Landscapes of conservation. To be conserved? - Bart Cassiman
by Bart Cassiman
Green easter, 1997
Landscapes of conservation. To be conserved? How does man order, classify, document and control his own (past) history? How do we deal with the visual remainders of the theory of evo-lution? As a consequence of evolution (on the pretext of progress) and our so-called historical consciousness, in which to many of us the past is still an unchanging factuality, today we can assimilate, systematise, qualify, classify, demysti-fy, conceive and explain everything. At least, that is what many of us (still) believe. The fact that this Song of Songs of the human ratio still catches on, notwithstanding the post-Modernist consciousness of the last decades, is in fact merely evidence of boundless hubris. These statements constitute the points of departure for the artistic preoccupations of Carla Klein. Her interest in our past history and the ways we deal with it and illustrate it, is double and ambiguous. Unscrupulous cold rationality is at odds with the mysteriousness which Klein experiences time and again on her frequent visits to museums of natural history. As a result, her canvases bear a powerful repre-sentation of the duality between her personal “observations” and experiences and the so-called objectivising approach of history. Visualised in a poignant pictorial reality, they raise penetrating questions as to the sense and the methods of conservation and presentation. They face us with what we would dryly call evolution, with our (an)organic (past) history, with the embryos that generated the pedigree of humanity. At least, that is what it looks like, and that is indeed also what it is, in part. But on a second, more thorough “reading”, one notices that Klein’s paintings, especially the more recent ones, show hardly any of the items to which museums of natural history or pet shops owe their names. What we have here, are the precisely arranged and neatly ordered rows of eternal resting-places (jars and show-cases, aquaria and terraria), the man-made dis-play cases which function as protagonists. In other words, only the envelope, the biotope of dead and conserved life, in a hardly definable void, occupies a central place. The construction of these superimposed empty display cases and the scantily lit glass containers at once provoke an association with blocks of flats and the inherent alienation that is so typical of these living blocks in our suburbs, and the way we, as a species, organise (and order?) our daily lives. The point of departure is still there, but at the same time it is going through a process of mutation. The pet shop is not only a pet shop, but also an allegory of the contemporary condition humaine.
Green easter, 1997
UNTITLED - Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Director and Chief Curator Aspen Art Museum
What is the difference, one could ask, between being present at a site that is pictured and looking at that landscape via a painting? Earlier this year, Carla Klein traveled to the United States in order to make a series of paintings. Driving in Utah and especially the Salt Lake Desert region, she shot hundreds of photographs using digital cameras as well as a wide angle camera. She decided to visit the area on the basis of photographs and pictures that reminded her of the paintings she had produced of the landscape in Finland. Klein experienced Utah especially through her cameras. The physical mode of vision inherent in this process allows and promotes distance. And it is from a distance that things often become visible.
Klein paints directly from her photographs. Asked how she chooses the photos from which to paint, she indicates their possession of a hard to describe ‘special quality’. She not only prints her own photographs in the darkroom but also manipulates the image, changing the colours while processing in order to produce the desired image Klein is one of an impressive group of contemporary artists, including Peter Doig and Wilhelm Sasnal, who employ photographs as the source material and basis of their paintings. Sasnal, like Klein, leaves out much of the original image in his paintings. He concentrates on formal elements and removes all of the discordant surroundings. Dig paints from postcards, newspapers, popular films and often from his personal photographs, whether taken or found by him, or a friend or family member. He ‘uses the photo like a map, but not as tracing, Just as a way of giving me a foot into a kind of reality that I want’ (1) Klein stated, ‘I use photographs as a basis for my paintings and you should feel that in the final result. The photograph is, however, in itself not a reliable representation of reality, but an image with a reality of its own that I can put to my own use, can manipulate… Reality very much depends on your point of view.(2) Photographs are, of course, a way by which to retain memory. How else can a moment be remembered in one’s own mind, recorded eternally? People exclaim: ‘I do not ever want to forget this moment’, while snapping away. It is even possible that reliance on memory capacity decreases as recording devices that assist with remembering increase.
