Areas of Alternating Density and Emptiness
By Magnus Thorø Clausen
First published in catalogue for the show Tilstandsrapport vedr. umiddelbart uidentificerbare omstændigheder, with Thomas Bang, at Møstings Hus, Frederiksberg, 2012. Translation: Anders Bonnesen
Thus the sense of possibility may be defined as the capability to think everything that might as well be and not take that which is as more important than that which is not.
Stylistically Kristofer Hultenberg’s paintings are related to technical diagrams, architectural blueprints and similar types of representational schematic imagery. In other words they are associated with images characterized by precision, objectivity and communicative transparency without, however, completely assuming these characteristics. After one has looked at the paintings for a while it becomes evident that they all contain deformations and displacements of the schematic; subtle subversions of that which at first glance appeared objective and invariable. What looks so consistent and conclusive in fact turns out to be a space of unpredictability and potential movement.
The systematic structures are overlapped by shifts in the image formation, for instance via elements related to the manual process or organic elements which document the physical creation of the paintings through a series of manual actions, via ‘wear and tear’ and replacements. Visually these shifts occur in the composition as transformations and conversions between shapes, as irrational obstructions or inconsistencies within the system, as repetitions which at closer inspection turn out to be alterations. The spatial construction and deconstruction of shape alternate side by side, in the overall composition of the paintings as well as in the details, and this fluctuation sustains a mental environment, a kind of reservoir, in which new visual concepts can continually take shape.
In Untitled, 2012 (fig. 1.) a grid of narrow lines painted with acrylic paint functions as a type of connecting link between the wider skewed shapes. There is a straightforward symmetry between the line structure on both the right and the left hand side of the painting. However, this symmetry is thrown off balance in the area around the two green shapes in the center of the painting which are also mutually disconnected. The painting contains a number of leaps between repetition and alteration - and perhaps also between original and copy – although this distinction is complicated by the fact that it seems impossible to establish which is which. Standing very close to the picture plane you can make out that one of the acrylic strokes has been replaced by a pencil line which has a completely different material quality and a different, more direct, relation to the work of the hand. The abstract-schematic imagery is, generally speaking, detached from the body. The seemingly rational compositional structure constitutes a precise separation from the surrounding space where we ourselves move about. On the other hand, these aberrant and perhaps more irrational elements add a material and a process dimension which connect the paintings with time, coincidence and the body’s own physical imperfection. They reveal the ostensibility of this systematic order, or point out that it is in fact only temporary and exists on the basis of a more fundamental instability.
The colors in the paintings constitute another kind of destabilization of a fixed scheme. The brown and beige areas [in the untitled works; fig. 3, 4 and 5] can at first be associated with the coloring of technical drawings where such colors are often used to neutrally - and on principle not aesthetically - clarify the differences between the parts and to enhance the readability of the plan by for instance highlighting specific areas of a structure. At the same time, however, it is possible to associate these colors with skin, with the surface of the body. In this perspective an intimate bodily sensibility is in other words incorporated in the fixed scheme, a way of projecting one’s own body or bodily surface into the paintings, which of course makes the distance between the work and the perceiving body less conclusive. According to KH these bodily aspects are not intentional on his part. I sense that they are there in almost all of the paintings, but perhaps primarily implicitly, as a fleeting perspective, appearing and disappearing. Instead of describing the logic of the paintings as moving from schematic space to bodily space it would perhaps be more accurate to describe it as interchanging, back and forth. And this interchanging logic of course also means that one’s own boundaries to the pictorial spaces of the works are constantly shifting.
