The painter, the shark and the speedboat

Aleksi Mannila
jun. 2019|Article

On several occasions recently I have spent time with the pictures of Mari Slaattelid; sometimes with the artist in her studio, sometimes alone while she took a break. I have seen finished and unfinished pictures, pictures just begun and pictures almost done, just a few at a time. I have also been sent the new works, photographed so that I can look at them on the screen where I write.

I sit with a distinct feeling that these are pictures I must be cautious about describing and explaining, simply because in so doing I risk stealing something from them, tethering them to meanings which do not fit, or which possibly fit but at the same time only touch on a small corner of the bigger picture within the picture – that is, all the free, corresponding feelings that cannot be grasped or described in a logical universe. I am talking about our parallel realities which are there, but are invisible, since they exist on the inside. They are just as real and genuine as ‘the real ones’, if not more so, but are often also frowned upon in an ever more efficiency-seeking and result-oriented world. It is these paral­lel realities I really don’t want to obscure for anyone – neither the reader nor the viewer nor Mari Slaattelid herself. All the same, I try to approach the pictures and hope it is possible without depriving them of their freedom. The approach is based on observation, specu­lation and conversations with Slaattelid. The text began after the first studio visit, with some thoughts about a shark.

Time and the image

Just recently a Greenland shark was caught by an angler off the coast of Rogaland. We know little about these slow giants that resemble the great white shark. They are on the whole blind, but their with their phosphorescent eyes they can roam and scan the sea bed over large areas, hunting for tidbits that slowly, slowly sink down and rot in the darkness beneath the surface that separates us from them. That this parti­cular Greenland shark was about 500 years old is a fact that says something about how ephemeral and intangible this time business is.

Time cannot be grasped fully; it is all-encompassing, invisible and everywhere, eternally. Just linger on that word, eternally. True, we have the clock, and we think we live by its time. The fact is that we really only understand and control a tiny frag­ment of the concept, and we think this insight gives us control. The clock is really just an effective illusion, a moving image of time. But I wonder whether it was once the case that awareness of ourselves as actors in time prompted us to begin to develop images, long before we measured time. Whether the preservation of expe­ri­ences as images became crucial to the development and understanding of ourselves, without us really understanding so much more, beyond what we already know; that were are present and have an expiry date. The revolutionary thing was that with the image we began to manifest our stories. We shall never be done with the stories and images; we depend on the image to understand ourselves in time, but also in space. For time is dependent on space. Without space, no time. Without time no space, and between these together we have the image, and thus our awareness of ourselves.

We navigate in images throughout life, and what we see depends on our state of mind, which is in turn affected by external factors such as where we are, the time of day, whether we are alone or with someone, what kind of weather and which season it is, etc. It is therefore fundamental to understand that images are actually never fixed and complete as solutions and answers. Images are suggestions, they are door-openers for you and yours to the logical and illogical. Images open up times that just cannot be measured. You may well try: time how long you stand looking at a picture, but you will be unable to measure the internal succession of responses to the images and the new flood of images to which a single image gives rise. For thoughts are also images, conceptual motoric functions. Internally, the image is coupled with other images of time and place; to a before, a here and a now, and why not a later? As a rule associative, free and intangible. You may have stood abso­lutely calmly or have moved at inconceivable speeds, and through endless spaces in the course of an objectively-seen external minute. Based only on images in your mind which are thus actually thoughts. But this time on the inside is not measured and cannot be measured. Images unite time and space. Characters and numbers are images sys­tema­tized as symbols. Everything is actually images and images are one of the tools we use to navigate in time.

But the painting is completely flat

And so to the painting, the two-dimensional surface which is almost always rectan­gular and is very often understood as an illustrative illusion, based on either an internal or an external world. This is an erroneous simplification that limits the painting, fixes it and already predetermines it before it is painted. But in reality what happens is that the painter associates the internal with the external in an ongoing process that is not predetermined. The process is unclarified and unpredictable because on the one hand the painter tries to manifest thoughts and ideas, emotions and reason. On the other hand the painter sees what happens when the hand leaves its traces, and must relate to this. And thus arises the often-cited dialogue the painter engages in with the self and the painting as the paint is applied to the underlay. This is why we say the underlay becomes a mirror. What the painter is doing is com­bining external experiences with internal ones and applying them to a physical underlay, all of which becomes a finished result. But the finished painting is a reality only in the final phase, and should be seen as an invitation to a further dialogue in thought and images. For the painting is always taken further each time it is seen; either consciously or unconsciously, abstractly or concretely, with emotions or reason, or in a blessed mixture of our whole conceptual apparatus; rediscovered by whoever sees the painting and cares, and who is in contact with herself. The viewer therefore also meets the painter, but only to a certain extent. For the mental transfer which standing and looking at a painting despite everything is can never be translated one-to-one. It is individual and free, and means something different to each individual. The credibility of the painting, or its impact, therefore depends on both the painter’s and the viewer’s abilities and experiences.

