day start saying that to see the Large Glass, or to talk about the Large Glass, also brings shame to us.” Krauss answers: “I welcome that. I think what it addresses is the historical transformation of the museum, which existed in relation to a certain kind of aesthetic that was developed in the eighteenth century and that can no longer be supported in the twentieth. Duchamp seems to have been one of the first to say, ’We are now ashamed in these institutions.’ And your example, or that of someone’s being on a conveyor belt to be moved past Michelangelo’s Pieta, all of those things are bases for experiences of shame.” (ibid pp. 477-478).

Mari Slaattelid’s new paintings break with her earlier practice in that she works with problems tied to photography, and in that she has chosen to work on metal plates instead of canvas. In the process of making this work she has used the projection of a photographed landscape. The forms of the landscape are utilized like a readymade sign which, after being projected, are executed on several plates which comprise a series. In other pictures she prints the landscape forms with a cylinder, so that the imprint on the plate can be repeated several times. In this process, which is related to technological production methods, Slaattelid does not exclude the use of brushwork or paint. It is this ambiguity that makes reading her work interesting in relation to Duchamp, since she works with both projection (of a readymade section of a landscape) and a cylinder printmaking process, which has the same phenomenology as the photographically produced picture (on paper), while at the same time she creates gestural work with handtools and matter.3

When I started by calling Slaattelid’s talent classical, I primarily meant that her gift is of a kind that cannot be learned, and which marked the great painters of the past. It is a gift which is tied to the talent for drawing (which cannot be taught either). It is a gift by which the projection’s correct lines of transposition are executed through the interaction of the eye, brain, arm and hand. We see the result of this in the way she finds the right consistency of the paint, the appropriate tool, and the way these are applied in the underpainting. With this innate and refined device she has produced colors and light on planes, which convincingly appear as expressions of experience before a landscape. Her painting has all along been based on insight in and an affection for art history. The early paintings were thickly painted and intimate in scale. Whether the motives were from Telemark, Mediterranean countries or Norderhov, one thinks of Vuillard, Gwen John and Corot when one sees them.

I don’t believe these paintings were made with the idea that the artist and picture plane function as a mirror of nature. The reason for this is just as historical as the sense of shame that Duchamp brought to the museum. The clouded mirror is, as mentioned previously, in no way guaranteed by the use of thick paint. Also the first paintings are meta-art. They were made at a period, in the middle and end of the 1980s, when the act of painting such pictures demanded a conscious choice. These are paintings that consciously operate in a formal language, in a rhetoric taken from another place and time. This effect renders the work non-transparent. Mari Slaattelid’s work from this time was a welcome alternative to all the heftigeneo-movements and the first appearance of the monochrome in Nowegian art. We witnessed a similar, historically conditioned, “serene” approach in the work of such colleagues as Halvard Haugerud, Tone Indrebø, Stian Grøgaard, John David Nielsen and Terje Moe. Besides references to European art history, some of these artists built on the work of Norwegian painters such as Eilif Amundsen and Johannes Vinjum.4

Mari Slaattelid was one of the participants in the exhibition “The Language of Silence” at Kunstnernes Hus in 1993.5 The exhibition took its point of departure in an examination of rhetorical formulas in contemporary Norwegian art. The answer to the question posed by the curator in the catalog text - and which guided the selection of work - was “yes”. Silence has its painterly language. It was therefore not a matter of wavering when Slaattelid worked for a period with geometrical forms. The first abstract paintings took their point of departure in a classical reduction of the planes of a barn. These paintings examined planes that were divided diagonally in relation to the rectangular format of the canvas, just as the angle of a slanted rooftop is positioned diagonally to a plumb line and the reflection of water in the world around us.

If these first geometrical pictures were analytical, in an art historical sense, then the subsequent works were synthetic. Made after a series of stripe paintings, these pictures consisted of grids. A readymade aspect is to be found here too, in that these pictures were painted on striped cloth. Grids in art are of a conceptual nature, and have been an underlying problematics at least since the Renaissance. Grids are the visualization of conceptualized space. They are an attempt to create a rational system which can be used to measure and delimit an “invisible” and rather ethereal third dimension. Grids are synthetic in the sense that they must be stipulated, and do not empirically exist in the world in they same way that a barn roof or violin do. The grid is a conceptual form, constructed by humans in order to enable a common discourse about space.6 By working within range that covers both analytical and synthetic abstraction, Slaattelid has shown that her use of painting as a traditional medium and formal language also takes into account a logical form, by which analytical and synthetic sentences establish the boundaries for the sentences’ field of application.

A relationship also exists between the grid pattern and optics. Both are constructions that take their point of departure in the eye’s and light’s use of straight lines. It is the straight line that comprises the route for the projection of real objects through the camera’s lense to its light sensitive film. In principle, it is this same straight path that makes the grid a suitable model for space and that accounts for one-point perspective. Grids in mathematics, minimalism, conceptual art, cartography, architecture, typography, etc. are models of the same kind as the photographic image (whether they exist as the reversal of negatives in paper prints or as positive slides projected by light. All grid models, whether these are two-dimensional planes or three-dimensional objects, are projections of imagined boundaries in natural space. Natural space is, of course, not seen as made up of grids, for there are no grids there empirically speaking. In most depictions - for example in the early Renaissance with the explicit depiction (projection) of checkered marble floors or simple architectural forms - the grid is a miniature projection of something larger referred to. In an atomic model the model’s hypothetical/functional pattern is a radical enlargement.

