The appearance of nuance
Translated by Deborah Miller
Some time ago, I sat with Hilde in her Bergen atelier, surrounded by paintings from her most recent series, Befatning med det virkelige kan ikke alltid være ens (“The involvement with the real cannot always be the same”). Having, over time, become intimately familiar with her work, I had not placed much importance on the paintings’ seemingly monochrome, almost colorless presence. I had expected that the colors I anticipated would emerge with a leisurely perusal of the paintings, passing from one to the next as my eyes adjusted to the light in the room.
Deeply engaged in our conversation, I was startled when I lifted my gaze to be confronted by an outburst of color. Not a Weidemann-like explosion, pigments and tactility collaborating due to thickly applied, expressive strokes, an eruption almost in relief, physical and adhered to the canvas. More as if the colors were on the verge of disengaging from the surface of the paintings, suspended before them as vaporous formations.
At my sharp intake of breath, Hilde simply nodded, a slight smile on her lips. I am still not sure she understood what I was seeing. My experience, of course, was a result of my eyes having traveled from a close, small space, limited to my coffee cup and the person across from me, to the larger expanse of the atelier, awash as it was in the afternoon light of summer. I fear I was a rather distracted conversation partner the next few hours. My gaze darted restlessly about the room, from image to image. I began to wander about, until eventually, with the fading of the light, the brilliant pastels reunited with their canvases. But my impression of the pictures as monochrome did not return.
The paintings that had brought about this impression comprise an abundance of colors, dominated by pink, white and light blue and attenuated by yellow and green. The green paintings occupying the center of the opposite wall, including those exhibiting yellow and brown nuances, did not exhibit this effect of an emanation of color. At the time, I thought this due to their earthy tones, but more likely it was a result of their placement. The light simply fell differently on the wall on which they hung. What was essential was the colors’ visual and optical characteristics; it was these that engendered the various effects, and, as optical phenomena they were both bound to and dependent upon space, lighting and the perception of the viewer.
Close study reveals another physical aspect of the pictures. Barely perceptible brushstrokes occur randomly as faint disturbances in the smooth transitions of color, layered as they are in thin, transparent coats on bare canvas. In some places, the canvas itself emerges, its brown tones mingling with the overall expression of the work. For the apathetic, impatient viewer, the images may seem dull. Yet such cursory observation can also prove an advantage. With time and patience, or simple passivity, the pictures gain in interest. They are in constant flux, rapidly and continually renewing themselves for the observer. These optical events happen in reality; a theoretical background or contextual understanding is not a precondition for perceiving them. The visual experience is linked to immediate sensing, free of linguistic boundaries.
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, of pivotal significance for our understanding of the relation between the body, the senses, perception and consciousness, describes the visual as a dynamic manifestation, something incessantly “becoming”. As with all perception according to Merleau-Ponty, visual experience is physical. This physicality is also evinced in the title Hilde Skjeggestad borrows from the philosopher for her series, For the art of painting is always within the carnal. A quotation equally relevant for our context when we include the phrase preceding it, “… forthe art of painting is never altogether outside time, because the painting is always within the carnal.” Time is an inherent component of appearance and necessitates constant change. The gaze moves about in space, becoming an extension of the body towards the reality around us, not before us, and of which we are an integral element, not distinct from. Sight, to a greater extent than any other of our senses, is a link between our bodies, consciousness and the world. According to Merleau-Ponty, the prosaic gaze has already incorporated language’s power of definition, seeing things both individually and in categories. The poetic gaze of the painter, conversely, embraces change and the interrelation of things, that which occurs in the transaction between ourselves and objects. As indicated by the title of the series inspiring this text, our involvement with reality cannot always be the same. For Merleau-Ponty, as far as visual perception is concerned, our involvement reality can never be the same.
Hilde Skjeggestad studied art in the 1980s. Like many Norwegian artists of her gener ation, during her early years as an artist she employed a variety of materials and media. From the beginning of the 1990s, this resulted in larger installations where painting and issues of painting increasingly took priority. At the end of the decade, her focus turned exclusively to painting, her background in installation still clearly discernible. In fact, a markedly clear development can be detected in her progression from installations, with painting and space either in dialog or opposition, to the “pure” paintings, where the focus is on surface, form and color. Installations inevitably incorporate their exhibition spaces, whether traditional gallery or other indoor or outdoor venue. It is particularly the impure color combinations that interact with space and light in her first independent paintings, altering with the light and yet avoiding compromise in the passage from daylight to artificial light. Furthermore, they never occur as complete compositions but rather as unresolved confrontations. The separate planes of color manifest individually and yet maintain an obvious relation to one another, at the same time that it is impossible to define this relation as one of either dialog or opposition. Instead, the experience oscillates between the two according to the viewer’s change in focus.
Skjeggestad’s acute interest in color, in her own words, “as a thematic and physical turning point”, was already evident in her installations. In her first independent paintings and painting-series, the emphasis on impure colors and discordant constellations can be construed as conscious opposition to classic modernism’s focus on pure colors and geometry, as seen in, for example, Mondrian and van Doesburg. Yet, from 2007, her works become significantly more autonomous than the earlier series, despite the fact that they still engage space and observer in a manner atypical for painting as a medium, as least in a narrow, modernist sense. This is primarily related to a form of autonomy for color. Not autonomy of the individual color, which in Hilde Skjeggestad’s works has long broken down in color’s tendency towards dissolution. The autonomy arises from just this consistent concentration of the specific qualities of color, bound to and dependent upon light, space and the viewer’s shifting gaze. That which began as a lapse with autonomy has, with a strange magic, been resurrected as autonomy in Skjeggestad’s obsession with and experimentation with these qualities. The constantly shifting presence requires no more than that we allow it a little time. Whether this time is granted voluntarily or is a coincidence is of no matter. What occurs, occurs completely legitimately, without compromising the poetry of the pictures or reducing them to optical experiments. The pictures succeed. They are not just works, they work.
The paintings are, then, dynamic. The task they accomplish is that of escaping their own confines. They approach us, thereby breaching the autonomy in which they would otherwise find themselves trapped. As neither reality nor our involvment with it can ever be the same, what we experience in this liberation is an endless flux of subtle nuances. This may not seem any great feat in a world, including the art world, where subtlety and nuance tend to be overwhelmed by visual, auditory and ideological noise. But for exactly this reason, we should permit these paintings to do their work. Not in order to find a respite from the noise, but in order to awaken from it.
Berlin, August 2014