Sleepless is not just a game with light and colour, it is also a tale about darkness and night. It is a tale in which abstract patterns moving across the surface are transformed into lace curtains in front of a window, illuminated for a brief moment before being swallowed once again by the darkness. It is a tale about curtains that offer little comfort or defence against the darkness outside, but which seem instead to hold the darkness in. It is a tale about the lace curtains that stir into life during the long sleepless nights of winter and begin to talk and pull faces, or about the light that the curtains catch from the gap beneath the door, as in the “Ouverture” to Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, a light that was extinguished at midnight, thus informing the ailing child, left alone in an unfamiliar hotel room, that it was not daylight he had seen but the gaslight, extinguished by the servants, and that a long night of anguish and loneliness was just beginning. What illuminates the lace of the curtain is the light of that long night.
The darkness that the picture describes, and which forces its way in upon the curtains, is not just the darkness of night, it is also the picture plane on which the curtains capture the tension between the familiar and the unknown, between the intimate and what lurks outside. Here the curtains suggest the gesticulating invocation that seeks in vain to keep the darkness at bay; the painterly gesture which, in nocturnal desperation, yearns to erase the unknown by painting it away, an unknown that remains captured in the surface of the picture, which is darkness, since the curtains only exist as drawings against a pane of glass. Sleepless is a series of stories that unfold in a dualism of intimacy and remoteness, of beauty and the “unheimliche”. It is also a tale about narrativity and abstraction, and as such it is one that recurs throughout Slaattelid’s work. It is about the silence of the surface that resists every hint of inner warmth, yet which still succeeds in conveying sensuous intimacy.
It is within a broad spectrum of reserve, conceptualisation, sensuousness and subtle colouration that Mari Slaattelid’s pictures unfold. As an artist, Slaattelid is both verbally articulate and thoughtful. And as such she does not step back from those who seek to communicate, interpret or curate her work but shows instead an eager interest in finding words to describe what is relevant in her art. Everything she undertakes is thought through in the smallest detail. A visit to her studio is a visit to a world of work, discussion, thought and reflection. She asks for comments on her projects, for answers to questions and good advice, but before a response can be formulated she has found the answer herself, visually, and already she is somewhere utterly different. And it is in that realm that her art takes shape; there where methods and terminology recede into the background. It is a place where feeling becomes assertive, the intuition and the senses that lie beyond the scope of reason and control. It is here that her pictures take over; it is here they live their own life, offered up to every eye that sees them. This is something that all pictures have in common. What distinguishes Slaattelid’s pictures is that they use no manipulation to reach out and draw the viewer into their world. Her pictures confront the viewer with their own reticent, yet insistent sensuousness.
Slaattelid has ten years of professional study behind her, and as a well-trained artist she engages in an on-going dialogue with art history so as to claim it, in a sense, as her own. By investigating the possible applications and significance of materials, both visually and conceptually, she shows the approach of the contemporary artist who makes of every available medium; not so that one will explain the other, but to conduct a dialogue with various forms of experience. When Slaattelid uses text, it functions in parallel to her pictures.
Slaattelid often develops her ideas in series of pictures, returning to certain motifs over time, so that the same theme may reoccur after an interval of several years. This is also true of Slaattelid’s earliest pictures from the years before 1992, when she created a series of small landscape studies in pastose brushwork. Genuine painterly techniques are something she has returned to in recent years in connection with the commission of 2005 for a work to adorn the main hall of Oslo University, and which she has further developed in series such as Sleepless and Innfall of 2006.
The dark colouration of these pictures is suggestive of Nordic landscape painting, familiar from the works of Astrup, Hertervig, Munch and Hill. They are also pictures which, in their intense expressivity and sombre shades clearly refer to Soutine and De Kooning. As a young art student, Slaattelid spent a year at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where Josef Beuys was still active and Anselm Kiefer held his major exhibitions.
Without a doubt, of all the figures on the German art scene, the one to have exerted the greatest influence on Slaattelid’s artistic development is Gerhard Richter, especially in the treatment of the surface characteristic of her early pictures. This early period of Slaattelid’s art culminated in 1992 with five oil paintings on the same subject, Tun.
For two years Slaattelid devoted her time to her first child and to reading and writing poetry. On resuming her picture making in 1994, she sought an entirely new format, using other materials and colours and a clearer, more effective approach. She abandoned the animated brushstroke and heavy colouration and turned instead to a cooler and more monochromatic treatment of surface, reminiscent of American abstract expressionism and the work of Gerhard Richter. This new departure is marked by two stripe pictures of 1994 (200 x 130 cm) that use PVA paints on fabric preprinted with a kind of colour spectrum from the Sandvika textile factory. Gone are the gestural use of the brush and the pastose treatment of paint. Gone is the direct, painterly approach to nature. What dominates instead is a subtle sensuality, evoked by delicate shifts within the surface as such. It was not until 2004 that Slaattelid took up oil painting again in earnest, in connection with a commission for the University of Oslo and studies relating to that project.