A third destabilization of the stringent schematic idiom is taking place in the exchange between frame and content, for instance in Untitled 2012 (fig. 5) in which an uneven shape resembling the figure eight appears to function as a frame or container for a slanted geometric shape within it. However, it is precisely this visual (rational?) definition of elements as either frame or content which, in this and in other works, is debated and made ambiguous. The edge is literally open, and the geometric shape is not contained within but is rather a part of the shape which encircles it. In this sense it also becomes ambiguous whether the break/the deviation in the painting is taking place in the outer or the inner shape - perhaps in both places depending on the perspective we use? In one corner of ‘the frame’ the acrylic paint has been replaced by an area which is loosely hatched with a pencil. Initially this area gives the impression of a half-opening toward the white surface which makes up the rest of the painting. However, it can just as well be seen as a restoration of the frame following its prior destruction. This coordination of opposing readings appears to be a general principle in KH’s paintings and is a part of the paintings’ redefinitions of the premises of abstract painting. The irregular outline of the, perhaps somewhat clumsy, figure eight shape can in itself be seen as a type of imperfection in dialogue with for instance speech balloons in comic books. The shape introduces a kind of banality which interferes with the otherwise neutral system and thus confuses our gaze. The “chain” (Untitled, 2012; fig. 3) has a similar function, I think, in as much as it also introduces a form of quasi-figuration which undermines our reading of the painting.
In more or less all of the paintings I have seen by KH the pictorial elements are painted on a white background. This results in an automatic difference between the figures and the ground, where the white plane is experienced as the support on which the other elements rest. On the other hand, a number of the elements are perforated, half-open, so that the white space becomes a part of the shapes rather than simply functioning as a background for them. Untitled, 2012 (fig. 3) differs from the other paintings in that respect because the top section of the picture plane has been painted brown. At first the brown area seems to be on a different level than the white area, alternately in front of or behind it, as either a background or a kind of ‘beam’ across the foreground. But because the other, distinctly flat, elements of the composition have been painted with the same brown color this difference is somehow paradoxically evened out. This coordination of the planes also strengthens the tension and the discordance between the elements. The penciled shape in the painting, which is perhaps at first perceived as a kind of diminished ‘shadow’ of the shape placed directly on top of it (as an opening towards pictorial depth), can also be seen as being on the same level as the other painted elements. It appears to me that this experience of coincidence between planes occurs here because the lower part of the penciled shape touches upon one of the painted elements.
Untitled, 2012 (fig.2) contains three white shapes (with black contours) in a field of grey vertical shapes. The white shapes are all geometric (the lower one is, however, more irregular and tractable) while the grey vertical shapes are distinctly material and textural with clear evidence of the process involved in their making. The painting can be experienced as a discussion and distortion of this distinction between geometry and process, homogeneity and uniqueness. Perhaps one has a spontaneous tendency to look for invariability in the geometric shapes and uniqueness in the traces of paint and process, but a reversal of these concepts seems to be taking place in the work, so that you can in fact see the three shapes as very different from each other whereas the grey shapes seem to have been produced by repeating the same action five times. Another aspect which shatters the stability of the pictorial plane (as well as of our systematizing gaze) is the spot of white paint towards the bottom of the painting and also the traces of the painting process in the top half of it. Both appear to be flaws of some kind or imperfections in the system. Where the white paint surrounding the geometric shapes functions as an obliteration of their contours (and blurs the distinction between figure and ground) these traces of the process are rather active accentuations of the material, each trace becomes a kind of shape in itself. The white color in the painting appears to have two coordinated functions: as both absence and presence.
Precise, homogenous and systematic traits are continuously confronted with singular, textural and temporally changeable aspects, but as an exchange back and forth rather than as an unambiguous movement from one to the other. And yet one can say that the common denominator of these paintings is: clear communication, unclear content. One clearly senses an underlying rationality or determination which then in actuality turns out to be somewhat more irrational (or simply susceptible to coincidences) and not as clearly motivated. The paintings document their own formative process through physical actions and realized ideas, but this takes place at a fundamental distance from expressivity and from spontaneous bodily impulses. According to KH the works are initially created on a computer, in an open and experimental phase, and once the compositions have been decided upon they are transferred to a more physical form such as for instance paint on MDF board. This makes it possible to obtain decisiveness in the expression, a precision in the individual pictorial elements which prevents aberrations and divergences from being read as expressionistic elements but rather lets them appear as pictorial ideas which are the results of thought and of a conscious and controlled work with chance. Additionally there is a material sensibility present in the paintings, in the traces of the process and in the imperfections, but also in the way in which the paint has been applied to the ground, which for me takes them to a place which is completely different from that of digital images. The materiality disturbs the conceptually planned and transparently communicative and makes a more physical experience of the works possible, a dimension which is, of course, completely absent in digital images (and perhaps also more generally speaking in the tradition of concrete art?). The relation between the physical work process and the finished work of art is, however, underplayed in all of the paintings. One could say that instead it is the process as an automated mode of operation which appears as traces and as the experience that the result could in fact have been different.