Sometimes the painting succeeds, sometimes it doesn’t. It is this simple fact that makes the painting so interesting: that it always risks failure when it wants to be anything more than just paint on a surface. The painting includes everything from the paint and the physical underlay to what the painter and the painting represent, and what the public sees in the end. Between these points lies everything, including the secrets that cannot be revealed: what makes the painter keep painting, and the public keep looking. Put simply, the painting is never finished, has no end – the painting is us.

The painting is free and inexhaustibly accurate, as is thought, and it reveals or documents its own tough genesis from beginning to end. From the point when it is completed, the painting moves on into a new and unknown territory (the images to which it gives rise), and back to the beginning (the image it actually is), around one another again and again. The painting comes into being with the touch of the hand and grows forth in the ongoing discussion between the painting and what it consists of and the idea of the painting it is to become in the end. The paint forms the idea, as much as the idea forms the paint. Irrespective of whether the paintings are abstract, nonfigurative or figurative, they are human, natural and contain errors, always errors, which may be quite correct. The point is that however good the painter is, the results of the work of the hand are fully thought out in advance. And perhaps this is the place to shout out a warning that in the course of a couple of generations we have come hardly to touch our own surroundings any more; we view and experience them at a distance. Important experiences are ousted as new experiences are formed by the chilly advances of technology and the distance they create to our physical consciousness and understanding. Not all development is for the better, and the technological kind has long since got beyond control.

Intellectual intuition

Mari Slaattelid’s paintings consist of discussions held in paint and built on a huge foundation of experience. Painting is what she does and what she knows. It is just so difficult to put words to what it means. For what it means is at one and the same time quite unimportant and extremely important. The images we see are the success­ful results of all the attempts and compromises she has made, all the discussions she has had between paint and idea. Sometimes she can predict the process, sometimes the painting takes over and she must bow to will of the image. Regardless, the finished result cannot be calculated in advance. The image is put at risk to win the painting. Her paintings are just as much about what a painting or an image is, as about the actual motif. The motifs for their part are simple, and are treated accord­ingly: placed in the painting almost as symbols. Except in the paintings where there is no subject to be traced, other than the paint itself. In these cases it is perhaps the painting itself that becomes a symbol – a symbol of painting in general – and this makes me think that the motif is the alibi of the painting.

I believe that painting such free pictures as Slaattelid does, if you really do it well and are good at it, is about having an inherent intellectual intuition; an understan­ding of the surroundings and existence, like a kind of shaman: bound to a place, yet free. You work your way into a state where the body thinks just as much as the mind, and the hand just knows what it has to do. At the same time you are not really able to grasp so much more than the experiences and thoughts you manifest. And then you hand over these thought materials and let others have new experiences with the material you have brought forth.

A navigation marker

Ten years ago, in Kragerø, Slaattelid took a series of photographs of a navigation marker for speedboats and a person who fixed the lighting for this navigation marker. For ten years the subject has lain waiting until for unknown reasons it became important to her. I was given the exact formulation of how accurate this navigation marker is by Slaattelid, who took it from the web pages of the Norwegian Coastal Administration: “Lantern on a pole with indirect lighting on a triangle”, which is thus the construction we see recurring in the new paintings.

In this picture series the subject, which may at first seem trivial, is treated as the established universal symbol it in fact is. One’s thoughts move automatically to the history of mankind at sea, navigation, the history of navigation markers, landmarks, but also more generally to human constructions, our symbols, maps and markers, how we read the surroundings and translate them through ideas into specific records. But the odd things is that the motif as such is not that important. For the most important thing about these pictures is that the “lantern on a pole with indirect lighting on the triangle” is not the important thing. These images do not have to adorn themselves with the meanings with which we are otherwise surrounded. They are enough in themselves. They have power and validity that goes beyond the rationality that otherwise encapsulates everyday life. The works have a kind of rationality of their own, but a rationality that is unimportant in the rational world. This rationality is best experienced as left to the intuition of the internal precision motor functions, both intellectually and emotionally, and above all in images. It is really a matter of a materialized parallel world where the painting is the main motif and motivation, and where the lantern is only the initiator of the whole thing.

Motif, motivation and content

I will be so bold as to assert that although Slaattelid knows why she uses the promi­nent navigation marker as a subject, at the same time she does not know it. I will suggest that she chooses the motifs partly intuitively and partly deliberately. That she for example thinks with her reason about what a navigation marker actually is, represents and may mean, and then works her way methodically into the subject to see where the paint takes the image and the image takes the paint. But as for exactly why the subject has value, I think she knows that she does not know. After all, the painting is not meant to result in a double-underlined answer. It has to live and pul­sate. I am therefore quite sure that if the subject had been something quite different, she would have been able to give it just as much meaning and content. That does not mean that the subject is unimportant, but it is the motivation for the way the subject is treated that is crucial and which rubs off on the painting and gives it legitimacy and credibility as a whole. The motivation is as much about motivating the motif as being motivated by the motif. It is difficult to know exactly why a motif actually is – or becomes – interesting before it is painted. The same can be said afterwards, when we see that it has become meaningful – that is, motivated – without fully under­standing why. Motif and motivation are related, and in the act of painting this relationship is played out such that once the motivation is there, almost any motif can be given meaning. The motif thus becomes charged with a content, although one does not really know where this content is going, what it is to become, and what it will mean in the final analysis.