Mari Slaattelid was 34 years old when she resumed work on pictures. She describes that juncture as a now or never, since she regards her activities as a task as much as a way of life. She decided the time had come, and in 1996 she presented a solo exhibition at Galleri Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall in Arendal. This was her first exhibition in four years, and one that produced an impression of remarkable artistic clarity. Not only did she show one of her most definitive works, 12 Stempler, the exhibition as a whole addressed themes that have remained central to Slaattelid’s subsequent artistic practice. This is true with regard to her use of landscape painting and especially of her treatment of two highly individual figures of Nordic romanticism, Hill (Blendet, åpnet. Hill) and Hertervig (Re Produksjon, Hertervig), and of her paraphrase of Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia ego (Arkadia). In addition she introduces the imprint, and its chance elements, as a kind of ready-made (Eksponering 1 og 2).
12 Stempler consists of 12 aluminium plates, each of 50 x 50 cm. Each plate carries the same black silhouette of woodland, but with slight variations. According to the artist, these variations resulted from the method of production.
In these pictures Slaattelid applies a technique that she uses frequently: she has projected the photograph of a landscape onto an aluminium plate and painted it onto the surface with a fine, black brush. Variations arise due to differences in how the silhouette falls on each aluminium plate; the silhouettes differ in size, and show variations in their edges, height and breadth. Similarly, there are small differences in colour against the light background. Some areas stand out in hues of grey, others in a warm, pale red. Some lack variation in colouration, in others it would appear that the black paint of the silhouette, or the “Indian ink”, has spread across the surface, while in others it as if the surface has been laid on top of the silhouette.
The first impression of 12 Stempler is one of serial painting of the kind we associate in particular, but not exclusively, with Andy Warhol. Hal Foster has spoken of Warhol’s repetitions as a kind of melancholy in the obsessive fixation on the object.
In Warhol’s case this melancholy arises when he makes a reference to reality by repeating, for example, the image of a car accident, or of Jackie Onassis. According to Foster, the repetition serves to drain the image of meaning, thus protecting us against its impact. In Slaattelid’s work, the theme, nature, has already been drained of its original meaning, the immediate reference to reality. It is the silhouette rather than the repetition that conveys the melancholy. Nature has been reduced to a template that lives a life of its own in the variations that arise within the repeated pattern. Slaattelid has found her own form of serial expression, whereby the silhouettes are at one and the same time mournful, like a reminder of the lost possibility of an immediate experience of nature, but whose inherent melancholy is also beautiful and visually challenging, juxtaposing the brutality of the “nature template” with the delicate hues and silken quality of the background. As so often in Slaattelid’s subsequent work, the 12 Stempler pictures shift between abstraction and figuration. She empties the figurative of its immediate reference in order to throw the figures out into a work-immanent, abstract game.
More recently, Slaattelid has made use of the “template” technique in a larger format, 100 x 100 cm, setting it against a monochrome background. But this time the landscape silhouette has been transferred to the aluminium plate so as to occupy the same position in each picture. In Red Landscapes she works with delicate colour tones in which the silhouette also shares. The work consists of two pictures, one in a dark, the other in a pale Bordeaux red. In Pictorial Grounds she places three identical silhouettes against monochrome backgrounds of the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue. In Disappearing L’s and Emerging L’s she allows the silhouettes almost to disappear in what could be taken for a misty landscape, but which is at the same time a silky-soft background that either swallows up the silhouette or allows it to emerge. Whereas 12 Stempler created visual tension primarily in terms of the relation between the individual pictures, and through the placing of the silhouette, its rendition and size, in the later applications of the template technique the central element is the colour relation between the background and the motif. The expressive aspects range from the interplay of red and non-red in Red Landscapes, via experiments with the relation between surface and foreground in Disappearing L’s and Emerging L’s, through to the element of movement in the almost concrete painting of the three pictures that make up Pictorial Grounds. What all these later template pictures have in common is their playful use of colour. Nature has fallen silent, been left to its own devices. What remains is the picture.
Blendet, åpnet, Hill and Re Produksjon, Hertervig enter into dialogue, each in its own way, with the element of Nordic romanticism most closely associated with the myth of the artistic genius who, like Hertervig and Hill, died in poverty without the recognition of his contemporaries. Both Hill and Hertervig became mentally unstable and spent long periods in institutions without access to oil paints and canvas, the former in Lund, the latter in Stavanger. In Arendal Slaattelid presented three versions of Blendet, åpnet, Hill, each 50 x 100 cm, painted in oils on aluminium with slight variations, and all diptychs. The fact that Blendet, åpnet, Hill is a paraphrase of the painting Måneskinnslandskab of 1877 by the Swedish romantic landscape painter Carl Fredrik Hill is only apparent from the artist’s title and the Notes in the catalogue.
The fact, moreover, that the pictures are based on a black and white reproduction of Hill’s painting makes recognition more difficult. The pictures’ reference to nature is reduced to anthropomorphic tree shapes suggested in the grey-brown surface, squeezed in between a black and a grey-green vertical form on either side. They live first and foremost from their abstract qualities and their reference to Nordic romantic nature painting, in so far as they focus on a representation of nature in which the expressivity is shifted away from nature as such. In copying Hill’s picture, Slaattelid has entered into it mimetically and recreated it. The romantic element no longer has the power to seduce us through the atmospheric landscape, but has instead become the theme, underlined by the vertical fields on either side, which suggest the shutter of a camera, which in turn emphasises that the picture is a record.