In this sense the paintings are not static but contain numerous micro-movements, small vibrations or divergences. It is perhaps a general aspect of visual art that the alteration of one’s sensibility which occurs within a work ‘lingers’ when subsequently we turn to face the surroundings. Seen through KH’s pictorial logic the surroundings can appear as constantly fluctuating between system and transformation, a transformation which is visible only because it is articulated in relation to structure, repetition, invariability and apparent perfection. I also think that these paintings open up to a material detail-sensibility, to meanings which are not only located in the composition but also in the shift which takes place in our perception when an element in fact turns out to be something other than what we expected it to be.
Traditionally, classical representational painting is perceived as a window through which the viewer gazes. In opposition to this, all of KH’s paintings emphasize the surface and the plane as an outset and as a pictorial problematic. The experience of these paintings as an emphasized plane rather than as windows is among other things connected to the fact that none of the individual pictorial elements extend beyond the edge of the painting which would create the illusion that the space of the painting is part of a larger space. The paintings also block out depth and perspective in another way when they make the distinction between figure and ground ambiguous. The surface is further emphasized by the fact that the paintings are painted on hard MDF boards on the surface of which the paint rests differently than it would on for instance canvas. The flat character of the paintings is a part of their more direct relations to the surrounding space, the space in which we ourselves are located, corporeally, physically. In this respect they can be perceived as much optically as they can haptically, as contrasts and shifts between material qualities. In the paintings I have seen, it is furthermore characteristic that the moment this ‘surfaceness’ is established it is immediately undermined again, or at least complicated, by different ‘depth-producing’ entities. Perhaps there is also a third kind of spatiality which relates to the paintings’ model-like qualities, a spatiality which concerns the possibility of imagining the scale of the spatial configurations which the paintings depict? But here it becomes decisive that all of these fragments of models are maintained as indeterminate, that the possible references remain open. The outset of a given shape remains unknown and thus the scale always returns to 1:1.
The material, process and physical aspects introduce time as a signifying element in these otherwise non-temporal pictorial systems. Time is present in the references within the paintings to their making, in the imperfections, ‘mistakes’ and coincidences. Time can also be depicted more pictorially, for instance in the movement from a green geometric shape to a green shape next to it which has become semi-organic and soft around the edges. A temporality is also present in the areas which have been hatched with a pencil. These areas seem to replace or repair earlier withered elements - or simply to fill a space where before there was nothing. The penciled areas are placed over an absence, indicating that the pictorial plane was not always as it now appears. As opposed to the aesthetics of a computer program where everything looks finished from the beginning, this temporal material process of producing the paintings entails a continuous questioning of the transparency and finality of images. The elements are decisively present on the pictorial plane but they can also be seen as examples which potentially contain other examples, other placements, shapes and properties.
Thomas Bang’s wall objects are also investigations of areas related to indeterminate states, but the point of departure is fundamentally different; materially, conceptually and biographically (in relation to earlier related works) and not least as a result of the change of genre from painting to sculpture, or from surface to space.
TB’s wall objects all have a relation to theatrical scenery and stage setting. In all of the works there seems to be a continuous movement taking place between objecthood and image, between actuality and imitation. This movement entails that the bodily process discussions which are also present in the objects - their construction and deconstruction of form and imagery, their references to actions, time and chance, the experience of gravity and evanescence – seem throughout the works to be translated through a kind of scenic awareness. In spite of the physical-material presence of the objects – and the fact that they reach out into the space in which our bodies are situated – their tangible reality is simultaneously somehow withdrawn, and a kind of theatre of things is instead being built up, in which what is immediate and present seems to be overlapped with (and possibly rejected by?) interventions and shadows.
