An optical contract
By Evelyn Holm
At first glance Hilde Skjeggestad's paintings provide an impression of cool airiness, clarity and impartiality. As the thought process engages the instant response is that this impression cannot be correct. Because although the colour fields are sufficiently defined there's not one pure colour to be found, only a variety of pastel mixes, arranged more or less complementary alongside each other, without graded transitions. In Hilde Skjeggestad's catalogue from 1997 Dag Sveen calls it "sweet colour", and continues: "When painters today choose to paint pink and sweet, it is often to flirt with the vulgar when Skjeggestad does it, it becomes a challenge; to near the purely decorative in order to achieve it, and make paintings that can well be beautiful but not ”pretty", paintings that have artistic life because the colour is active and physically present". Hilde Skjeggestad's colour can recall baby doll's bottles filled with small sweets or those coloured cotton-wool balls in the bathroom. A highly taboo palette when not ironic or legitimate nostalgia. A new scanning of the sense mechanism and one registers no symptoms of nausea, no teenage dreams of rose pink clouds, no ironic comments on banality and kitsch. Light and matt, almost dry in the beginning. After a moment the dryness, a parched, desert-like character, transforms, the matt disappears and the colours appear luminous rather than just light. Painting and eye enter into an optical contract that functions through time. The colour planes begin a careful invasion of the room; the sur-face character is still present, but the planes pulsate and assume a fluid posture in front of the picture plane. An optical illusion entirely dependent on the subjective sense mechanism, but almost as objective as a rainbow, also an optical illusion observed by most. The precise differentiated fields of colour stand as individual and equal; independent, but not competitive. Like all colours Hilde Skjeggestad's also change with lighting, but do not break down in the change between daylight and lamplight. In differing light the subtle mixes of colour allow the individual elements to emerge in varying dominance. The colour "sways” with illumination and fresh nuances emerge.
This manner of relating colour to space and light is not normally associated so much with painting as with installation. Hilde Skjeggestad's art education is not primarily in painting, she studied at Bergen National College of Art and Design. In the school's textile department she was part of a wave of opposition which materialised in the mid 1980s, one aspect of the opposition was a move against the tradition of discipline limitation. Many of the students applied for an exchange to the Academy of Fine Art to study under Solfrid Mortensen at what was later called "The Department of 3 Dimensional Art". Many of the students who transferred still work in trans-media. This particular development in the Bergen textile milieu, led the students to an artistic expression where material is secondary and where space and beholder are integrated. Textile was everything flexible and in installation the challenge lay beyond the traditional boundaries of the artform. Hilde Skjeggestad did not begin at the Bergen Academy, instead she travelled to Poland for a study period of two years at the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Poznan. After the residence in Poland and a series of expressionist oriented works made from available materials, flour, plaster, newspaper and paint, she returned to Bergen with a new awareness that she wanted to leave the expressive, the emotional obligation and commitment behind, and turn towards a more reserved art that touches more via distance than by an oppressive intimacy.
In 1990 Hilde Skjeggestad was the initiator and co-arranger of "Mellom Rommene" ("Interspaces"), a four-day exhibition that utilised every possible out- and inside space in Bergen (with the exception of traditional exhibition spaces) for showing the work of almost 100 artists. According to Christel Sverre this exhibition was, in the Norwegian context, "the mother of the 90s". Since the material content of Hilde Skjeggestad's contribution to the exhibition, in the boardroom of Norges Bank, was acrylic and ink on paper, it can formally be termed painting. It comprised of spots or dots in yellow, red and blue, which were blown onto the paper through a fixative spray appliance. One narrow, white rectangle positioned slightly above the middle of the painting showed the dots as pale pastels.This was the first time Hilde Skjeggestad's "sweetened" colour appeared in public. In the pompous boardroom, dominated by dark-green, dark-brown, rust-red and gilt, Hilde Skjeggestad's colours worked as a provocative statement, a statement that was strengthened by the dot's casual eloquence. The dot's simple, irregular, circular form debated with the orderly ornamentation on the room's oriental carpet. The conscious dialogue with the room confirms the term installation, and despite this particular artistic expression's form of provocation as opposed to inclusion or communication, it was not so much by way of aggression as of a humorous disrespect of power's visual sign language. In 1992 the dots reappeared in an installation context, now entirely in pastel. "In the present case" took place in Hilde Skjeggestad's studio in St. Hansstredet, Bergen, which was transformed for the occasion into a temporary work of art. With a blend of the methodical and intuition, mathematical measure and freehand drawing, an originally two-dimensional geometric form became spacial, with the dancing spots as a playful dissolution of the underlying geometric logic.