In Re Produksjon, Hertervig, the pictorial reference to the artist is obvious. The model in this case was six small landscapes (20 x 20) that Hertervig painted on the doors of a cupboard in Stavanger in 1866.
Slaattelid has painted several paraphrases of these small landscapes, retaining their square format (50 x 50). All have dark foregrounds consisting of silhouettes of twisted tree stumps, of which Hertervig painted so many in his day, middle grounds of water and land, and azure skies with white and figuratively suggestive cloud formations. In these pictures the contrasts between earth-brown, blue and white are articulated like a game within the surface. The sky does not lie behind the dark, under-exposed foreground, but around it, and rather than floating high above, some of the clouds have settled right on top of the stunted trees, if indeed they are not even closer, pressed forward by the blue sky. The reference to Hertervig is made in terms of a paraphrase of his work, but at the same time Slaattelid’s work paraphrases the theme of Norwegian romanticism and the atmosphere of the romantic landscape. Here once again, Slaattelid has “re-produced” a painting. In 2003 she would return to the Hertervig thread anew, albeit in a fundamentally different way.
Arkadia paraphrases the work of a third landscape painter, the French baroque artist Nicolas Poussin. Poussin represents a type of landscape painting, which, in terms of time and mood, is very remote from Nordic romanticism. Slaattelid’s title refers to Poussin’s picture Et in Arcadia ego (I too have been in Arcadia), in which we see the words of the title carved into the side of a sarcophagus; three shepherds are deciphering the inscription, while a woman stands off to one side. The text is a “memento mori”, i.e. a reminder of human mortality and of mankind’s difference from God. Poussin’s aim was to paint, not the animated landscape of romanticism, but rather an idealised landscape to serve as a setting for human interests and activities. Poussin was a literary painter who was concerned to render the message in his pictures clearly and immediately legible. Slaattelid’s landscape is based on a photograph of the original Arcadia, a region in the Peloponnese, taken by her brother the previous summer. The landscape in her picture is open to a broad sky, painted in greenish-grey hues. The text, which is written across the picture, refers to the landscape we are looking at and to her brother’s reports of his visit to a site of archeological excavations. The caption also refers to the epitaph in Poussin’s painting, which describes a different and mythical Arcadia. Slaattelid draws those of us familiar with art history into a conceptual game; other viewers are confronted with a pictorial poem.
In Eksponering 1 and 2, Slaattelid has allowed chance to dominate. Of the two pictures, Eksponering 1 is the more striking. On a white aluminium plate she has applied two runs of a roller print, one of which is identical to the other except for being paler. The picture achieves its effect through the tensions within the colour scheme of white, off-white, grey and blue-grey. Slaattelid describes it as miraculous that “a photographically faithful” landscape can emerge from a thin layer of paint applied to a roller.
The title Eksponering (exposure) is a reference to this fidelity. Here she introduces a theme to which she would return in her sandpaper series in 2005, the possibility of what she refers to as the purely visual creation of structure and repetition from an arbitrary and uncontrollable process. Earlier landscape studies are examples of the opposite strategy of depriving nature of its substance, of infusing nature with an abstract quality which means that it can only be grasped conceptually.
In Blowup, which Slaattelid showed at Galleri K in 1999, her starting point is the relation between photography and painting, and here again she uses an historic painting as a model – in this case, Leonardo da Vinci’s depiction of the Annunciation of 1474. Her work consists of five aluminium plates, each of 100 x 100 cm. Each plate carries the black silhouettes of a renaissance landscape on a grey-white background. Here again, the motif was projected and painted onto the surface, but rather than focus on the actual action of the picture, Slaattelid draws attention to the periphery, to what lies behind the principal action, the picture’s background. The title, Blowup, refers to a film by Michelangelo Antonioni, especially the intense darkroom scene in which the photographer’s attention is drawn away from the foreground action, which is a rendezvous in a park, to something happening behind the principal protagonists.
By evoking the same shift in focus in the copying of a painting, ignoring the main action in favour of what was hitherto the background, Slaattelid not only allows the purely visual qualities of a renaissance landscape to stand out in their own right – qualities that are otherwise subjugated to the narrative and the brush’s rendition of people – she also highlights a fundamental distinction between painting and photography, a difference which she herself has described thus: “In photography the background may conceal a crime, but not in painting. In painting the background is a relation.”
Or, as Roland Barthes has put it: “The essence of photography is to capture what it presents.”
Not only can photography’s indexical relation to reality serve the interests of detective work by exposing specific details of that reality, as is the case in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, it also raises the question of truth. Barthes makes this point as follows: “Photography is not (necessarily) that which no longer is, but merely (and necessarily) that which has been.”
Painting, in contrast, is always concerned primarily with work-immanent relations. Paintings are not either true or false, they are concerned exclusively with relations. That which is inexplicable, enigmatic and silent will remain so no matter how deep you delve into the brushstrokes, or how much you enlarge the image, since painting is enigmatic in itself. This is the point that Slaattelid makes by entering into dialogue with photography. We never get to know what is hiding in the shadows, since they are not shadows but silhouettes, and the angel that emerges as bright empty space amid the black is only an angel if one sees it as such. At a time in the history of art when the photograph is acquiring cult status as an art form, Slaattelid initiates a highly intelligent conceptual game that plays on the photography/painting relationship, but where it is the visual that has the final word.
