Painting’s Distraction

Jørgen Lund
jan. 1999|Article

A photographic landscape silhouette is sharply delineated in a number of Mari Slaattelid’s images, often seeming to have been stamped with blacking or photo emulsion on metal plates. The black and white nubs of the silhouette are typically photographic - the result of technical efforts and disruptions in the direct connection between reality and image. The reality character of the photograph institutes a horizon in the picture - not only a visual horizon, but the actual horizon. The horizon’s visual weight is a prime element in the painting. It may be overpainted by a thin membrane of paint or by compact strokes, appear positive or negative, rendered lovingly or drafted indifferently.

The neutral square picture formats used by Slaattelid fleetingly recall historical and vaguely familiar designs: Caspar David Friedrich’s endless sky accentuated over a floating horizon, for example. In other “stamp” works of Slaattelid the horizon might be placed, for example, in the upper corner of the picture. The pale picture surface condenses like the indeterminate space in Rothko’s color fields. In other places, there is a back and forth movement between stark black and white, simple abstract qualities become pronounced and somehow concrete. Displacements in the motive and an abruptly dropped corner deliver the imagery’s cryptic realm back to production’s prose, to metal and paint.

Just as what has been photographed is a reflection of a landscape, it is also a document of the landscape’s absence, what the camera saw and attempted to grasp. An old-fashioned atmosphere, an impression of photography’s infancy that emphasizes what is being lost, fading away. The photograph’s physicality intervenes, a tangibility that removes originality and erodes significance. Mari Slaattelid also describes her photo-based painterly encounter with the landscape as a “relinquishing technique”. As a painstakingly prepared series, with an analytical and a kind of autonomous scientific order, visual interest lies far from the landscape. Painting clearly acknowledges that it is lacking, that the landscape is not here. As Slaattelid herself writes, relinquishing gives “the landscape back to the landscape” after Romanticism’s fervency. Melancholy thus wanes in the ability to give back, to return space to the landscape itself. One might say that nature - unto itself, that which is always greater - comprises the distance to this wan horizon.

In some of Slaattelid’s works, the photographic black part of the image nearly fills the entire format. That which has already been seen and registered is enlarged, becoming a kind of absorbent visual substance. Details suggest elements from familiar historical art works that have been zoomed in on, enlarged and distorted, or viewed under a technician’s magnifying glass. Works of art meant for reverent viewing envelope us at a micro level. Undifferentiated blackness assumes a boundless reality unto itself that is abruptly and indiscriminately broken by the edge of a metal plate: A segment from the background of an annunciation scene by Leonardo, one of art history’s symbolic treasures. The black lives its own chemical life, as an absorbing off-balance entity on the picture plane. A secondary part of the historical masterpiece is greedily examined at close range, enlarged until it becomes anonymous material. An unseen foreignness seems to stare mutely back at us: Double periphery. Photographic disturbances, contours of enlarged grains of dust, seal the masterpiece’s downfall into the non-living. The annunciation - an archetypally significant moment - against a decorative cluster of trees in the background represents a span; an opening between classical center and artistic periphery is repeated in Slaattelid’s image. The black becomes point zero between substance and accident, between what is meaningful and the ornamental, the explained and the distracted.