To Think and See Simultaneously

John Peter Nilsson
jan. 2002|Article

One can choose to approach Mari Slaattelid’s art from a strictly painterly perspective. She studies all possible variations of the joint effects of colour, form and material. Her works are visual lessons in the command of painting. They can be admired for their systematic study of the function of visual perception, and something new is always to be found in them. Slaattelid’s subtle studies of colour are in a direct relation to the light in which they are seen. The forms offer series of associations, and the material raises a desire to touch the works. Briefly put, Slaattelid is the bearer of a long tradition of studying and investigating the possibilities of abstraction.

But this is not the whole truth. And I take a partly different perspective. Distinguishing her art from the majority of modern abstract 20th-century art is the fact that she occasionally refers to herself in the third person in her works. But not as some kind of abstract expressionism. This is not a question of a personal impression meant to express some higher truth. No, I would rather see it as working herself away from herself. She is erasing her presence while leaving traces of herself. But are they real or fictional traces? She appears to be discussing that which is known respectively as subjective and objective in art. By no means least in our Nordic tradition, the romantic visionary depicting the inner and outer world subjectively and expressively has been the normative type of expression. But when Slaattelid refers, for instance, to Munch, she does so with a completely different approach than of only understanding Munch’s own vision. It is a question of seeing Munch from her own position, to create a dialogue in time and space.

Slaattelid’s œuvre contains relatively large differences of expression. She does not seem to wish to develop or refine any special "style". It rather appears as if she is adapting "style" to an idea, to conceptual painting. For example when she investigates the colour red – how red can be conceived from different perspectives. It is not the symbolic content of red that I suspect Slaattelid to be searching for; besides, such connotations are completely hackneyed. Rather, she is indicating that something far more complex underlies the metaphysical metaphors.

Slaattelid works with a kind of intellectual realism, by revealing how ideas guide reality no less than reality guides ideas. It is never the one nor the other; reality is in an intricate symbiotic relationship with fiction. I regard the series "Woman Pretending to be a Painting" as a kind of key work in her oeuvre to date. We see a painting of a woman, but it is only in connection with the title that the work achieves its meaning. A woman trying to pretend to be a painting? Regardless of her intention, an artistic methodology is revealed in the work. Two opposites are played against each other – the image and the word. The result is that I think and see simultaneously. But there will never be a real integrated symbiosis in the meeting of the two. Rather, a kind of friction emerges, and my own projections onto the work bounce back to me. What does she mean?

Perhaps it is not as complicated as it sounds. Our identity is an assembled construct of a number of social, cultural and psychological factors. By deconstructing these factors it is possible to counter the idea that human nature is laid down by nature (or God). It is my understanding that Slaattelid wants to discuss questions of this kind, and she does so in a special way. She elucidates above all the conceptual problem of representation in painting (art), something also comprising the idea of the artist’s presence in a work. But we can never be completely certain that it is really she herself who at times trickles through the experiencing and interpretation of her works. And it really does not matter. Her works deal with posing questions, with bringing set ways of seeing into focus, and questioning the models that surround us both privately and in relation to higher truths.

In his essay collection “A Way of Being Free” (1997), the Nigerian author Ben Okri writes: “The other way is to undertake an integral migration, to become an exile within the interiors of the self. We accept, we change in some way, we go mad. We live two lives, become two people. We dislocate. We implode. Then our secret selves become more real than our external selves.”

Okri’s vision takes as its basis the post-colonial dichotomy of belonging neither to the colonialized culture nor to that of the colonists. But his experiences can also be translated as the more comprehensive post-modern problem of the concept of representation. It is not just a question of identifying clichés. What (or who) decides what is to be interpreted as centre or periphery? What (or who) has the right to represent? Or the prerogative to interpret? Mari Slaattelid addresses the insight that our way of comprehending the world always proceeds from a linguistic and symbolic level, that language and symbols are contingent upon their representation, and that this representation also shapes our conceptions of the world. In a consistent manner, she also completes the argument by incorporating her own representation in her art. Though in a distanced way, she looks upon herself in the way that she would look upon a work of art.

The result is a unique blend of something private and public, internalized and distanced. Like Okri’s poetic vision, Slaattelid encapsulates something secretive in her works. Something that we will never know. With a feeling with which we have learn to live.

Exhibition catalogue, Galerie Anhava, Helsinki, 2002