Stylistically speaking, The Voice. Woman Pretending to be a Painting is closely related to Blowup. The picture shows a woman in intense backlight against a background of fir trees. It is a black and white projection of a staged photograph, in which the woman’s torso/dress appear as light, while her hair, arms and the foreground are black. Once again the artist gives us clues to her intention in the catalogue text, saying that she has used Munch’s picture Stemmen. Sommernatt as a model. This we could not know without being alerted to the fact, and as with Slaattelid’s use of work titles, these comments add a level of meaning to the picture, in the absence of which one would still be free to concentrate on the play of visual relations, but which nevertheless enhances the picture with an extra conceptual dimension. The similarity between Munch’s and Slaattelid’s pictures consists in little more than the fact that both present a frontal view of a woman against a woodland background. In terms of its colour and form, Munch’s picture is expressive, while Slaattelid’s is reduced to black and white, with reduced depth and simplified forms. Slaattelid points out that Munch’s title, Stemmen. Sommernatt, is what gives his picture its effect, insofar as it introduces an unexpected notion that adds depth.
But in the same context she also points out the lack of immediate connections between the title and the motif of her own picture. And it is precisely because of this lack of immediate connection that the title liberates the eye and the senses.
But Slaattelid has done something more; she has placed a fingerprint low down in the picture. Why, she does not say, and neither does the title. It is a fingerprint that looks like an accident; someone just happened to touch the picture before the paint was dry, or on the Polaroid that served as the model before it was fully developed. The fingerprint is an artistic gesture, the “abject” of the perfectly executed picture, something that does not belong there, something that becomes physical in a way that is rather too physical.
What You Touch Is What You See, also shown at Galleri K in 1999, consists exclusively of such fingerprints set around the edges of 16 sheets of plexiglass each of 50 x 50 cm. The picture was made by circulating the sheets among a number of people, whom Slaattelid had arranged in a circle on the floor. By means of this original strategy of involving the public in what could be called a receptive performance, she enabled them to create the artwork that they had come to experience. The painterly gesture is executed not by the artist but by the public. The fingerprints function both as frame and picture. Slaattelid maintains that this is about touching the pictures, so as to make the tactile visible: “Something one encounters via the skin, via physical proximity, is no more real and corporeal than something one experiences via another capacity of that same body: sight. A thing that is optical is not abstract, in the sense of being at a remove from that which is close and “physically” connected. Both qualities are combined in a single registering of the blank plate.”
Here Slaattelid is playing with the idea that the work is experienced and created through touch, and this touch is what one sees in the way it constitutes the frame. The picture as such is white and untouched.
The problem is that when the picture hangs on the wall, it is accessible only to the eye. As with all other perception, the sensation lingers where the perception occurs within the body, and here the body reacts instinctively and with aversion on seeing the touch of so many people deposited as finger marks on a clear, shiny surface. It is the greasy finger on the mirror. The finger marks destroy and disturb the clean surface and pure perception. The figurative aspect consists of the concrete prints of hands, which in the pictorial context become abstract. The frame becomes the picture, and when the picture is one of a frame it becomes figurative, in this case as an “abject”.
In all her landscape paintings since 1995, Slaattelid has avoided intimacy in her artistic gestures. Instead, she has made her paint surfaces hard and blank, with only meagre traces of brushwork. This emphasis on the smooth, hard and elegant surface is one of the traits that Slaattelid shares with Gerhard Richter. He too projects photographs, not on aluminium, like Slaattelid, but on canvas, but nevertheless without leaving the slightest trace of a brushstroke. Both render the material surface as such invisible; at the same time, they both work with the surface as the locality where the picture takes place. It is a focus that Slaattelid has retained throughout her later production.
Although Mari Slaattelid’s work has hitherto been received with considerable interest and positive criticism, it was not until 2000 that she made her definitive breakthrough, when she won first prize of the prestigious Carnegie Art Award, Nordic Painting 2000. This prize is awarded to a Nordic artist working in paint. The first prize was awarded for the picture series Reading Woman and Protective. The expression of these works is softer and more accommodating than her earlier landscape pictures. They connote femininity in a reserved, almost bashful manner, using colours that draw upon the pastel spectrum of make-up. Reading Woman consists of four pictures of 80 x 60, each containing two fields of colour placed side by side on black plexiglass. These fields use delicate pastel shades combined in a way that is suggestive of eye-shadow boxes. Printed beneath the patches of colour are the terms that Chanel uses to describe various female types: “sophisticated”, “elegant”, “sports” and “active”. Protective is a series of four photographs of Slaattelid’s oldest daughter, Åsne. She is pictured standing against a light background, her blue eyes gazing straight at the viewer. She is wearing a white blouse, her blond hair is combed back, and her skin is partially covered in a layer of white face cream.
In these series the surface is brought into play in a new way. In formal terms, there is no surface in Protective, since what we are looking at here is a photograph. Roland Barthes has said of the photographic medium that its “how” remains invisible; “regardless of what [the photograph] shows or how it does so, it is not a photo that one sees. In brief, the referent sticks.”
