These are the words found on a piece of cardboard in Water Yam, George Brecht’s 1963 box collection of so-called event scores: simple, word-based alternatives to musical notation, indicating the possibility of some kind of performance. This particular score carried the title Three Lamp Events and some 40 years later Martin Creed won the Turner Prize for what would seem to be such a performance: entitled Work No. 227, it simply consisted of the lights in a gallery space going on and off. Brecht for his part had indicated no specific realization of his score, the implication being that any action with a light switch, in fact any of the electrical events of the power grids that keep modern buildings and city streets permanently illuminated, would attest to its basic proposition. No work-form was needed: art would proceed from the power of events of connectivity.
It would seem to be a logic remote from that of painting, with its emphatic formats, surfaces, imagery and formal concerns. But in actual fact it underpins all that is vital in modern painting. And in two recent series of works - Purity of the Heart One to One and The Soul’s Bravery Enlarged - Mari Slaattelid demonstrates its mode of working in the realm of paint. At the outset, however, everything seems to be about photography. Here is series of shots of a white light switch, presented as C-prints mounted on MDF boards. This is a specific switch: it belongs in Slaattelid’s studio, and is covered by blotches of colour from having been turned on and off multiple times by paint-stained hands. The paint has gathered in the places where the hand habitually performs the on or off switching, channelling Brecht or Creed or none of them. In fact, the photographic series seems to be all about light – principally the changing daylight in the room also illuminated by electric light. For each photograph shows a different play of shadows produced by the protruding switch on the bare wall. This is essential photography: having a light-sensitive surface record the distribution of light and shadow in a precisely framed analogy of real space. These are the photographic events mimed in Monet’s serial paintings of haystacks under shifting conditions of light. Impressionism understood them as the fleeting moments of perception caught by rapid camera exposure time and mimed by speedy, impression-like painting.
Yet everything about these works change the moment you discover that the light switch series are not just photographs of shadows, light and painterly stains, but also proper paintings. The switch is the large square type designed for easy access in the dark. Photographed in flat frontality on a bare wall, and surrounded by a receding frame, the central square of the switch might suggest a painterly surface. And this is in fact what it has become. On top of the surface of the photographic print, the square has been covered in paint, a thick, impasto, almost-monochrome that is differently executed in each single work in the two series. Subtle variations of blotchy, scratchy white in one series, coarse black nuanced by hints of green, yellow blue and red in another series. The paint is matte and tactile, as if in eager to stage the greatest possible contrast to the ephemeral, impressions celebrated in a technical media culture founded on photography and electric light.
Still, in these works, paint is also associated with a world of technical media - if only through a strategy that displaces the habitual celebration of light and visibility. The question is of course whether light is all there is to photography. In a 1968 text named Melanographie, written at the end of a long career exploring and inventing technical media, Dada artist Raoul Hausmann presented a theory that identified the productive moment of photography not in its famous “writing with light”, but in the automatic and as if uncontrollable production of dark shadows.1 Here was an active instance of difference within the photographic image itself, undoing the priority and centrality of that which catches the light. For such shadows were sensed rather than seen, and this was of course also what Francis Bacon found so interesting in the black and white photographs he used as the basis for so many of his “distorted” portrait paintings. Emphasis here is on the sensations that hits the body before any conscious perception, the intensity of darkness or painterly materiality that connects with the neuronal network of the brain before one can even talk about visual relations and painterly form.
This last idea is the key point of Éric Alliez’ recent rewriting of the history of modern (non-impressionistic) painting. For this is an account centred on the late 19th Century scientific and artistic interest in the relation between the sensational forces of colour and the hallucinatory or constructive aspect of all perception.2 However immediate or instantaneous it may seem, vision is only a delayed result of brain activity. And the emphasis on the working of colour sensations in modern painting addressed precisely the events of neuronal modulation or brain creativity, rather than the phenomenal surfaces of visual impressions. In Slaattelid’s two series, the shadows in the photographs and the thick impasto paint on the photographic surface form an alliance that attest to the constructive and connective forces at work in modern painting, as well as a sensitivity to the mobility of forces that go beyond specific media and technologies and implicate us in a wider set of material operations. It is not the illumination of Slaattelid’s studio and its representation in photography that matters, but the on/off switch of power, and with it the many smaller or greater shocks of sensational attack, including those produced by the tints that emerge from within the black thicket of paint or the almost parodically meaningless “shadow play” produced by the square light switch on the flat wall. This surprising, non-visual alliance between painting, photography and electrical grids points not just to an alternative techno-logic of modern art. It also attests to the spirit of freedom that is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Slaattelid’s form of work. For if, on the one hand, it always seems to “remain” and “confirm” painting, it never forecloses on the question of what the painting’s web of relations might eventually be and how it contributes to the production of new realities.
- Hausmann, Raoul. “Mélanographie.” 1968. In Raoul Hausmann: Kameraphotographien 1925-57, edited by Andreas Haus, 27–28. München: Schirmer Mosel, 1979.
- Éric Alliez, with collaboration from Jean-Clet Martin. The Brain-Eye. New Histories of Modern Painting. Translated by Robin Mackay. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016