Renée van de Vall
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Renée van de Vall (ENG)
Catalogue text Fielding, Portalen, Hundige (DK) 1997

At the edges of vision
It seems so simple.

You open your eyes and the world lies before you. There it lies ready in all it’s riches to be seen by us – sharply defined, all its bits and pieces ordered in space. The elements of the visible world lie alongside each other, above or below each other, each stone in its place within the transparent field of our vision. Never confused, never present one moment but not the next, never one moment more so and the next moment less in the way that smells or sounds swell, evaporate and merge into an inextricable mesh. The visible world is clear and its parts distinct. It knows its place and keeps to it. You’re free to move through it: the visible remains available but never intrudes in the way smells and sounds can. What you smell or hear comes inside, the visible remains on the outside. If you turn around, or close your eyes again, its gone.

But is that all?

Art sometimes teaches us something else. It isn’t then about this clear visibility but the elusive moment in which the visible shapes itself. It’s about the obstinate life that plays at the edge of your field of vision, the twilight zone between your attention and that which escapes it, between that which disappears and that which just about appears to you. With every glance there is a fraction of a second in which the outlines have to focus themselves, in which a patch of colour has to crystallize into a configuration and take on the identity of the recognized. For this single fraction of a second the field of vision is not transparent but dense, tangible and loaded. This fraction of a second, during which vision has a momentary hesitation, holds implications for the crystal clarity of the rest. Because, sometimes we see more or better at the moment we think we are not seeing as well.

We know so well what we see: that the sky is blue or grey and that clouds are white; that the roofs of houses are brick-red and triangular; and that cars are many different colours and their polished metal shines. But if, as I’m writing this, my thoughts stray, contemplating the next sentence, my keyboard is no longer hard, solid and plastic; it swims before my eyes, becomes blurred and vibrates on the blue table top. Its outermost edges curl slightly upwards while my vision becomes absorbed by the luminous surface of the computer screen. I know my computer is a grey, rectangular thing in front of me. But as I work my vision becomes fused with the screen. The jumps my thoughts make, the movements of my fingers and the small shocks on the screen are transmitted through each other like waves through liquid space. Ant then a thought grabs a free rein. For a moment I forgot to be me, a philosopher with an assignment and a deadline. For a moment my thoughts, my surroundings and myself become one, my computer and I become a small, round, pale grey and blue luminous universe. Until I wake up with a shock and blink – a computer screen, a keyboard and a table, once again they become things separated from each other and me. Once again I know where I am. But was it not precisely in that immemorial moment of absence that the world rearrange itself and a new idea came into being?

There is no other thinker who has so exactly and minutely introduced doubt to the obviousness of the visible as Maurice Merleau-Ponty. One of the aims of his work on perception was to do justice to the mystery of the visible. He describes how seeing and the simultaneously come about in mutual intertwinement. The world does not lie waiting to be observed by me from a distance, but forms an reforms itself through the way I deal with things. And although in observing it, my relation to the visible world is in its essence meaningful, it is not transparent or surveyable. First and foremost there is always my body through which I see, from out of which I see, and which I see-though never in the same way as other things. And the person that sees is not the “I” in the act – isolated from things, registering consciousness. In seeing I inhabit the things and they inhabit me. Visibility remains a mystery, even in this fact alone. And nowhere has this mystery been so systematically examined and with such concentration, as in painting. Every painting examines the visible world, questions the mountain on how it shapes itself into a mountain in our vision. A painter has to constantly ask this, in the way Cézanne repeatedly had to paint Mont Ste. Victoire, because no answer – no painting – is ever conclusive.

Each artist poses his or her own questions. Merleau-Ponty’s painters were Cézanne, Klee, Matisse and the Cubists. And even if their work has not lost its significance, painters today would phrase their questions differently. The parameters of painting – of fine art in general – have changed. Fine art has learnt to put its appeal to autonomy in perspective and to reflect upon the institutional and social context of its research. The visual culture – of which painting is a part – has changed, increasingly becoming a media culture of technologically produced images that can endlessly be reproduced. Where visual experience has largely become a ‘media-ized’ experience, the demand for the visible will be different and perhaps more pressing; and so too the demand for painting.