Over the 1990s Hilde Skjeggestad participated in a number of co-operational projects with other artists. Especially worth mentioning is " 12 artists show installations in Solheimsviken Verft ", a redundant shipyard in Bergen in 1993, and "Composition 1 and 2" in respectively Vienna 1993 and Bergen 1994 in co-operation with Grete Byrkjeland and Brite Hindal. The latter project was particularly communicative and confrontational, the three artists challenged their own and each other's boundaries by previously deciding that their starting point in their individual works, made simultaneously in the gallery space, should meet and unite in one common work.
Interspaces, interval, inner space and surface, "Mediation", was the title of Skjeggestad's painted installation in pink in Solheimsviken Verft, impure colour, middle colour - Hilde Skjeggestad's activities in the first half of the 90s are easily characterised as a middle position. A self chosen instability that expresses itself both formally and in professional collaboration. With one exception - a commission for the teacher training college on the island of Stord outside Bergen - all the works are unstable in the sense that they are temporary, exactly as installation art is transient, in a different way from other works of art. Over time it exists only as documentation, as a photographic reminder. But transitoriness is installation's potential. It demands constant renewal in constantly new contexts, and a regard to the procedural aspect in a whole new way than with artworks made to last over time.
Nevertheless, over the 90s Hilde Skjeggestad concentrated on painting, and in pure form, not as elements of installation. The dot painting reached it's conclusion in "In the present case", where the relationship between the constructive systematic and free flow was examined. Since then she has neither repeated the theme or the process and surfaces have dominated; precisely defined planes of colour in bright pastel set against each other without graded transition. According to Dag Sveen in the previously quoted article, it is in painting she finds the most interesting challenges; to provide each individual surface with the highest degree of autonomy while simultaneously making them work together, and to overcome the purely decorative that she approaches through her use of colour. This is very precise, in painting, especially when it is placed in a neutral gallery space, created to emphasise the individual work in a context of as little visual interference as possible, the colours and forms emerge more disconnected, hence more revealed than in installation, where the painterly elements participate in a larger architectural context. The artwork is isolated and must stand or fall without support from the surrounding elements within an installation. For paintings like Hilde Skjeggestad's, more egalitarian than compositional, where the individual colours mixed with white is the only unifying element, the drop can be high. It is not without grounds that the American critic Clement Greenberg claimed the media specific as the acid test in the quality of art. According to the modernist position he maintains, the development towards the media specific was a conclusive step in the liberation process that modernistic painting was involved in, and for him was the symbol of modernism in general. For those interested in painting it primarily concerned a liberation from literature, from the demand of a theme in painting and finally a wrench from the representative illusion space, from three dimensionality that really belonged to sculpture. This gradual liberation rendered the artform secure within it's own area of competence, where the individual artform could develop and specialise it's own qualitative possibilities without outer aesthetical demands that really had nothing to do with the specifically artistic.
As expression and as visual method, where the challenge lies in setting yourself a formal obstacle, for example colour that doesn't suit or ”match", in order to conquer it, Hilde Skjeggestad's paintings stand within a solid modernistic tradition, where emphasis is on the formal more than the content. In fact they stand closer to the American direction that Greenberg called "Post Painterly Abstraction". Painters such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly distinguished themselves in the early 1960s with a cool expression, completely void of the subjective that distinguished the previous generation, where Jackson Pollock was perhaps the most prominent example. Instead of a personal, even physical relationship between painting and artist subject, these painters chose to almost withdraw and let the painting emerge to it's extent without personal expression. Instead the means, in particular the colour, had it's own autonomy. In western painting tradition colour priority is something pertaining exclusively to painting, as with the brush stroke. The brush stroke seems to have little priority in Hilde Skjeggestad's paintings; only when one approaches closely does one see nuances of brush stroke. These nuances stand as traces of the hand's work, but hold no form of expression. The paintings are almost impartial in their reserved expression. In similarity to the American painters her paintings can be termed as "post painterly"; not painterly in a traditional context, but some of the painting's means and features, colour and surface character, stand out as the painting's content and approach. For many artists from the 1960s onwards, the scope for painting, defined as flatness and delimitation of flatness (Greenberg), became too narrow. Painting was abandoned, even pronounced dead, and attention turned to the surrounding space, the observer's domain. Media specific art was left behind in preference for a more general idea of art. Artists were first and foremost artists, not painters or sculptors etc. Happenings and performance developed as directions that included the artist and the public in the same action space, but the formalist tradition also had a continuation within space oriented art, in and with minimalism. Minimalist objects are always placed and