According to Barthes, all one sees in a photograph is its motive, its referent. In Protective the picture’s referent is a girl’s face daubed with white cream. In this work Slaattelid has displaced the painted surface onto the motif, which in this case is the girl’s face. In contrast, Reading Woman consists exclusively of surface, layer upon layer. Here the form, its surface, also becomes the work’s content.
In these two series Slaattelid enters into dialogue with two of the most dominant trends within modernism through the application of, respectively, photography and concrete abstraction. It is a dialogue that is not so much serious and didactic, or one that seeks a confrontation with modernism, but rather one that playfully draws attention to the surface. As we know from American abstract expressionism, late modernism tended to insist on the content behind the abstraction, on there being a “subject matter” of fundamentally metaphysical character. This modernism found legendary embodiment in Rothko Chapel, Texas, which Mark Rothko planned and had built according to the example of orthodox Christian churches. Nonetheless, Rothko was reluctant to ascribe a specifically religious content to his pictures. The clerical aspect was meant primarily as a frame within which spirituality could come to expression. It is this underlying spirituality that Slaattelid addresses by associating the surface with make-up. The world of make-up is presented as one of pure surface; it is a surface that simultaneously protects and conceals, but which also disregards what lies beneath as uninteresting. Deleuze reminds us that “there is nothing deeper than the skin,” and what else is there but the skin of a young girl’s face, peering through the layer of white cream, applied with the fingers in an easy, almost ritualistic contact. The demand for authenticity lacks relevance. Just as Reading Woman can be read as an open book, so too can a woman, but what one reads is not the woman but the way she chooses to present herself. Slaattelid’s dialogue in these two series is also one that refers ironically back to a masculine world of self-assertive flaunting of art. In this sense Reading Woman is both a confrontation with major aspects of modernism and a commentary on the world of women, in which the construction of the surface acquires a logic of its own. Once again, Slaattelid does not take a standpoint but allows a visual, sensory universe to emerge that is open to numerous interpretations and approaches. Not only do Protective and Reading Woman draw the viewer into complex conceptual games, the works also radiate a particular sensuous beauty that is beyond words and could only be achieved by an artist in complete control of her materials. It is in their use of colour, and their conceptual and formal subtlety that Protective and Reading Woman represent a qualitative leap forward in Slaattelid’s artistic production.
In 2002 Mari Slaattelid was invited as the first female artist to produce a solo show at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo. She entitled the exhibition Concealing Redness, thereby referring once again to make-up, a theme which she addressed in two works: Pale Greenish Shade and Read my Lips. The former consists of two pictures, each of 150 x 100 cm. Slaattelid painted aluminium plates in a partially complete layer of grey-green, leaving only an angled stripe free on which she wrote in green lettering, “very pale greenish shade which very effectively conceals redness.” By means of this inscription, Slaattelid informs us that in reality the picture is red, while the surface we see is green paint covering the red. By alluding to the red Slaattelid also refers to a familiar cosmetic trick, which is to use a greenish concealer as an effective means of neutralising unwanted red on the face, apart from on the lips and on the upper cheekbones, where the colour is permissible and is therefore applied using lipstick and rouge.
Read my Lips consists of four pictures, each of 156 x 125 cm, and all in hues of red. The aluminium plates are perforated and edged in smooth frames. Each individual picture is sprayed in car enamel of the same shade. Stamped out from the centre of each picture is one of the four words “extase”, “téhéran”, “fétiche” and “libertine” – suggestive terms that possibly refer to the type of passion, or woman, that corresponds to the respective shade of lipstick red. Both works are overwhelming in their physical dimensions, their repetitive use of theme and colour, and their expressive and delicate hues. Where they fail to absorb and to seduce it is because of the text running across all four pictures. As concrete, conceptual references to either the commercial or the sexual market they create a figurative aspect that counters the works’ expressive potential; a form of “Verfremdungseffekt” that rouses us to awareness rather than seducing us. Pale Greenish Shade makes us explicitly aware that what we are looking at is not a picture but merely that which obscures the picture, while Read my Lips tells us just how we are being seduced. By means of red lipstick the woman expresses a controlled passion that is manipulative and hence not genuine. In the same way the terms that tell us what expression the shades of red possess absorb that very expression. The expressivity remains manipulative and the words render the pictures mute.
The same cannot be said of the series of small pictures that Slaattelid has assembled in the form of a collage under the title of Bekrefta bilde/Confirmed Images. This series consists of 78 small pictures each of 13 x 21 cm. Once again it is not a matter of photos or small ready-mades, but rather of images in oil paint on plexiglass. All the pictures are kept to shades of black and white intermixed with a hint of green, red and blue, yet each is different. Some of them come across as unclear photos of details, others have fingerprints around the edge, on some we see small threads or traces of threads, on others little daubs that reveal wondrous inner structures of the kind one might see through a microscope. Yet others are simply white. Taken together they are suggestive of images from a forensic investigation that turns its microscope on bodily fluids, or seeks to analyse textile fibres and to identify fingerprints. The difference is that these are not photos but paintings, and as we have seen, paintings reveal nothing but themselves. Rather than bring something to light, the drops reveal an organic world of ramifications, threads leading fascinating yet mysterious lives of their own, small figurative fragments that suggest and aspire to a greater whole, a meaningfulness. A combination of numerous fragments amounts not to a whole, but to movement, not to meaning, but to inscrutability. The only thing these fragments affirm is that they are “affirmative” pictures. And as pictures they create the conditions for the emergence of a subtly immanent, visual tension.
