Rational, Natural Episodes of Painting – Mari Slaattelid’s Templates

Morten Sjaastad
jan. 1999|Article

1. — In a series of Templates or Stampings from 1996 (I stick to the former, less literal translation of ‘stempel’) in each picture the same landscape photograph has been painted off from a projection, leaving the land silhouetted on a bright neutral ground [1]. The horizon line is a figurative clue, suggesting a field between two groups of trees. But whatever the photograph may show the paintings refer to no definate place. A spectator may be puzzled by these pictures, for their visual intererest is on a first pass quite modest and in key with the low specificity of the landscape, yet to a patient observer the repeated tracings of a dull horizon appear (I claim) subtle and profound. Can criticism help us to understand this, and hence to a fuller perception of the paintings?

The panels invite us (I wager) to be sensible to logical structures of pictorial representation which, as our sensitivity awakens, we begin to experience as a content of the paintings and a major part of their aesthetic interest. In order to lay bare this content it will be useful to draw upon a specific way of explaining the possibility of pictorial representation, largely due to Richard Wollheim.1 My proposal is not that this explanation commands Slaattelid’s assent, or that we require it to appreciate the paintings, or that they corroborate it. Wollheim’s explanation is merely of help in sorting out the fundamental structures of represention which the paintings invite us to be sensitive to, and which in coming across as a content allow the visual experience to be an experience of its own conditions.

The explanation includes a thesis about how we see a pictorial representation. It is ’seen-in’ – seen in its support. By represention is meant that which is recognised in a picture, for instance the night watch or soap suds or a landscape. And by support, the material thing in which a representation is realized: a painted canvas, a silk-screened poster, paint on aluminium. The experience of seeing the soap suds thus characteristically contains two distinct but inseparable elements. The suds are seen along with and as realized in a material support, say, ink on paper. In describing the visual experience we can therefore distinguish recognitional aspects owed to a representation on the one hand and configurational aspects attributable to a support on the other, but they are acknowledged in a single unitary experience.2 A painter is however able to exploit the relationship between representation and support, for in a single experience either recognitional or configurational aspects may come to the fore, to different degree and for a variety of reasons. As we soon shall see, the Templates in all their apparent simplicity are a fertile ground for diverse shifts of attention between representation and support, and between different forms of content in the one support, awakening spectators to the twofold seeing of landscape and paint in a single visual experience.

At the simplest, whether a spectator pays more attention to configurational or to representational aspects is a function of position vis-a-vis the picture, most ususally of distance. In seeing a Template from across the room the support is undecidable and the represention dominates. At most we may make assumptions or be curious about the support. Only on approaching is the merciless exposure of paint deposited on the aluminium visible. A theme in all of Slaattelid’s work is how paint and the underlying surface jointly form the support. On aluminium even quite thinly applied paint does not appear – as on canvas – to be absorbed, and it follows that means of application (roller, brush) and degrees of precision are very fully disclosed. Finally, only in close to most Templates is it possible to discern the density of brush marks in the dark silhouette in contrast to the merely primed background.

Within limits (interesting limits) a spectator may on the other hand simply choose to focus attention on either recognitional or configurational aspects, as when imaginative perception is harnessed to the will.3 Even in close, aware of the clotted brushwork, a spectator may choose to see the dark plane as pasted to the panel or as printed from a block. In the Templates volunteered imaginative perception finds most to focus on in the configuration. The minimally disclosed landscape and the summary manner of its presentation do not encourage us to imagine specific locations but to generalize. Moreover the pictures resist the insertion of an internal spectator, that is to say a spectator imagined in the picture, for whom the landscape is real and therefore more complete. As in much of Slaattelid’s work, but here to an extreme degree, the representation of a landscape is downplayed in order to free the imagination to attend to the role of the support in achieving representations.

The imaginative attention paid to the support promises to affect and is affected by two further distinctions allowing the spectator a choice about what to see in the paintings. The first choice is between two kinds of objects seen in pictures. For most abstract pictures represent. Though we fail to recognise in them the kinds of objects or states of affairs belonging to past, present, or futures (the aftermath of a battle, getaway cars, a landing ceremony on Mars) still we usually recognise in them more than we are able to attribute to the support, in which case the recognitional aspects are representational but non-figurative. In the Templates the dark planes are variously cut at each end and along the lower edge, and positioned high or low on the constant square by which they are narrowly or broadly framed. Thus the choice appears to be given us, especially if we can concentrate sufficiently on the flanks and lower edge, to see these pictures abstractly. What we would then see in them, e.g., black on white or black in the white, will change not only with the support we do see but with the support we choose to imagine.

