Translated by Deborah Miller
Hilde Skjeggestad’s paintings begin and end with colour; as palpable planes and as an underlying principle of construction. In its encounter with specific contexts, the variable nature of colour engenders potential for nuances and often surprising optical results. But what is the status of colour in art? Can it be regarded neutrally? The effect of colour on the viewer often involves the recognition of something previously encountered; the colour subsequently assumes a formless and subjective quality. This susceptibility to emotional resonance is frequently considered suspect. Skjeggestad’s disciplined compositions rely on colour’s independence, despite its resistance to classification.
Conscious of Its Real Task
In her exhibition in Visningsrommet USF, Conscious of Its Real Task, Hilde Skjeggestad deliberately positions herself in a well-known tale of early modernist abstract painting. More specifically, one finds references to Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) and his geometric constructivist output from the early 1900s, a time when abstract painting was new and promising. Van Doesburg, also a designer, architect and writer, was the driving force behind the De Stijl-movement, founded in 1917. Piet Mondrian was another key figure in De Stijl. Practitioners of diverse art forms here allied in a vision of a society improved through the reduction of painting, furniture and architecture to simple, basic geometric components; Qualität im Quadrat. An essential structure was thereby conferred ethical challenges. Aided by technology, the universal and collective would harmonize with the specific and individual in a consistent normative unity. Early modernists were also convinced of the role of the written word in corroborating the social-utopian significance of this emerging art style, a belief evidenced by the appearance of copious manifestos.
In the process of creating her new works, Skjeggestad studied a selection of van Doesburg’s pictures. She analyzed the composition, spatial relationships, colour choices and variations in painting techniques employed in his pictures, at times characterised by an extreme reduction of pictorial elements. Skjeggestad’s thoughts regarding van Doesburg’s paintings and the elaboration of these in a contemporary artistic practice involve clear limitations. Skjeggestad does not necessarily deem Van Doesburg’s place in art history unique; rather, she regards him as representative of a distilled understanding of abstract painting now relegated to the annals. Instead of attempting a new interpretation of van Doesburg’s works, they serve for her as a relevant point of departure for a navigable course through abstract composition. Her intention has not been the formulation of clear, unambiguous statements, but first and foremost an intense focus on the visual.
The past and its artefacts belong to us as long as we maintain an interest in them and are willing to re-consider them. Consequently, the use of citation as strategy, investigated in depth by Hilde Skjeggestad, is a basal manoeuvre. Her willingness to actively enter into the rhetoric of modernism and seek alternative expression in the wake of this encounter comprises a fundamental aspect of her artistic practice. By concerning herself with specific examples in lieu of the whole of the mythical modernist landscape, she is able to highlight possibly neglected qualities of this artistic direction. Skjeggestad insists on a genuine fascination for the individual work, for example, a 1920s Mondrian. The notion that these paintings express an ideal and remote perfection has been discredited; in the end, these pictures do anything but blow their own horns. Traces of brush marks and a particular form of crackled patina resist any generalised history.
This allusive enterprise, demonstrating that all art in some way or another incorporates other works of art, is not new for the artist. She has also in several other instances engaged in art-historical dialogue, not least with 1940s and ‘50s American abstract expressionism. This high-modernist art rhetoric aspired to convince observers of its greatness, whether through imposing formats or titles such as Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Sublime, Heroic Man). One credo was that the artist, and by extension the observer, could be realised as a true subject by shunning representative portrayals for existential matters in abstract form.
Modernism has been roundly criticised, particularly for its heavy reliance on the myth of the masculine artist and its faith in the work of art as transgressive and universal. At the same time, we see that many contemporary artists operate with this same material, for example Ane Hjort Guttu in her explorations of modern sculptural history. Autonomous formalism has been denounced as an empty aesthetic, devoid of social relevance. Perhaps it is this assessment that makes this field so attractive for inquiry: partly to measure the veracity of this appraisal, and partly because it involves a choice neither obvious nor free from controversy.
The serial work Excerpts (2000) involves precise, delimited planes of colour as well as vague organic forms. Distributed over seven dissimilar canvases, it can be grouped in a variety of ways. The horizontal arrangement intimates a temporal aspect; the piece reveals itself in sequences. The optical effects of the colours and their illusory, transient, almost ethereal natures, can at times be markedly physical.
Statements of Profound Feeling, from the following year, like the new work, Untitled, is based on a similarly complex composition. In contrast to Excerpts, these two compositions feature rational, quadratic structures. Both comprise nine small canvases in increasing/decreasing formats, aligned at their topmost edges. The somewhat saccharine pastels of Excerpts are here relieved by more earthy colours, with a far more robust result. Another striking divergence from the precision of Excerpts is the substantiality of Untitled; the materials appear matte, coarse, almost grimy, in keeping with many of these paintings probing van Doesburg’s art.
