Painting as Awareness and Active Space

Eirik Senje
apr. 2018|Article

Painting is a medium full of contradictions. There’s picture, representation, materiality, colour and decoration, time, memory. Once in a while it plays out as a conflict between these elements, which balance on a knife edge between nothing and too much. It’s a medium that can seem fundamentally compromised – and which, perhaps for that very reason, sometimes finds itself at the centre of the most heated rhetoric the art world can experience, with the debate revolving around not just matters of art theory, but also how the medium is used. Whether that use affirms or negates the medium, it frequently seems to convey an element of calculation and cleverness.

In my own acquaintance with Mari Slaattelid’s art, her fascination with painting has roots that descend far below the many superficial representations of the medium’s potential problems. Its essence seems rather to reside in a genuine interest in and understanding of the opportunities that painting can offer, weighed up against a critical sense of the pitfalls of language, an interest that lifts her work beyond the isolation of a medium sufficient unto itself. And perhaps most importantly, which does so without sacrificing the sincerity that is necessary for something as simple as brushstrokes on a surface to have a power beyond the rhetoric we ascribe to it.

The observations in this text are a response primarily to Slaattelid’s latest solo exhibition, “Purity of the Heart One to One”, shown in Oslo in 2016. These works I know well enough for me to be able to say something meaningful about them, from my own perspective as an artist. At the same time, I can make at least one more general observation, which explains my interest as a fellow artist: this is an artistic practice that dares to expose itself to its own arguments concerning constant deconstruction and reinvention, and to contradict the manifest conclusions that its own trajectory has arrived at in the hope of formulating something larger and more complex than the given. When it succeeds, it does so thanks to this premise, which is also the factor that gives it a chance of forming a meaningful contribution to the world of which it is a part.

Two paintings on sheets of Plexiglas carry handwritten inscriptions: “Det rena hjärtat” (The Pure Heart) and “Hjärtats renhet” (Purity of Heart). The words are scrawled above and below a central symbol which, influenced by the surrounding words, could be viewed as a heart, or perhaps as window muntins, or anything else you care to imagine. The phrases are taken from a text by the 4th century Christian monk and theologian John Cassian. A text which, in the simplest sense, represents a quest for spiritual clarity. Cassian writes about Discretio, the body’s lamp that illuminates whatever is important while leaving everything else in shadow. To what extent these phrases serve as a motto for the exhibition is a question we can leave unanswered. They could be many things: fragments of analytical text, an idea, allegory, history, linguistic manifestation – the fact that letters on a surface can deliver a specific message is also a matter of cultural projection, something that need not be taken for granted. But it is interesting to think that this newly translated text was written at a time of historical upheaval in European thought; the convoluted and paradoxical mythologies of earlier periods were being replaced by a more unified worldview, defined by the Christian story of creation, which spread rapidly across the continent.

Hjärtats renhet (h, r, blå, gul) (The Purity of the Heart (h, r, blue, yellow)) is a series of square paintings on aluminium plates, with motifs consisting of austere painted letters and what Slaattelid calls “corner figures”. These are loose constructions of lines which suggest the drawing of a corner in a room, the place where the walls meet and light mingles with the shadows. The reality of drawing and the reality of perception, but not as a simple duality: these figures are also signs. They are merged within one and the same eye, and it is hard to say what happens next, given the sensitivity of human consciousness to external circumstances and its limited capacity to observe its own workings.

Art is there to be seen, and whoever sees it is an observer. A common extension of this idea is the formulation, for which I have a lot of sympathy, that the artist is the work’s first observer. It is an idea on which a lot of thinking about art builds, but for all its simplicity, it fails to do justice to a number of harsh realities. Whereas an observer can remain passive, critical and attentive, the artist has to do something. When an artist looks at her own work, she does so with the potential to intervene in reality. It’s an exposed position to be in, a space where idea, image and language can operate outside of hierarchies and causal contexts, and without regard for the artist’s notions of herself. At the same time, her work is a physical reality that has real consequences. I believe it’s worth keeping this in mind when contemplating the work of someone like Slaattelid, access to which seems to depend on insights that occurred during its making.