Yet the choice is not fully given. The undifferentiated sky – which in the photograph may display specific properties – and its congruence with the bright abstract ground is a condition of seeing the paintings abstractly. But in looking at a Template the white background will not relinquish its status as sky except at the flanks and at the lower edges, to which abstraction consequently is confined. On the other hand this confinement affirms another aspect of seeing-in. For necessarily more than a surface as such is seen as a support. At some level of generality we see the surface as an aspect of some material object such as a wall or the body of a car or, in this case, a detachable, unbordered, unframed, flat and quite thin square panel on a wall. The abstract accentuation of the edges forces the issue of how, factually and imaginatively, we perceive the panel.4

We are also invited to make a quite different choice between seeing-in and a different visual experience. The feature on which it hangs may appear gratuitous, and is this. The bright backgrounds of the Templates are less neutral than I have so far acknowledged, and bear marks consistent with various techniques of graphical reproduction. In Template no. 2 [2] tracks made in priming suggest the uneven exposure of an unserviced photocopier or a print made across several lengths of paper, for the divisions continue through and run over into the silhouette. In no. 1 something resembling the traces of fluid sometimes left on polaroids swirl along the top edge. Why this attempt to tell transparently false stories? The features in question allow us, I want to suggest, two ways of seeing the picture. We may (and I believe this is the likeliest initial response) see the painted support as resembling a different support, e.g., a polaroid. Or we may (though this requires a bit of effort) see the alternative support represented in the picture.5 Recognising the horizon will then be a case of second order seeing-in: the landscape is seen in the polaroid seen in the painting. Of course in paintings we often see other pictures and what they show, but here an identical representation of a landscape constitutes the picture in each case. What changes is whether we see the support as representing a different support or, rivalling this interpretation, as resembling the different support. The series makes use of the fact that a content of any one painting may be both its resemblance to another picture and that we see another picture in it. In this case, by acts of will it is possible both to convert the rival content to seeing-in, or on the contrary to emphasize its rival character (’both-or’). This choice as a content of the paintings not only allows us to experience the distinctness of seeing-in and resemblance, but assists the spectator in focusing imaginatively on the support by demonstrating its contingency in relation to the constant, purely representational content. Thus in their ambiguities the paintings invite the choices we make, and invite us to understand them as choices.

How attention is drawn to support or representation may however also be the decision of a painter. A strong, even extreme case is trompe l’oeil painting. Its characteristic success is to disguise the support. The eye is fooled not into mistaking the painting for a basket of edible grapes but in allowing a representation seen as painted to float free of its support.6 The floating free is governed by the artist. Comparably in the Templates, however thin the representational content, the horizon is all the same remarkably insistent as a representation. It is of course widely remarked in the history of art that in closing in on a painting one is likely at some point to lose sight of all but the marked surface of the support. But the horizon line is established in the absolute contrast between dark brush marks and bright primer, and holds firm. Likewise, as I remarked, the choice of seeing the dark field abstractly is more dangled in front of a spectator than given. When we try to see the dark surface as abstractly set in or on on the bright plane the horizon line implacably compels us all the same to see a sky in the primer, land in the dark foreground. It is central to the paintings that howsoever and however much we attend to the support, the representation of a horizon and therefore of a landscape remains constant. The horizon line may be raised or lowered, but were the line to be inverted (as by Baselitz) or set on a diagonal then the paintings would lose their singular power. The horizon line has the force of a word, and the landscape with it.