The wall objects are all made of plywood sheets and natural or colored pieces of leather which seem to have been cut out from other contexts and then loosely reconnected to form new fragmentary units. The connections appear to be distinctly temporary and in part based on unplanned choices. Wooden templates are glued on top of each other, layer upon layer (or more temporarily held together with round sticks), and in front of/behind these, leather pieces are attached which repeat, dislocate or alter their shapes. The principle behind the organization of the elements is somewhat reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle in which the logic has in part broken down and where the individual pieces are placed on top of each other in layers or dislocated in relation to each other rather than organized side by side to form a fixed image. Here and there you can sense the original sheets from which the fragments must have originated but generally the original shapes seem to fade away. This dispersion of the outset is also connected to the generative logic of these objects in which each template seems to generate new shapes, and where there is a constant overlap of and shift between positive and negative shapes, where the center is at once everywhere and nowhere. You can trace how a template in one part of the work has been the basis of another template in another place but in a wider perspective the transparency of the formative logic seems to disappear in a tangle of movements (of interventions, stratification, activities) back and forth between the elements and planes.
Although the objects are mounted on the wall, and are thus initially connected to pictorial perception, it is necessary in order to appreciate their structure and details to move around them, to bend down, stand on your toes, step to the side etc. They are in other words inextricably connected to bodily movement in the space in front of them. The three wall objects which make up the series Layers of Intervention extend approximately 40 centimeters out from the wall while the other two works, Chain of Small Incidents and Towards Other Possible Conditions, protrude a little less. The work series Layers … is organized vertically whereas the other two objects are horizontal. All of the works (with the exception of Chain of Small Incidents) are approximately in the same scale as the body and relate to the body’s activity radius. The many elements in the works are mounted both next to each other and on different planes, with spaces between them, held together at the top with bolts. The resulting openness, and the vacant spaces within the works, puts an emphasis on the wall on which they are hanging (when you are looking at the works you also constantly see the wall behind them) and an emphasis on the surrounding space, and in this way they demonstrate that none of them have solid inner cores. The spaces between the elements also allow them a double existence as shadows on the elements behind them or on the wall according to the same principles as shadow theatre. The emphasis on the shadows seems to de-materialize the physical side of the objects and in this way contributes to the experience of them as being somehow theatrical.
The accumulated character of the objects, from scraps, fragments and remnants, bears a reference to objects that are missing or to lost contexts. They can be seen as constructions of a new order on the basis of a loss of identity. In this way they introduce the question of whether what has been constructed is in fact an order or whether it should rather be experienced as a stabilized disorder. In my experience the works are chaotic and difficult to grasp, similar to the way in which one might experience a disorganized writing desk. The gaze continues restlessly from one element to the next unable to locate any element that is central in relation to the others. Frames and content are ambiguously entangled. When arranging the elements TB seems to have made no attempt to create a harmonic pictorial space but rather to have created discontinuity and shifts wherever there was a tendency towards symmetry. The compositions are thus not governed by any considerations of harmony but probably rather by attempts to breach a condition of harmony. And yet in some places there is a harmonious tendency, for instance in Layers of Intervention #3 in which the two black leather rectangles at the bottom mirror each other across a vertical axis.
The relation to set design is built up in a number of different ways. It arises, for instance, due to the complex logic of formation in which the point of departure vanishes, as well as by means of the shadow effects in the works which replace material presence with immaterial shapes. A third aspect which leads in a scenic direction is the fact that the outlines of the wooden templates are drawn up with charcoal. At first these lines along the edges can be read as part of the process in as much as they indicate how the templates must have been cut along drawn lines. At the same time, however, it seems significant that these charcoal lines are in fact replacements, reconstructions of the original pencil lines which are no longer there. The charcoal lines are, in other words, a kind of staging of the formative process, or the process turned into an image. Instead of perceiving the process directly, as a material trace, you perceive it indirectly as a reestablished pictorial trace. What you then see is not simply presence or the projection of reality. Essentially what we see is also an absence which has in part been filled up again or replaced. All of the objects contain a loss, a disappearance, a lack of something which the doubling of the templates overlaps but which it also constantly refers back to.