Purity of the Heart One to One and The Soul’s Bravery Enlarged (again, titles that are inspired by Cassian) are two series of painted photographs. The starting point for both is a light switch in the artist’s studio, an example of an object that is unremarkable but ubiquitous in an electrified society. A switch gets touched, turned on and off, and it is precisely this that gives it its uniqueness. In this case the switch is smudged with paint from the artist’s hand, the result of being turned on and off in the course of probably many years of working with paint in the room it serves. Taken under a variety of lighting conditions, the photographs have been printed out and mounted on MDF boards. In the first series, the switch is reproduced in its actual size, while in the second it has been enlarged – as photography allows. The central area of the image, the surface that represents the switch’s implicit dichotomy between on and off, has been painted over. The field has been turned into a rigorously executed yet thoroughly painterly monochrome square, in the first series, in grey tones that vary slightly from one picture to the next, in The Soul’s Bravery Enlarged, in uniform black. Framed by its white surround (admittedly dirty), this square immediately invites comparison to Kazimir Malevich’s famous black square with its similar surrounding of white margin, a work that has been interpreted in a variety of ways, including allegorically, whereby the black square represents the field of text on a printed page, abstracted to the point where the distinction is no longer between the specific meanings conveyed by individual characters and sentences, but only between the field of signification and what lies beyond; an image of something indescribable that is present even so. One can also read into it an allusion to the tradition of religious icons, with their ubiquitous images, which are imagined to be devoid of any meaning beyond the actions associated with them. As a totality, the switch is something hard to define, and this ambivalence can be both disturbing and seductive.

Narrative is an important means of accessing these works, although narrative language inherently inclines towards quibbling generalisations about reality, which lead onto ever narrower paths the further one follows them. Although these works started out as photographs and seem to obey a conceptual logic, they are nevertheless informed by painterly sensibility, and as paintings they are more than just pictures and the associations they prompt. There are the colours as well, which are not just arbitrary colouration, but rather an embodiment – of a moment of heightened awareness between the pictorial surface and action. It is time captured in a picture plane, reflected in turn in the shadows of the actual switch when photographed in daylight. The daylight with which the painter has a special relationship, and which serves as a reminder of a concept of time that is different from the illusion of unvarying clarity that comes with the flick of an electrical switch: the sun that continues on its usual, timeless path, oblivious to the endeavours of human culture.

The discovery of the unconscious relationship to a place that the light switch implies draws its force from these considerations, but what makes these discoveries possible is a life that is conscious of the signs and objects it leaves in its wake. In this sense, the making of a picture is as much about pursuing a certain way of life as it is about creating allegories for something very different.

A painting can be about time in many ways. There is the time in which it was created, the time it takes for a coat of paint to dry, the time it took to produce, which is the time the artist has been present in the image. Painting is always a physical process that takes place in the pictorial surface. It cannot come about in a single moment as it can in a photograph. Whereas the universe of ideas is at the mercy of our constantly shifting attention and the vagaries of memory, work on a painting provides a more permanent space in which to move. Here one finds a broader type of awareness, where thoughts, impulses and actions that would otherwise fall below the radar of consciousness are firmly captured in an object’s physical reality. It is precisely this that can make it so difficult to define the content of an artwork. An artwork embodies something broader and more complex than what a single consciousness can master on its own, or – to take this thought a step further – to which a consciousness dares expose itself. This is true of many media to varying degrees, although I would argue that there is something special about painting’s combination of complexity and immediacy.