The text so far provides a skeleton for interpretative experiences to dress, and I also want to sketch one of many outer contours. My concern in this and the next section is why in appreciating the Templates we should be so strongly awakened to visual experiences of the action of painting. Usually in looking at a painting the discrete actions and passages of activity by which it was produced are less than clear to us, and may not be very interesting. For instance, when brush marks are prominent the primary interest may be the way they adjust the appearance of the canvas. The only action of a painter invariably clear to us in a painting (unless it is unfinished) is the act of no longer painting, implicitly an act of approbation.7 In a Template on the other hand we are enabled to see the episodes of painting which produced the work, and especially we see one passage as a condition of the entire picture. In the application the dark paint of the template itself the bright primer is co-opted into participating in representing the bright sky above a landscape. Moreover just one especially precise effort of this episode – the horizon line – is the hinge on which figuration turns. In addition a variety of other ’rhymes and dissonances’ between support and content also stress the action of painting. The contrast between dark land and bright sky is for instance echoed agentively in how the weight of land rhymes with the laborious density of individually intended brush strokes and the lightness of sky with the quickly and nearly indifferently rolled primer. Furthermore the transformation of a photo into a painting, along with the stories about other techniques, as well as the choices we are invited to make between imaginative perceptions, serve to draw attention to painting as the fact round which origin, fictions, and voluntary imagination play. And finally, because of the dominant role of the once fluid paint in forming the support, oil on aluminium is of course eminently suitable in making paintings conceived as repositories of action.

The stress on action belongs in specific context, and responds to the articulation in the readymade of a more fundamental relation between artist and spectator than previously explicit in art. Generally the production of art is analogous to directive speech acts, that is, acts by which a speaker tries to get a hearer to do something, whether in giving an order, serving notice, placing an offer, issuing an invitation, or making a plea.8 A painter tries to get a spectator to see her picture as she does: to see the night watch in a canvas, soap suds in a poster, a landscape. Usually the directive is not manifest in the picture as such but in the approbation implicit in relinquishing the picture to an audience. The implicit claim is that the work is worthy of this kind of directive, because something is presented which can ground and therefore may deserve a response. The readymade as introduced by Duchamp is at first sight confusing because it appears to break with the pattern. What has been made that could merit the directive? Nothing is to be seen that was not there before. Yet something is there to be evaluated – the action of the artist in finding and presenting the work – and this we are invited to find appropriate for the same reasons that the artist does. Thereby the invention of the readymade reveals a deeper directive implicit in art: to understand the reasons of an artist for judging the action of making and presenting the work appropriate.9The readymade shows art to be a rational enterprise, if of a special kind. A restriction on this form of rationality (which at the same time amounts to a criterion of a work of art) is that the reasons for making a work cannot fully be given quite apart from the work or ahead of making it.

It is instructive to note how the actions to be seen by a spectator distinguishes Slaattelid from an artist she has learnt something from, namely Gerhard Richter. Richter articulates his pictures as found – in anonymous photographs, in his own (a photo fails to work for him when he takes it specifically with painting in mind), in parts of other paintings (the magnified abstracts), or by way of the process of painting (the procedural abstracts). The decisive actions are discoveries – of photos, of how to paint one, of how to assemble them (in the Atlas), of a set of effects in applying paint to canvas. This is as true of his formally and representationally very simple paintings, the grey pictures and colour charts, as of his complex figurative and abstract works. In both what counts as found is a specific effect brought about in the relation between a set of representations: in the simple paintings a muteness, in the complex paintings a plenitude. In Richter, even when the support is conspicuous, our attention is directed to representations either there to be seen or merely posited. We are often persuaded to marvel at a specific effect, but to see this as appropriate and worthy we are obliged to understand it as sought – with an open mind – and found.10

Whereas Slaattelid presents her pictures as constructed. A woman is ’pretending to be a painting’ in the posed photo for one picture. It is obviously important in the Templates that as noted the action of painting is apparent. But the various ways of emphasizing the activity only yield their meaning when we understand how they articulate that painting in this case amounts to a work of construction in which a variety of features are juxtaposed. This is manifest in a very different relationship to specific effects. It is just because the effect is in question that we are invited to see the support this way, to see it that. Thus, the responsibility for making a discovery is in a sense we can understand by reference to Richter’s paintings placed on the shoulders of a spectator, though it is placed there through the ideas and the seeing of a painter. Not only the action of the painter but also the active participation of a spectator is brought out as a content of the paintings, and so the imaginative focus on various aspects of the support is appropriately far more dispersed. In few pictures I know is the initial view so transformed in a mature perception as in the Templates, and the experience of this maturing is part of their content. To appreciate how worthy of the implicit directive the Templates are, we are required to experience our role in responding to their invitation as an explicit part of their content.