The work Chain of Small Incidents differs from the other works in that it is a chain structure hung between two points on the wall and because the individual elements in the piece are placed in more or less the same distance from the wall. The sequence of the elements in the chain is thus also read differently than that of the other works, from beginning to end, as a kind of continuous transformation or at least interaction (of pauses, transitions, shifts) between the individual links in the chain. Here as well there is a material exchange between wooden templates and leather patches, between hardness and softness, between the bearing constructions, what is hung and what is glued on. Some of the templates are cut in the shape of boards with right angles but apart from these their character is generally one of irregularity. The templates, on the face of which there are drawn grids, could resemble a kind of cartography (i.e. maps of territories) but on the whole they appear to be more liberated and abstract pictorial constructions. Perceptually the grids help indicate that the cut out templates originate from a common original source which has now disintegrated. We are familiar with the chain, as an object, from for instance necklaces, while the curve it describes can perhaps more generally be connected with the area of the decorative and ornamentation. The dialogue with ornamentation is also present in a number of the template shapes and in the artificially colored leather pieces and it is another perspective on the exchange between process and something more theatrical.
A continuous construction and deconstruction of shape seems to be taking place in these works, in a complicated, layered transportation between open shapes and shapes which have stopped halfway between open and closed, as is for instance the case with many of the leather patches. In some places the closed shapes seem to have evolved directly from the vacant spaces in the open shapes but generally it is difficult to make out what has developed from what. The fact that the formative logic is in this way made indecipherable also complicates the temporal nature of the pieces. The wall objects do not appear to proceed logically from A to B, from means to ends, but to jump back and forth – in front of or behind – in a perpetual superposition of arrangements, delineations and dislocations.
One gets the impression of an overall process of fragmentation, followed by commencements of reconstruction which have either stopped halfway or been accepted as fragmentary. Direct and indirect signification appears inextricably intermixed. In this way the works deal with loss of identity while at the same time portraying this loss as a kind of stage set. One might call this artificiality of the works paradoxical in the sense that the wall objects constantly refer to manual labor, physical actions (sawing, cutting, hanging, tearing, drawing …) which in principal belong in an anti-artificial field. But the actions seem to have been overlaid by concealment and stylization which at the same time distances them from bodily expressivity and from the body’s spontaneous exchange with matter. The repetitions of the same shapes throughout the works can for instance be seen as a way of dismantling this expressivity. The same is true of the leather patches, some of which have been cut industrially rather than by TB himself. Every time a shape is repeated it loses some of its spontaneous character and gradually appears rather to be a duplicate copy. The formative process is directly present in the works, nothing is hidden, and yet on some level it is concealed because it is reproduced as an image. The investigations of loss of identity and context in the works could also be experienced as a loss of an expressive-organic physicality in favor of a more schematic or structural body, the body as a stage.
The logic in TB’s wall objects can perhaps ultimately be described as dysfunctional, in the sense that the functional connections within the objects and between their individual elements has generally been short-circuited. There is something grotesque about the accumulation and doubling of the templates in which the reference to the functional purpose of the shapes has been lost. The synthetically colored leather pieces (pink, green, red, black, purple …) hang from the objects as a kind of scraps or remnants and pose a number of unanswered questions with regards to their own history and significance. According to TB the natural, uncolored, leather pieces (and perhaps the untreated wood as well?) are among other things chosen because their color can be associated with human skin. They could be read as detached pieces of skin which have been schematized, abstracted and fitted for some kind of apparently logical yet obscure system. The synthetically colored leather, which makes up approximately half of the leather pieces, functions as an opposing factor and it could be seen as indicating the loss of a natural reference, and as part of the movement away from an immediate process towards a process which involves fabrication. Furthermore, the leather patches function as a kind of upholstery covering the templates and protecting them from our gaze.
Towards Other Possible Conditions is the last work in this series of wall objects. Contrary to the other works this one has an empty space in the middle which makes it function also as a kind of framing of the wall behind it. Another difference is that the elements in the bottom half of the piece are held together with round sticks. This emphasizes that the elements are only hanging there temporarily and could in fact be replaced with other elements. The frame-like character within the works is generally ambiguous because the frames in the pieces are always doubled and placed across, in front of or behind other frames as parts of a complex structure. When considered in relation to the surrounding space, however, the framing is somewhat more stable and this is probably a reason why the works can be perceived as self-reliant, enclosed objects. However, the frame-relation to the surroundings is in fact double, because the objects not only exclude but in fact also fundamentally include their surroundings, in this case the exhibition space. The discussion of theatrical scenery and set pieces in these works is in fact also taking place through a reflection of the fundamentally artificial nature of the art space. What happens when you place a theatre within a theatre? By being semi-transparent these wall objects engage in a fundamental exchange with architecture in general and specifically with the place in which they are hung. They suspend the neutrality of the wall and point to it as a part of a theatrical environment. The loss of identity, the loss of directness, is thus also articulated as a loss within the space in which we are present. The theatrical awareness is essentially not limited to the objects themselves, but rather expands, like a virus, and includes the entire context in which the works are located.