In the constructivist tradition, addressed by Hilde Skjeggestad throughout the process leading up to this exhibition, the geometric form is a central element. The paintings of an early modernist such as van Doesburg were often constrained to a particularly small format, more or less quadratic; likewise, several of Skjeggestad’s appropriated and transformed variants also conform to this format. In other instances, she has extracted portions of a van Doesburg composition to magnify them on larger canvases.
In Conscious of Its Real Task, Skjeggestad departs from her scrutiny of van Doesburg in order to study a Mondrian composition, playing on his extensive use of primary colours. The colour spectre has been transmuted to a warm, wavering yellow. This picture was one of Mondrian’s suspended diamond compositions. The diagonal as a pictorial element in combination with horizontal and vertical lines caused contention between Mondrian and van Doesburg. For Mondrian, both the primary colours and the vertical and horizontal lines represented an absolute stability and spiritual order which could only be expressed through art; the antithesis of unruly life. Unstable lines threatened culture. Van Doesburg’s use of destabilising diagonals is thereby indirectly addressed in this work. In van Doesburg’s conscious choice of the diagonal, one can perhaps glean a clue to contemporary art’s orientation towards the unfinished and the prosaic. There is actually no task which supersedes all others, per se.
In Invariable, a larger piece dense with geometric structures, Skjeggestad initiates an advanced transaction between harmony and restlessness. Here she elaborates on a controlled motif from van Doesburg, replicating it in diverse variants on the same canvas and drawing on different colour codes, yet conforming to the motif’s basic structure. The result of this meticulous effort is vivid and dramatically compressed; the planes of colour clamour for attention. This picture is oversaturated, teetering with its formal content. The picture evokes hyper-enlarged pixels as well as textiles such as quilts; closer inspection reveals delicate poetic transitions. This configuration, based on an original and historical wish for order, treats a now-lost faith in the unique work of art. Through the use of intra-compositional repetition, Skjeggestad channels van Doesburg’s production into a reproductive framework.
Geometry here provides a more focused fundament for Skjeggestad’s colour scale. Some of the colours are transferred directly from van Doesburg, but most are altered or usurped by far more ambivalent hues. Variations of recycled forms and colours also appear in Diplopia, two pictures presenting incomplete reflections of each other. An investigation of geometric constellations, the figures in these large pieces call to mind flag-like structures. At the same time, a peculiar dynamic creates a visual unease. Order-driven geometry exposes its own blind spots, becoming an ambivalent entity.
Absolute Validity is a series comprising six works in yellow. Some of them refer fairly explicitly to van Doesburg’s compositions. The title alludes to a modernist concern and is taken from a book about de Stijl. All of these sizeable canvases exude an intense, luminous quality. Their motifs range from geometric checks to flame-like, soft, organic compositions. The colours project into the room, towards the observer. These are lively pictures; paradoxically, they can be experienced as both complete and yet restless. They are energetic, yet restrained. Further, there is a distinctly mystical and absorbing quality to the paintings, paired with a dependable dailiness; both ethereal and earthly.
The connotations of the colour yellow, with its affinity to gold and divinity on the one hand and sunny optimism on the other, contribute significantly to the double impression. Yellow is considered intellectually stimulating and is symbolically related to self-worth. At the same time, it is associated with jealousy and envy. Yellow seldom occurs in its purest form in Skjeggestad’s works, but tends towards green, red and brown. Yellow solicits the examination of visual frontiers.
This brief discourse on the complexity of an individual colour returns us to our starting point: colour as the core of Hilde Skjeggestad’s artistic practice. Red, yellow and blue were the preferred colours of the Dutch painters – pure, unsullied colours. The supremacy of primary colours has subsequently been challenged by a slew of artists; one notable example is Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?. Skjeggestad also treads this “colourscape” with In Painting Colour is the Only Truth 1, a three-part composition on small, rectangular canvases. Again, colour’s materiality and texture are highlighted. The surfaces are coarse and grainy, with a charged dryness. In the main these paintings are monochrome. Each displays its own deep colour which tends toward an almost abysmal variant of its corresponding primary colour; the red, for example, resembles ox blood. The artist’s technique involves the gradual layering of, respectively, blue; blue and red; and blue, red and yellow. Each primary colour reproduces itself in a new version based on a blended impurity.
This multilayered practice also touches upon the concern with art history evidenced in Skjeggestad’s paintings. She has embarked on a type of appropriation that is primarily neither contextual nor verbally dependent. She references van Doesburg’s works not to criticize or copy, but rather in order to insist on a certain historical continuity which transcends ideas of fixed origins and static ownership. At the same time, she is fully cognizant that certain ideals must give way. Her paintings productively explore once-pure planes which can no longer be maintained.