In looking at Slaattelid’s work it is worth keeping in mind that questions are a form of directive (which may take the tone of an order, a plea, an invitation). The speaker directs the hearer to answer. It is fair to say that at a level deeper than my interpretation of Richter all art works involve a kind of discovery,11 and whereas Richter has found procedures giving him answers to questions he can put only by sorting through photographs or by putting brush to canvas, Slaattelid has found a fruitful way of asking questions while allowing answers to be left in doubt, thereby preserving the character of a question. The paintings thereby give me the line I need to meet a possible objection to the analogy of painting to directives. If the point of an action is to make someone see or understand, should not the analogy be to assertives, which are the standard tool of a speaker trying to obtain the passive assent of a hearer to a belief? But the relevant seeing and understanding are to be realized in an interpretative experience actively forged by the spectator, and the paintings articulate this aspect of appreciating art.


Why do I care about these paintings? From the text as it stands someone unacquainted with Slaattelid’s work might suppose the Templates to be an exercise in the display of painterly rhetoric, the sort of exercise that leaves me cold. Assessments of purely self-referential paintings vary of course, and clearly the Templates have such virtues.12 Whatever their weight, however, the articulation of the roles of painter and spectator instantiate a contentful theme of great depth in Slaattelid’s work, best approached by considering how Exposure 1, also from 1996, relates to a further point made by Wollheim. Exposure 1 was produced by charging a roller with paint and twice rolling it through exactly one cycle on a primed aluminium panel, off-setting the second, weaker impression with a slight overlap. The painting exhibits many of the properties I have pointed out in the Templates – the prominent role of paint in forming the support, a field of dark paint as sufficient for a representation, an action clearly articulated as producing the picture, reference to a different technique. But in this case the representation is unstable and undecided [3]. We do see something in this panel, but what is it, and why is both the fact of seeing-in and what we are able to see interesting?

Wollheim argues that the decisive capability permitting us to see-in is innate. He remarks how I am able to see, e.g., a threatening god in a cloud formation or a clouds in the damp stain on a wall. In the first case I see a god supported by clouds, in the second a wall amounts to a support, the clouds are seen-in. A pictorial representation exploits this ability and introduces a standard of correctness on the action of a painter and the perception of a spectator in order to enable us to see not anything at all in a picture but the night watch, soap suds, a landscape. The wedding of rationality to this natural principle is expressed in Exposure 1 by the artist waiving her command over the representation. Again a question is posed but in this case the answer is completely open, for the artist clearly intends us to see something, but at the same time what we do see is up to us. In other words, what we are able to see-in is as good as what she sees, what you saw yesterday is as good as what I see next week. There is no normative standard beyond the task of seeing something, and what we see can be understood as dependent on a natural ability we bring to the task. Here lies a theme permeating Slaattelid’s work: nature as constitutive of rationality as well as a restriction on it. The action of painting as it is able to articulate the roles of painter and spectator instantiates this theme, as an example of reason dependent on nature. Painting is to be seen, in the literal sense of experienced, as both rational and natural.

The theme is present in how representational content is determined both in Exposure 1 and in the Templates. Although what is seen in the two juxtaposed cycles of the roller is up to us very soon we see a landscape, not a T-shirt or the flicker of a TV-screen or a bicycle wheel. The panel articulates the remarkable ease with which we see something natural (or supernatural if so disposed) in a support, compared to manmade stuff. Likewise in the Templates the insistence of the horizon line is connected to deep structures of seeing which are likely to be innate and which in any case are deeply sealed in us by experience, for seeing a horizon is closely tied to basic scenarios such as up/down, left/right, in front/behind which are crucial in ordering spatial experience,13 and to a sense of self interpendent with more abstract conceptions of unifiable space.14 Thus, in spite of the minimal cues we are given we cannot, even if we try to, see the horizon line as anything else. In recognising the intentions of the painter we have reason to see horizons in the paintings, but in all likelihood the reason does not explain why we do. The rational force of a word possessed by the painted horizon is stamped on us naturally. To paint as articulated here is to find a frontier where mute, causally determinate nature begins to accomodate a space of reasons, whereupon nature – in making room for a perspective back on itself – is transformed into someone’s world.15