The urgency is sooner reinforced than repudiated by the doubt we have come to cherish in relations to an unmediated experience of the visible. This doubt is different now from the doubt of Merleau-Ponty’s day, which doesn’t mean we have to reject his thinking. After all, the more aware we are of the way in which our vision is programmed by the codes of representation embedded in society, the more pressing becomes the need to explore the limits of these codes. The more the closed-circuit of images appears to shut itself off, the more important it becomes to look within its margins for another way to visualize experience, or to create new experiences, which in the end is the same thing. This is the silent politics of this art. Its aim is not a nostalgic return to an original, direct visibility, but rather, to open up the possibilities of seeing differently those things that seem fixed. And even if it no longer believes that an unmediated vision is possible, the idea of such vision, like a ‘useful fiction’, can provide direction for research into such possibilities.

The work of the artists who have come together in this exhibition does not enclose itself within the four corners of a canvas. It goes beyond them and intervenes in the visible world. Sometimes this exists as a small intervention, a small blob of colour like a playful footnote, that cancels out the neutrality of the space while going almost unnoticed. Sometimes it is a painting in which the forms and background cause each other to shift, disrupting the fixed determinedness of the visible world. Sometimes it’s a stream of colour, a powerful movement solidified into tangible material, in which time is involved in the becoming visible. Yet the image still works in space, revealing how things become visible and making the viewer’s vision tangible to him or herself. What is refreshing about this work is the lightness of touch with which this happens. The work emanates pleasure: you can be serious without losing your sense of humour.

Bodil Nielsen’s paintings demonstrate what can happen when your vision loses control over the colours and forms. She paints strong, penetrating pictures using striking colours which would be fixed and definite if one of the elements were missing. The same applies to the forms. Through being combined they release each other: the forms lose their fixed position in relation to each other and the background; the colours lose their density, making the others transparent. There is something in these paintings whereby, despite being very emphatically present, they repeatedly elude every attempt to survey them. They disrupt your vision, thereby creating the openness that is necessary for another, less distant and more introspective way of looking. ‘A blindness that is transparent; the clairvoyance you have mist’, as she describes it herself.

Bodil Nielsen’s paintings allow you to physically feel what it is to become visible. The fanciful forms of Milena Bonifacini’s paintings are immediately present, spontaneous, blinding and exuberant. It is only later that you feel their vulnerability. All recognisability is avoided, as is every point of anchorage in a composition. Every line becomes a form with a movement, the beginning and end of which you don’t know. Milena Bonifacini’s paintings are just as elusive as Nielsen’s, but where the latter plays with different depths in the surface, the former banishes all depth. Her work consistently chooses the immediate visible presence, a radiating presence, and I only later wondered to myself how this was possible.

The visible doesn’t always reveal itself in one go, but opens itself up layer by layer. A form can hesitate, creep up behind your attention and stubbornly stay there waiting until you notice it. Sometimes you have to be in the space with it for a while, and not look at it, before it will allow you to see it. I saw Wapke Feenstra’s hexagonal canvas, and continued to see it as I walked around, had a cup of coffee and talked with Wapke. It remained constantly present in the background. And, slowly but surely, from behind the translucent canvas with the daisies, the image of the stretcher gradually grew stronger. This part of stretcher had an obstinate presence which I sensed more physically than visually: but who says seeing only happens with the eyes? Who says the visible world is limited to external appearances? The recognizable exterior, the image as a picture that refers to the familiar world, dissolves into a tangible presence of colour and material.

Wapke Feenstra’s canvases are both images and spatial objects at the same time. They give the layered nature and time of the image a material form. One could also describe Marian Breeveld’s paintings in terms of space and time. He canvases are things made from paint which – despite being static objects – appear to move constantly. Their character changes with the fall of the light and your own movements as the viewer. At first they seem closed, almost grey surfaces: one painting mat and shrouded, the next reflective and shiny. Yet step a little closer and the surface opens up. The colours come out of the layer of paint. The paint presents itself as a tangible material that flows in swirls and eddies across the canvas, deposing its traces at the edges – or the banks? – of the picture. Your eyes follow the streams of colour and sink further and further away into the depths the betray – depths that are far deeper than the layers of paint you know about. How can the visible world be outside us if our eyes can be dragged into search of colour?