arranged in relation to, and together with, space. The objects change character in relation to the space, light, and the observer's movements/positions within the space. Minimalism's starting point is in painting, not only because most minimalists began as painters, but also because object art is a direct continuation of painting at that time. With artists such as early Stella, Kelly, Noland and Louis, the compositional union of opposing elements, simply understood as figure and background, has been abandoned and rendered uninteresting, due to the individual painting's stance as a uniform object. Hilde Skjeggestad's paintings share this object character. What is a figure and what is a background becomes incidental in her paintings. The equal relationship between the different colour planes provides the seemingly simple paintings with a character of restlessness. When all is equal the observer's gaze lacks the opportunity to settle in a visual conclusion. As it happened Hilde Skjeggestad began her artistic career in an environment where one left the classification with starting point in the material related and sooner experimented with different media within spacial installation. As an individual artist, Hilde Skjeggestad took the opposite direction to that of American art; she began with installation and moved into painting. In a traditional modernistic model of progression this would be a reversal; with a starting point in one phase she then moved backwards. In today's art reality such an assertion is absurd. With an extensive diversity of art expression, it is more current to talk about genre and areas of interest than about generations that attained and abandoned stages. Furthermore she has had a strong tendency to integrate an installation thought process in her work with painting. They are organised into series, are in obvious relation to each other and to the spaces they are mounted in, and they display a very apparent time aspect. The conscious use of the unstable potential found throughout the colour, requires that one takes time to become aquainted with the whole painting - it literally changes through time. The time element is an essential component of installation, one must necessarily use time to take in the work's diverse possibilities relative to spacial orientation. Painting meanwhile has been traditionally understood as stable, and the same from one moment to the next. A more serious objection - typical of contemporary art and the authoritative orientation of the art theoretician - which has not been absent from reviews on Hilde Skjeggestad's earlier works and some of her installations, is their lack of socially related theme, therefore an objection against formalism.
The formalist oriented modernism mainly concerns an art which refers to itself, and is enough in itself. But how can an art that is sufficient in itself be nearly enough? Today we anticipate art as something that operates in an extended, social field and an autonomous aesthetic is no longer prevalent. But "art for art's sake" in itself a paradox, one cannot imagine an art, or for that matter any form of expression, that does not communicate. This communication must necessarily be directed towards someone. When all is said and done all art is made by people and for people. Formalism is a theoretical direction in art that is highly associated to an art that is enough in itself, where the specific artistic crystallises in the work's formal arrangement, whether abstract or figurative. Meanwhile in Roger Fry's formalist theory the connection between an artwork's form and human inner structure is one of the essential points. It is this relation that justifies and necessitates the same formalism. With Greenberg it is the emotional, human impulse that is itself the content of the work, it simply doesn't have sufficient artistic value if it is not filtered through the artistic medium. As such, the objection does not concern a lack of human aspect, but a lack of position to human life in contemporary society. But is it impossible for formalist art to have a social, even argumentative content? Dag Sveen has pointed out that what appears to deal only with equality of form and colour in Hilde Skjeggestad's painting, can, if examined, be seen to indicate our time and equal meetings between people. Seen in the light of her practise, both with regard to artistic co-operative projects of pronounced democratic character, and to her work in later years with the mediation of other artist's work, this perspective is not unlikely. It concerns a dialogue, and the paintings provide a model for reciprocity and respect within this dialogue. The dialogue aspect can also be read from her works in another way. References to other artist's work can with a little patience, be discovered in her art; to Kelly's form language for example, or to the constructivist tradition, as we see in Mondrian. Mondrian's combination of geometry and pure colour has a starting point in a model that seeks a connection between painting's essence and that of the universe. The primary colours and the vertical and horizontal stripes are an image of the absolute, a stable order that lies behind everyday life's disorder and incidental variations. Hilde Skjeggestad has, particularly in ”In the present case", combined geometry with pastel versions of Mondrian's so called pure colours. Here the colours continue their unstable life within geometry's stiff forms. The perfect is neither attainable nor welcome because it excludes the multiplicity of human life and person to person communication. The subtle dialogue Hilde Skjeggestad fulfils in her paintings does not have the typical post-modern character of quotation. In the sense of being quotes they are more footnotes, more related to textual debate than to any confrontational visual recall. The paintings converse, they don't argue the art they quote. In the same way they include the observer in a process where both painting and beholder provide each other time for reflection and change, in a reciprocal optical contract.
Evelyn Holm, b. 1956, is an art historian and writer, living and working in Bergen.
Translated by Gillian Carson