  1. Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 46-71.
  2. On the unity of the experience of seeing-in, see Michael Podro, ’Depiction and the Golden Calf’, in Philosophy and the Visual Arts, ed. Andrew Harrison (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987).
  3. Voluntariness and other aspects of imaginative seeing are informatively discussed by Roger Scruton, Art and Imagination (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974). Scruton as a programmatic aesthetical conservative paradoxically writes well on a way of seeing crucial to an understanding of modern art.
  4. The traditional frame of a painting in has the contrasting task of unambiguously anchoring the picture in a clearly articulated separate object, a function more important than the oft repeated idea of the frame as a window onto what is seen, which when one looks at most picture frames is nonsense anyway.
  5. Wollheim, op. cit., 76-77. The distinction between seeing-in and resemblance is prefigured in Wittgenstein’s discussion of the difference between seeing this in a picture and seeing a likeness between two faces. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), 193e ff. On my view, for what it’s worth, there can be no dispute about the difference between seeing-in and normal cases of resemblance: we can see a resemblance between, say, two drip paintings without seeing either in the other. But I am undecided on whether seeing-in is a special case of resemblance, as Wollheim denies, or to what degree and if so how resemblance contributes to seeing-in. See Flint Schier, Deeper into Pictures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), and David Peetz, ’Some Current Philosophical Theories of Pictorial Representation’, British Journal of Aesthetics 27 (1987), 227-237.
  6. A virtue of Wollheim’s theory is the banishment of illusion from the explanation of pictures, for illusionistic painting can now be explained as parasitic on the normal case. Wollheim takes issue with E. H. Gombrich, who marshals the famous duck/rabbit drawing – we cannot simultaneaously see a duck and a rabbit in it – as evidence that we cannot simultaneously see both the representation and the support. Gombrich neglects that duck and rabbit are both representions and not support – in Art and Illusion (Oxford: Phaidon, 1960), ch. 7, criticised by Wollheim, op. cit., 360, n. 6.
  7. The point is well made by Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 66-67.
  8. See John R. Searle, ’A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts’, in Expression and Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 13-14.
  9. I am not saying that earlier art works have failed to articulate the more fundamental directive. For instance, I believe such articulation provides a fruitful perspective in trying to understand one of the paintings most intensively and prominently discussed in recent decades, Las Meninas by Velasquez. In interpreting a readymade, however, explicit attention to the practical judgement made by the artist is necessary to get any grip on the work at all. It is therefore deeply ironical that the rise and rise of the readymade has coincided with a period in which a great deal of criticism has programmatically attempted to disregard the intentions of artists as manifest in their works.
  10. On finding photos to paint, see Gerhard Richter, ’Interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, 1993’, in The Daily Practice of Painting, trans. David Britt, ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), 268. On what I call procedural abstracts, see ’Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990’, 216, and – also on acting on the basis of an open mind more generally – the comment on the lesson of War and Peace in ’Notes 1985’, 119-120.
  11. A case can be made for placing all art under the heading of self-articulating spontaneous discovery, and Richter’s work may in part amount to a metaphor for such a perspective on art. But in interpreting Richter especially I mean something more literal by discovery. We need to understand him as literally discovering the photographs or the patterns in the small combed abstracts, and doing so intentionally in the sense of making a discovery, just as I quite intentionally may discover some relevant piece of theory in an author’s writings because that is what I am looking for – without knowing that I shall find – or what. And that Richter is articulating such acts. Part of what he discovers in the deeper sense, or spontaneously, is how to articulate them.
  12. In an appreciation ultimately very different from mine, Åsmund Thorkildsen appears to consider self-referential reflection on a tradition of landscape painting as the drift of Slaattelid’s work. See ’Painting and the Mirror of Nature’, in Mari Johanne Slaattelid, Concerning the Earthly in Art, exhibition catalogue, n.d., 26-33.
  13. See Christopher Peacocke, A Study of Concepts (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 64-79. Peacocke’s controversial idea of unconceptualised mental content – which the scenarios according to him exemplify but on which the idea does not depend – is criticized by John McDowell in Mind and World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), ’Postcript to Lecture III’.
  14. See John Campbell, Past, Space, and Self (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994).
  15. The terminology is lifted from McDowell, op. cit., lecture 6, with reference to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s account of the difference between animals able to experience an environment and a rational animal able to form a world, in Truth and Method (1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1989), 438-456. There are of course many other ways of explicating the relationship between nature, the space of reasons, and the view from this space back on nature. But McDowell’s way appeals to me, and I believe has an affinity to these paintings.