Subject Matter consists of two works, each of which is a diptych comprising two plexiglass sheets of 120 x 80 cm. Their motifs are similar in certain respects to Bekrefta bilde, insofar as here as well we are evidently dealing with a substance that is neither abstract nor immediately recognisable. Four almost perfect circles stand out, once again at first sight like the view through a microscope, where something has been enlarged for closer scrutiny. But in this case the material is not transparent; instead it is reminiscent first and foremost of an eyeball that has been cut into to expose the blood vessels. The pictures in this series are arranged in mirrored pairs, one of them showing a flesh-coloured form, the other a black-violet form. Written above these shapes are the words, respectively, “Subject” and “Matter”, although the word “Subject” is laterally inverted. Once again Slaattelid draws the viewer into a complex conceptual and art-theoretical game that investigates the relations between reality and image, content and form. These pictures inquire into the nature of content and of substance; they ask what the picture is about and what is its form. “Subject matter” is more or less synonymous with content; the picture’s subject matter is its content. Either this content is immediately apparent in the picture, or alternatively it has to be elicited through interpretation, like something that lies hidden behind the appearance of the pictorial elements. The only content that lies behind Slaattelid’s picture is its inverted “other”, which is the same. The picture’s “subject matter” cannot be distinguished from its form; there is nothing on the far side of the form. As formal statements these pictures sit once again on the border between colouristic elegance and harmony and the repellent “abject”. The purely visual game with shapes and colour tones carries us into the unpleasant and troubling presence of a person’s inner organs.
Slaattelid also plays with lateral inversion in Navnene findes / The Names Exist. Here she has photographed a watercolour paintbox and enlarged the image to 100 x 125 cm. The photograph she shows us is not a harmonic composition of pastel colours, but a negative of the paintbox, and in their negatives, the colours appear inharmonic. The result is a constructed expressivity in which the colours, deprived of their natural context, conflict with one another. In the next photo of a paintbox, the colours have been replaced with black and white. On these paintboxes it is not the name, printed onto the box beneath each separate colour, that has changed, but the colours themselves, which have been turned into their complementary opposites and remain expressed even through their inversions, just as “Subject Matter” remained “Subject Matter”, i.e. mere words. Here it is not that the names silence the images, it is that the images render the names meaningless.
On the occasion of the Hertervig anniversary in 2002, Slaattelid created an installation at Rogaland Museum of Fine Arts involving texts, three pictures by contemporaries of Hertervig who studied in Düsseldorf, pictures by Hertervig himself, together with four considerably enlarged photographs of another of Hertervig’s paintings, Landskab ved Düsseldorf. In 2004, as a followup to this event, Slaattelid put together the exhibition “Solitær” at the National Gallery in Oslo. This consisted of six photographs plus text material relating to Hertervig.
In four photographic enlargements of Landskab ved Düsseldorf, Slaattelid treated the film with light or acid, giving the surface of the picture the appearance of being damaged. In Tredje person, she photographed and enlarged the backside of a Hertervig painting. In two smaller copies of Skogtjern (a detail of the same painting), she allows the reflection of the camera flash to shine in the depicted sky, moving it towards the right in each successive picture. She has called these pictures Romantisk bakteppe, or Scene 1 og 2. In the largest photograph in the exhibition, she has converted the Skogtjern detail to a negative, making the sun that dominates the landscape black. This picture has the same title as the installation: Solitær.
The text fragments include quotations from a letter and reports of an episode towards the end of Hertervig’s life. The installation represents aspects of the artist’s life and work, and introduces the diagnosis of melancholia which was given when he was committed to Gaustad hospital. The picture Solitær contains an obvious reference to Kristeva’s account of melancholy in her book Soleil Noir. Dépression et mélancolie, of 1987. In Soleil Noir, Kristeva describes melancholy as involving a death wish, whereby the melancholic turns against himself in an attempt to erase his own ego. By presenting the photograph’s negative, the white light of the flash appears like a black sun. In the negative the harmony of the colours is replaced by disharmony and it is as if the fullness of life in the original glow of light has been sucked out, just as for the melancholic the joy of life turns to world weariness.
One photograph from the same exhibition, Tredje person, relates a different story. It is a story about travels, exhibitions and prices, conveyed by the transport labels, price tags and stamps affixed to the back of a picture. It is also a tale about the artist as a craftsman. In addition to carrying fragments of information about the life of the artist and the work, the photographic image of the back of the picture also possesses purely sensuous qualities. The use of materials and the effects of time are compelling as an image of the artist’s unconscious expression. Slaattelid allows Hertervig to speak through what is not meant to be seen, what was kept behind the back.