The content is mutable. It is often intuitive reason that is in play when the motif is chosen, long before the painting has been begun, even before the painter has become aware of the motif. One could say that the motif is a scaffolding for the content of the painting – both necessary and unnecessary: look at the motif, but forget it. Look past it and at the picture, the paint, the painting and back at the motif again. A good picture does not stop fascinating you.

The hand that thinks and the eye that sees

Confronted with Slaattelid’s pictures I am continually challenged on the issue of what painting is. She reminds me that the pictures are just paint. Often the pictures are problematic, for she does like to create problems, in my view, for herself and for us. Some of the pictures I have in mind are like tattoos, like landscape tattoos. I am thinking of the stamped series where one or two surfaces make up the painting and give the impression of being a landscape that is stamped on the surface but which are a precisely measured and completed form; a picture for the bigger picture about the picture. In the same pictures what she gets away with borders on the provo­cative. It is so stripped down, perhaps to only a colour or two. Then I really stick around to see what this seems to be – shouldn’t there be more, what is she doing here? In other pictures, still in the same series, the opposite is the case. In these the surface can be filled to the edge with apparently arbitrary abstract colour fields. Sometimes it can in fact look as if she is loading all her experiences into one picture, just to see whether the various languages fit together. The painting is opened up rather than closed in on itself, whether it is minimized or maximized. I like to be challenged in this way, for then I am offered the painting, I am invited in as a viewer to further dialogue. When I ask what something is, I am also asking who I myself am, and the discussion is in progress.

Now and then totally abstract images appear, revolving around the issue of what paint actually is, what the actual physical colour material is and does to us. I think of these as necessities for calibrating the gaze. They are good to look at, my eyes feel comfortable and I stay with them. In these paintings she makes the image vital, shows that it is the colour, the lightness, the borderland between the physical idea (the painting) and just the idea (the image) that legitimize them.

I look at the eye series, Eyes on paper. They look at me and I look at them, one at a time. This is a ridiculously simple motif, and they radiate an enhanced lightness. They are here, quite straightforward and unconstrained, and above all they are incre­dibly fine, in all their modesty. Have they always been here? What is an eye, what is seeing? What we have in front of us are the attempts that have made the grade, but which still are not finished. They are precisely so clear that they have become images, and they can make the viewer stop and see meanings in the apparently trivial, in what we also otherwise have to deal with. A motif as simple as an eye can trigger just such shifts in meaning, thanks to a good gaze and a motivation.

Why are the paintings beautiful, and how do they arouse whatever it is they arouse in us? I don’t understand it, but nevertheless get the feeling of understanding abso­lutely everything about them anyway without being able to communicate it in so many words. The images are straightforward and complex, subtle and easy, but the tools are the very simplest: the hand that thinks and the eye that sees. For my part the way in is through the action. The image opens up when I try to understand what the thoughts of the hand are doing.

The painting we see is at once plain and honest, beautiful and of course executed with classic resources. At the same time what she is really doing – independently of whether the painting is nonfigurative or figurative, of whether she takes possession of the whole format and works with picture space or surface – is first and foremost feeling her way, exploring and observing what painting is and can be. Working in series she can explore how little paint and information an image needs to become an image; whether the image depends on the others in the series to become credible, or whether they can be separated and stand alone. She challenges the territory of the painting by twisting and turning conventions and rules, reformulating and re-establishing her own rules in a slow process in which we as the viewers are given enough breathing-space to come along on the journey.

The shark and us

Finally I want to dive back to the image of the 500-year-old individual that was caught off the coast of Rogaland. Think how rich it is that this shark has probably been scanning the sea bed off the coast of Norway, Greenland, Iceland and God knows where else since Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. In fact its development is so slow and sluggish that it only reached sexual maturity 150 years later. By that time we humans had reached the tender beginnings of the steam engine, and were approaching the industrial revolution and awareness of ourselves as modern human beings. So while it has been swimming calmly through life, we have rushed through generations and developed at a breakneck pace, thanks to a great extent to the image. The difference between us and it is that we are wondering what in the world we are actually doing, while it just does its thing and exists, as far as we know,

There are no images without words, nor are there any words without images. The painting has been there all along. It opens up our closed and private spaces, with a slowness that is tied to the time it takes to be consumed, rather than the time it takes to be finished. For the finishing is quickly over compared with the wisdom after the event. That is what takes time.