We inhabit the visible world and it inhabits us. Each of our movements causes it to change in appearance, each of its change is reflected in us. Some paintings slip into the dance of the visible by making themselves part of their surroundings: not primarily to comment on a tradition – even if reflection can never be absent – but as a visible game with space. The surprise caused by a colour you didn’t expect; the subtle placing in perspective of apparently incontrovertible architecture; or the casual violation of the seriousness of a public space. All these qualities are found in this work, constantly providing an opening in a world that is too fixed.

What is inside and what is outside? What are the dividing lines that separate vision from the image, the image from its surroundings, the surroundings from the outside world? The outlines that are supposed to keep things in their place lose their power in Hans Holten’s installation. Strictly speaking, the installation comprises a rectangular, transparent, plastic sheet on one of the exhibition space’s glass walls with a spotlight directed towards it. When looked at less literally, the limits of the work become unclear. Are the windows, the window frames, the space inside the hall and the space outside which is lit by the spotlight, all part of the work? The glass that separates the exhibition space from the open space outside is simultaneously made visible and relative. That which is transparent becomes condensed, that which is impenetrable becomes porous in a piece which is in fact made from light. One can’t say where the piece is – inside, outside or through the glass. And where the walls can no longer indicate a place for our vision. Where are we standing, where are we when we see something?

In the margins of vision, in the transition zone between inside and outside, the image gains a freedom and piercingness it doesn’t have when it’s at the field of vision. This is also true of the orchestration that we call an exhibition.

Leni Hoffman’s strongly coloured, plasticine interventions take the exhibition outside and bring the outside world in. They are not just there for those who visit the exhibition, but also for passers-by, people driving their cars past the Kulturhus and pedestrians on their way to the shopping centre. The looks of passers-by, aimed at something else, for a moment becomes the looks of viewers. On the street than runs past the building they see the orange of the plasticine standing out against the asphalt and the grass. The work inserts itself into its surroundings and at the same time makes them its own by turning the road and the lampposts into surfaces and lines. Inside the covered passage that leads into Kulturhus, coloured surfaces – some mat and some shiny – create a composition with the windows and the metal supports in the glass wall that frame the entrance. Both these pieces, individually and together make places of passageways. They change the character of the space and thereby too the nature of the time involved with the visible.

Kathrin Böhm’s work places itself even further outside the exhibition and inside the daily life of Greve. What does a turquoise circle on the ceiling do to a grey, somewhat neglected bus station – a place where no one is at home and no one enjoys being? People waiting for a bus are nowhere: no longer here and not yet there. The circle on the other hand is very much here and now. It has a presence that becomes even stronger precisely because the place does not demand attentive observation. It has no meaning or function, it is simply a coloured circle. But colour is light and space, and has a strength that can survive the concrete.

It is almost as if the work of Hans Holten, Leni Hoffmann and Kathrin Böhm do to the exhibition as a whole what the other pieces do on a smaller scale. They step outside the perimeters of their allocated place and shift something in the organization of the visible world, both inside the exhibition and outside in the daily world of Greve. Through this they strengthen the unruliness of the other pieces. In these too the range of the work stretched beyond the edges of the object and further than the walls of Portalen. They investigate the visible and seeing by effecting something: their freedom. You have no control over them, the music of the light and its reverberations, the frills of colour at the edges of your vision, the life of the forms if you look away for a moment. Between one glance and the text, anything is possible.

The pleasure of the obstinate, bulging coloured forms by Damien Cabanes lies in this in-between space. They call for comparisons and descriptions which can never adequately define them. Are they paintings? They are too much objects for that. Are they sculptures? For this they are too much about what happens on the surface. Are they landscapes? For this they are too regular. Are they abstract patterns? For this the forms and colours are not repeated quite often enough. Are they some kind of mud-pie of the sort children make? For this they are grouped too regularly and are too emphatically exhibited. But they are just a bit too cheerful, and their presentation too frayed to pass as serious works of art. They are quite simply what they are, but what is marvellous is that this can never be ordinary.

Freedom is a big word. It refers to political developments and social structures, to powers a single work of art cannot live up to. But the word freedom also holds meaning on a smaller scale: there where images are solidified, where meaning is frozen, where the fear of confusion paralyses your thoughts. On the small scale of individual experience, art has a mission that goes beyond the individual. This art reveals something. It cultivates the hiatuses in the visible world and make vistas of them. It frees things – and me – from their perimeters. It frays the separation between mine and thine. It brings the imagination back into view. Never totally, utterly or completely and everything: always just a little. But a little is the beginning of a lot.