It is not Hertervig who speaks through the two enlarged photographs of Landskab ved Düsseldorf, but Slaattelid. The application of light or acid to the film partially conceals and destroys the motif. In Romantisk bakteppe, she has left her own mark on the picture by means of the brutal reflection of the flashbulb, which spreads across much of the painting’s sky. Not only does the intense light overwhelm all trace of colour in the sky, it illuminates other aspects of the picture, revealing old cracks and fissures in the surface structure. In effect, the reflection of the flash forces these accidental features in the layer of oil paint to participate in a play of light and shadow. The sharp light obscures the picture in the same way that irritating sunlight or a bright ceiling lamp in a museum can make it impossible to see a badly hung picture. But in this case it does not help to move to the side to view the picture from another angle. But here Slaattelid is teasing us. For the light is within the picture – the light is the picture. Slaattelid has created a new picture that is not a copy of Hertervig’s or a projection so much as a simulacrum, an object which, according to Deleuze’s definition of that term, raises questions about the very notion of a copy or a model.
The various ways Slaattelid approaches Hertervig in her installation do not add up to a higher unity that enable us to sit back with an enlightened concept of the artist and his work. Each fragment of text has its own story to tell, and in the same way the pictures do not supplement one another in the telling of a larger story, but remain monadic, although they do provide points of access. In Solitær the melancholy is not therapeutic, as it is for Kristeva. Instead the picture comes across as a visualisation of melancholy, an embodiment of the silence that characterises so many of Slaattelid’s works. In the photographs of Landskab ved Düsseldorf it is the surface that takes over, either in terms of the light that usurps the colour, replacing it with the life of the canvas and the paint and the associated cracks and dents, or by partially obscuring or dissolving the original motif. Finally, Slaattelid plays the part of a picture dealer or art historian by showing the back of a painting, since it is here one can read the history of the picture, which is often accorded greater significance than the picture’s expressivity, or its aesthetic value. But Slaattelid infuses even that part of the picture with an aesthetic, sensuous quality. The only thing that remains untouched is Hertervig’s paintings. Since Slaattelid neither appropriates nor copies, but simulates, i.e. creates, pictures that are just as much originals as those to which they refer, it is not Hertervig that she shows us, but a reception and a dramatisation.
This is strikingly evident in a couple of the pictures that Slaattelid created in connection with the Hertervig installations, Overflate and Detalje. She tells us that these pictures are samples of sky or water taken from Hertervig’s works. The pictures are square, 75 x 75 cm, and the materials she uses are oil on aluminium. Using broad brushes and fluid paint she achieves a thoroughly smooth surface of wondrous depth. It is a surface that is at one and the same time luscious and attractive, yet cold and hard, one where the delicate play of blue and grey can unfold to perfection. Gone are the brushstroke and the canvas texture, gone are the cracked paint surfaces. All that remains is the play of colour. By these means Slaattelid highlights yet another dimension of Hertervig’s work, namely his use of colour, especially blue. Yet she does so in a way that is highly individual, and displays to the full her eminent mastery of material and colour.
The use of colour is also the dominant aspect in Slaattelid’s first commission for a work in a public building. The commission was awarded by the Norwegian department of De Nordiske Juristmøter for a gift to the University of Oslo to adorn its Domus Academica, auditorium 4 (Utsmykning UiO). The work produced for this commission is 8.5 metres long and 2 metres high. It consists of six closely mounted aluminium plates. The oil paint has been applied layer upon layer, sanded down, then applied again. With the aluminium plates as the foundation, this creates a hard, enamel-like surface where the reflections describe a worn down materiality full of intricacies suggestive of infinite depth.
The format Slaattelid has chosen for this work is highly demanding. Lacking a strict composition there is a risk of the picture’s elements losing their coherence. Slaattelid has solved this problem by emphasising the horizontal dimension and movement. A series of vertical forms create a rhythmical, almost calligraphic progress along the picture, terminating at each end with a vertical stripe of around 80 cm width, decorated with stylised plant silhouettes. At the centre of the picture is a red square on which we see an emblematic portrait of a woman, based on a painting found during excavations at Pompeii, painted in a slightly darker shade of red. Beside this emblem Slaattelid has painted a colour scale in the various tones of the picture, similar to the colour scales used by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage during the restoration of the Urbygningen, the original central building of Oslo University. The background of this central field is decorated in a genuinely Pompeian style, using stylised plant ornaments. On either side of the square are two further squares in a warmer red-brown hue. Here the formal language is different; instead of the organic plant forms there are geometric figures reminiscent of the original geometric ornamentation found on the walls of the Urbygningen during restoration. The fields with the stylised plant ornaments from Norwegian flora, executed in cool, grey and grey-green tones, differ from the remainder of the picture. They possess a certain immediacy, but also a mat, silky finish that distinguishes them from the colours used elsewhere in the picture. Set at the centre of the picture’s complex scheme of significance, with references to both the history of the building’s restoration and the history of art, these ornaments contribute a playful contemporary element that allows the gaze to wander back across the entire work, to look at it afresh and to enjoy its colour scheme of bold shifts that could only be achieved by a true colourist.
Slaattelid found further inspiration during her work on the commission for the Urbygningen. Among the Pompeian material she came across small satyrs, which she introduces into friezes that use a similarly elongated format as the commissioned piece, albeit on a smaller scale. One little satyr stands out against a bright red background amid strict neo-classical ornamentation (Satyr I), another is depicted in a frozen movement beside a laid table (Satyr II). Who can say what they are doing there, or why they have been painted? Yet there they are.