Whereas Slaattelid’s series of painted photographs evoke spaces through a combination of association, image and concepts, at the other end of the spectrum is a more physical type of painting: large canvases with formations of colour fields that suggest something resembling perspective lines. Or if you prefer, a figure that resembles the surfaces that make up a light switch. Other works suggest corners, built up of colour fields or constructed from expressive brushstrokes. The physical reality of a larger canvas can be a theme in itself; a larger canvas is more like a landscape than a sign, more changeable and less easy to survey, and more susceptible to the way the observer moves around it. Not least, it has a different physical reality for the person who paints it – it is a whole that is greater than what the body and the gaze can relate to at any one time. The coming into being of a space, and the paradox of occupying it, as something that is both physically and mentally delineated, can be a theme in itself.

When one tries to apply the kind of analytical tools that were appropriate to the painted photographs, with the various associations they trigger, to these paintings, in which the colours and composition override the symbolic aspect, one finds oneself facing a wall. This is a different universe, and it is frustrating to be forced to leave one universe for another. However, viewing them as a totality, we see that the distinction is not absolute, and this is important. There’s something untidy about the juxtaposition, which makes us aware of the sheer fragility of the sense of a situation we believe we have grasped by intellectual means. At the same time, there is a possibility here of glimpsing something while crossing from one universe to the other, provided one can hold out for as long as the artist does.

In the series På alle vegger har jeg malt vegger (On every wall I have painted a wall), a copy of the light switch has been pasted onto the picture surface and then covered in thick coats of black paint. The poetic simplicity of the painted photos has been replaced by an immediacy that is more precarious both as a gesture and in terms of its textuality. This depiction of the rigours to which a real, physical object is exposed is more dramatic. Seen from this perspective, the difference between the media involved takes on a comical aspect. It’s as if painting and photography were trying to trip each other up. They deny and embroider each other at one and the same time.

Here it would be tempting to adopt the privileged position of the viewer and simply make do with the experience – to opt for the pleasurable and dismiss what can’t be understood. This Slaattelid has refused to do. Perhaps there’s something crucial here, both for the specific project I have discussed and for her work as a whole: a determination to treat the various aspects of her pictures and their underlying ideas with the same seriousness, even when they seem impenetrable and obscure. Perhaps this is because, in these pictures, we find it difficult to recognise the narratives around which we construct our reality in the more ordinary aspects of life. Yet Slaattelid works in a manner that seems self-evident, without making an issue of things. Her motivations lie somewhere where we don’t stumble over them in passing – one has to go back and forth a few times before noticing them.

Painting is more than just a map of art-historical developments. It is a memory that also covers the specific things that occur on the picture plane. A painting is always a window onto what has already happened within the same frame, and nothing that has happened there disappears. The geography of the picture’s surface starts out without any clear coordinates and physical reference points. With such an open, almost formless starting point, with only the surface and one’s tools to respond to, painting is both liberating and deeply problematic. It appears to impose no obstacles, yet this is precisely why it is meaningless to navigate it at random. I believe Slaattelid is aware of this totality, and that this is a necessary condition for painting to become something more than just the application of paint. There is something more beneath the brushstrokes that doesn’t limit them to the given, but which doesn’t want to tear itself free either, or to deck itself out in pretensions that go beyond the meaning of its own focused space of action. At the same time, it is obvious that there is some underlying theme here, although it isn’t addressed on a level that can easily be put into words. The almost impossible syntheses that lurk on the margins between our various conceptual worlds can only be approached with difficulty, without blinking and with eyes wide open. This is what I mean when I suggest that an artistic practice as complex as Slaattelid’s is in fact dependent on the viewer’s willingness to engage with her work.

That which has no implicit function can freely be defined as nothing. A thing that is nothing could be something sui generis, new, or anything whatever. All things get filled with meaning, which is how it is with art objects as well. This is how I interpret an artistic practice that does not attempt to link in to what has already been found and marked, but which goes beyond. All our knowledge and all the narratives we operate with are constructed on the basis of the human perspective. This means that we are under no obligation to take what we find in front of us for granted. There are neglected paths, just as there are things and actions which virtually no one has yet identified as things and actions. Neither are the circumstances that surround a malleable soul immune to influence.