Take an architect’s or an engineer’s drawing, the diagram of a machine or of some building element; here it is not the drawing’s materiality that we see but its meaning, entirely independent of the technician’s performance; in short, we see nothing, if not a kind of intelligibility.
Drawing is a common focal point and logic of signification throughout both KH’s paintings and TB’s wall pieces. The aspect of drawing is present in the works directly, through the use of lines in pencil or charcoal, and it is present pictorially in the references made to templates/stencils, diagrams and grids.
The passage from Roland Barthes cited above points out a central premise for engineering blueprints and related schematic forms, i.e. their anti-materiality and the fact that their sole focus is on communication and intelligibility. It is apparent that both KH and TB relate to schematic drawings as a context for their works, but it is just as apparent that they transform the schematics in different ways. The transformation is taking place on the basis of non-functional lines, pencil hatching, charcoal dust and smudged areas as a result of the work of the hand, impressions of the body’s imperfection and the unpredictability of the circumstances. According to Barthes, another side of drawing is this more intractable bond with physical actions:
… the line, however supple, light, or uncertain it may be, always refers to a force, to a direction; it is an energon, a labor which reveals – which makes legible – the trace of its pulsion and its expenditure. The line is a visible action.
The possibility of reading drawn lines as actions (energy, time, transformation, desire …) has to do with the fact that they originate from movement of the body (and from thought) and makes a new kind of signification possible – which to an extent transgresses both communication and symbolism in favor of what we might, in continuation of Barthes’ perspective, call third meanings; a kind of nonverbal, non-representational significance which we nonetheless experience spontaneously (subconsciously?) when we encounter it. In TB’s wall objects these traces of the body are accentuated as artificial or indirect, although the lines can simultaneously be read as traces of activity. In KH’s paintings drawn elements are primarily present as interventions into and movements of the fixed system, a kind of pollution of the rationality which makes it possible to inscribe your own body and senses in what is otherwise remarkably anti-bodily.
The expressive-organic exchange between body and work appears insistently toned down in both practices in favor of more automatic forms of process based work in which the material itself or the applied tools/methods in part determine the result. It is perhaps relevant in connection with this to discuss whether both practices in fact revolve around the disappearance of subjective expression in favor of another kind of expressivity which occurs more coincidentally and which is the result of an open experimental pragmatic approach - or which is perhaps primarily present as signs, lost reality.
The emphasis on the surface in both practices also entails that there is no inner core, that in principle everything is visible. In TB’s objects you can literally see that there is nothing behind the elements (apart from the wall). KH’s paintings emphasize their own flatness, and perspective and depth are generally ignored. This dismissal of an organic core is also effectively a disconnection from an expressionistic logic of signification (in which meaning comes from within) in favor of signification which arises on the surface from one moment to the next. The connection to drawing in the works perhaps primarily intensifies the sense of possibilities which one can experience in front of them; a sense that the pictorial elements, fragments, remnants of other shapes could also be placed differently – whereas the more romantic side of drawing, connected to expressivity and spontaneity, is undermined or exposed throughout as an artificial layer.
Both practices are anchored in, and seem to get much of their energy from, paradoxes, collapses and conversions of logic. Perhaps it is also fundamentally paradoxical to explore drawing through painting and sculpture because it brings about a vast number of differences in and distortions of significance. A line in a painting or on an object is in the end radically different from a line drawn on a piece of paper. In this respect it is not only drawing as a medium which is redefined in these works but also, reversely, the concepts of painting, sculpture and abstraction which paradoxically become more precise while becoming less definite.