It would appear the Urbygningen commission has reawakened in Slaattelid the joy of painting in oils that characterised her early pictures. Her pictures of 2005/2006 are both more painterly and more reflected in their approach to colour than the pictures of the preceding years. They display a considerable joy of painterly and colouristic narrative. A general feature of Slaattelid’s production is that her colour scheme moves primarily within the range of red and green; where blue occurs it seems almost to be elicited by the proximity of the other colours, as in the work Sinnbilde, where the grey takes on a blue tinge due to its proximity to blue’s complementary, orange, or – in the same picture – a greenish shade is used towards the lower edge to add character and depth to the red.
It is not simply the use of beautiful tones that characterises Slaattelid’s treatment of colour. “Colours that are delicate in themselves must be given new precision,” she says. Colours are made to glow in terms of their immanent relations. In Innfall the cadmium red shifts from dirty brown to deep pink. Above the red field, Slaattelid has dabbed spots of green, which, she points out, “ignite” the red and protect the work from banality. In Akvarel the dominant colours are green and yellow together with white, which, when mixed with the yellow and umber, acquire a dirty blue tinge. Throughout the entire picture, the delicate contrasts evoke a sense of discomfort; almost imperceptible shifts in shade cause the otherwise exciting, stimulating colour contrasts to become repellent. These transitions are underlined by the way in which the paint is applied in layers, producing multiple surfaces. As in the work of Gerhard Richter, this counteracts the effect of depth. Instead, the gaze is forced to remain on the level of the picture plane and the relations contained therein. This creates a presence that enhances the relation between the viewer and the work by adding visual interest and sensuous abundance to the rationale of the painting.
In the paintings Innfall and Innfall 2, together with Sleepless 4 and Sleepless 5, Slaattelid returns to the theme of Sleepless 1-3, in which a pattern is superimposed onto the surface like a lace curtain. And yet there are differences. Whereas Sleepless 1-2 addressed the themes of night and darkness, the narratives in the new pictures are more abstractly worked out, while seeming at the same time to be dominated by decadence. In Sleepless 4 the grey and grey-blue hues of the lace pattern alternate with spots of ochre and white. These are separated by broad expanses of black, like an emptiness in the midst of the playful exchange between the curtains and snowflakes, or stardust. Sleepless 5 is more aggressive. Here the curtains and the background merge, with the lacework becoming distorted into a negative image or shadow of its own pattern. The contours of the brighter shapes dissolve and large expanses of translucent blue create a contrast with the black. The dapples of white spread across the picture plane. It is as if Slaattelid intends these two pictures as reports on a process that tends towards dissolution. The narrative is given some substance by the title, but behind the title, behind the names, the pictures continue their own mysterious stories. In the other pictorial tale, Innfall and Innfall 2, the titles do not offer an equivalent set of narrative associations. In the two Innfall pictures, the colour scheme is dominated by red/green tones that alternate with dirty and flourescent shades. Over large sections of the surface one sees white and pale grey smudges of an organic character reminiscent of foliage or tangles of blood vessels. Dabs of green paint running across the picture suggest mould. The entire work evokes a sense of decay. The curtain introduces an ornamental element, while at the same time emphasising the theme of decay due to its own apparent disintegration and its almost concrete materiality. The picture effuses a mood of decaying beauty, Venice in the grip of Death.
In these pictorial narratives, all of the same format of 170 x 140 cm, Slaattelid works with two surfaces, one on the back and one on the front of the sheet of plexiglass. On the back of the sheet she has painted in oils or acrylic, whereas on the front she has projected the curtain ornament. In conjunction these two surfaces create an alienation effect. The work is one surface painted on top of another.
The surface is also the theme of the series Surface Meaning. The words of the title refer to the obvious, most noticeable level of significance. They also draw attention to the surface as the carrier of meaning, a function it fulfils while seeming simultaneously to conceal its own motif.
The good surface is the theme of seven photographs of used sandpaper: Støvkyss (Giornate). Here Slaattelid allows chance to speak, taking what remains on pieces of sandpaper that have been used in the making of pictures as pictures in themselves.
In Synonym 1, 2 and 3 the surface does not conceal the motif. On the contrary, the motif is superimposed on top of the picture plane, or it has broken through the surface, as in Synonym 3, on the cadmium red of which there is painted a pale oblong field that looks like a hole through the surface; in Synonym 2, a template landscape in pale beige overlays an almost black surface, and in Synonym 3 we see a centrally placed text fragment. Although Slaattelid has entitled this series Synonym, meaning “the same”, the pictures comes across as an expression of “the other”; “the other” as the picture’s “other”, through a hole in the canvas, a depiction of the landscape’s “other”, of landscape abstractions, and a text abstraction as the “other” of language.
In the picture series Underforsikring 1, 2 and 3, the content of the picture surface is given additional content by the inclusion of the sign. inscription. But what kind of verification is intended here, and what significance accrues from the idea that the picture plane should be undersigned, or indeed not undersigned? Slaattelid is playing a game with us in terms of her work, its narrative, and its title. She is underinsuring herself. She guarantees nothing, provides no assistance in understanding the picture, but enhances the work with a further conceptual dimension that makes it into something new. The inclusion of the word “sign.” creates a narrative, which it simultaneously undermines. What remains is the work, which refuses to seduce us, but meets us halfway with suggestion and pure sensuousness.