Nowhere does Mari Slaattelid come nearer her “glassy essence” than in the geometrical paintings. In the abstract projected space just mentioned, one can imagine disembodied movement along a straight and continual path from the infinitely small to the infinitely large. But in Slaattelid’s new paintings this form of thought is no longer possible. In the series of landscape traces projected on metal plates, which are then worked on by hand with paint, we see how the corporeal eye intervenes in the glassy-clear space and applies a thick film of matter to the mirror. The matter in the landscape becomes suspended in the optical path via the lines of light to the film, via the lines of projection to the paper print and via the final projection via photography to the metal plate. The image which, due to the projected light, stops at the plane is just as immaterial as when the light once hit the film in the camera. Slaattelid brings it back down to earth, brings it to life, by covering it with paint. Thus she works in keeping with photography’s phenomenology, since photography’s companion has not been metaphysics but physics, not alchemy but chemistry.

In the paintings based on a cylindrical print, this materialization of photography is carried one step further. Here the entire technical apparatus and the accompanying forms of thought are left behind. The image on the plate is a direct imprint, not of a landscape that has been projected, but an imprint of painterly matter. The paint on the cylinder is transferred to the plate. The fact that this is a reproduction technique lies both in that the cylinder is the same kind used in the printing industry and in that the applied paint is printed once again. These are “photographs” made without light or film. They are also a painterly demonstration of artistic intelligence and maturity. They reveal the structure of a mechanism of projection which has functioned as the guarantee of immediate and true mirroring. They show that photography like all art is matter. Not the kind of matter that might be called ur-matter or elemental substance, but the kind one finds in the world, in paint, glass, earth or in the brain. This is a kind of art that shows that painting-as-nature’s-mirror no longer exists. This is paradoxically shown with the same kind of painterly matter that expressionists and romantics use. Their art seems soiled and smudged, while Slaattelid’s new paintings seem pristine.

An obvious reading of Richard Rorty’s ambiguous use of the term “Philosophy”, is that philosophy is something one can still carry on with after one has rejected philosophy as Epistomology, or what he calls “philosophy as the Mirror of Nature”. For him philosophy now means simply the practice of philosophers when they discuss problematical thoughts. Today there are many who use the word “painting” in a similar manner: painting is the name of the practice of those who make paintings, now that painting-as-nature’s-mirror is dead. Rorty will not stop reading and discussing Descartes and Kant, just as painters like Mari Slaattelid will continue to be interested in in painters like Hill and Hertervig. Only that some of us don’t believe any more that any of them will reveal nature’s truths.

This essay will raise objections in some parts of the Norwegian art establishment as another example of “the theorization of art”. Those that are against this supposedly unnecessary and obscuring theorization will, in most cases, be speaking from a dreamy, romantic view of art. And they will claim that art can be immediately experienced. That which they don’t see is that their immediacy is only possible if they have a glassy clear mind which mirrors nature, and that, like the artists they refer to, consequently represent mediums with supernatural and priviledged access to true vision. The problem with such people is not that they aren’t willing to admit that the mirror is covered (with paint), but that they have no shame.

(Translated by George Morgenstern)


  1. The fact that this oppositionis charged is witnessed by the Norwegian discussion of art. Here one finds a predominantly expressionistic and romantic attitude behind the production of art and discourse on art. These are the tendencies that to a large degree determine the artist’s self-understanding and the media’s depiction of art, supported with the help of a good number of academicians. One must therefore be precise here, since Rorty’s critique is directed towards logical and rationalistic schools of philosophy, while my critique is also directed towards a romantic and expressionistic understanding of art. The expressionistic view of art builds namely upon the myth of “nature’s mirror”. This may seem paradoxical, since the idea of thought as “nature’s mirror” is built on the notion that that language is transparent opposite the world, that language is the medium in which the mind (called by Rorty “Our Glassy Essence”) reflects nature’s truth. When confronting expressionistic painting and views of art it seems not very convincing to speak of “glassy essence” and “transparency”. Still, one must not confuse a physical reality including large amounts of thick and often smeary paint with ideology. The romantic and expressionistic view of art invests all in the myth of transparent language and “the mirror of nature”, because it builds upon the idea that art is immediate, that it does’t need verbal exegesis, that it is fully understandable on a pre-concelptual and pre-linguistic level. Expressionism is the true witness to humankind’s inner nature. There is no filter or gap between feeling, expression, impression and experience. pointing and saying, “Look!” The experience of art rests upon direct confrontation rather than, according to the pragmatic view, conversation. It is this attitude that lies behind the wide conflict between some artists, art historians and art teorists, and behind the at times strong skepticism towards curators.
  2. From p. 499 in the anthology from the seminar, Thierry de Duve: “The Definitely Unfinished Duchamp”, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 1991. Quoted from the 1993 edition.
  3. When Duchamp in a much quoted statement said that he wished to get away from art that only addressed itself to the eye, and that he wanted to introduce what he called “gray matter”, Rosalind Krauss reminds us that the brain is first and foremost to be understood as matter and body. Here “conceptual” and “cerebral” are to be understood as phenomenon grounded in the body, not just as “eye and idea”, but also as “eye and gland”.
  4. Several of these painters are somewhat reminiscent of the so-called Norwegian neo-romantics in the 60s. Hans Jakob Brun has characterized these as “stylistic romantics”, and to a large deegree this term also covers the younger artists and the generation in between. The term “stylistic romantic” indicates an awareness that these are not naive, “glassy essence” romantics (no matter how smeared their canvases are), but rather post-modern artists who are conscious of the fact that they are working with art historical material.
  5. See the catalog essay, Åsmund Thorkildsen: “Is There Room in Painting for Silence?”.
  6. Other geometrical forms than a square and cube can be used, something that is seen for example in atomic models and the gridded plotting of the earth on a globe.