Klein is inherently direct in the conversion of the selected and modified photographs into paintings; all of the processing characteristics that appear in the photographs get painted: finger prints, hairs and splashes of water. The horizontal band of white often found at the base of her paintings portrays the photographic paper. It doubles as grounding or base for the image and also provides an abstract element. It is within these conscious choices that the artist highlights the essence of her practice: when looking at a Klein painting, what you see is a painting, not a photograph. This is not to say that her works lack the magic of illusion as, in fact, Klein aims for a duality. The viewer encounters, is seduced and ultimately astonished by the combination of severe borders – achieved by using masking tape to get perfectly straight lines – and the painterly variability that reveals the artist’s hand.
Often stark, Klein’s compositions contain deep perspective and hold a single architectural element or series of abstracted forms. She paints natural and manmade landscapes: airports, swimming pools, environments that are completely known and non-natural. She chooses places that are ‘inhabited on a transitory, rather than on a permanent basis Spaces that provide a prolonged experience’.(3) For her MATRIX show, Klein began a new body of work concentrating on the natural environment. These landscapes, along with all of her earlier works, lack human presence. As such, there is an implied loneliness to the interiors and a perceived freedom to the exteriors.
Klein is intrigued with the notion of bending reality. Her works question how far something can be stretched and still appear real and recognisable. Johanna Burton wrote, What’s weirdly compelling about them is how alive they seem even when they aren’t occupied – when their geometry is allowed, momentarily, to waver’ .(4) At times, upon close inspection, the image falls apart. Klein explained that she used to be engaged with the conversion of small images to life size. She realised, though, that we do not know what size nature is; for example, how big is the Salt Lake Desert really? She is drawn to the abstraction that can be located within a landscape – that the same site can be simultaneously flat and deep. Klein has painted several images of tunnels. In them there is an emotional resonance that alludes to an entry barrier, a force that nonetheless compels one to enter. Here the painted space is both opened and closed.
Klein employs a limited, Minimalist palette. She paints in oil and enamel using primarily black and shades of white and blue. She occasionally uses some green and yellow in smaller elements. Her process is related to the grey paintings of Gerard Richter, a talented and multifaceted artist who moves adroitly between varied painting styles and photography and is as masterful at one as at the next. He, along with Dutch master of light and intimacy Johannes Vermeer, site-specific environmental artist Walter de Maria, and Barnett Newman, has been cited by the artist as an influence.
Klein often creates complementary works. Included here is a triptych of sorts, which features the sky and the horizon line. The cloud formations are dynamic and filled with a communicated motion. It is possible that within them the presence of the divine could be fathomed. Critic Philip Peters wrote, ‘In the end, I believe that Carla Klein’s work is about this about the risk of uncertainty, about the meaning of meaninglessness, about the critical moment in which nothing is sure, about a constant state of flux, the condition of art and of the artist’.(5)
All of Klein’s paintings are untitled. One could infer, as they are nameless, that they are unidentifiable and subsequently unknowable. The other extreme is that they are instead universal, ubiquitous, not requiring a name. Due to their primarily large scale, which fills the peripheral vision of the viewer, and the otherworldly color schema, the absence of nomenclature implies their location in the unknowable. There are no names because none are available. The distance between being in a place painted by Klein and being in front of a painting of Klein is a melancholic journey into a deep and sacred space. Those who boldly enter may emerge forever altered.
The feelings of incomprehensibility and true awe generated by pristine and sublime environments are inaccessible while solely living in an urban environment. On vacation, countless photographs are taken of requisite natural icons: waterfalls, mountains, salt flats. Again, the intention is to retain somehow these images as other impressions will replace these more peaceful and inspiring ones upon returning home the mundane rushes in – often harshly – to replace the idyllic.
No one wants to sit through someone else’s memories: slideshows, home movies, PowerPoint presentations, and photo albums. This reluctance is based on a] they have their own (even if they will never look at those again), and b] photographic images of nature (and other images devoid of people) just do not convey the real feeling. Everyone knows that ‘You just had to be there’. When Klein translates this type of image into a painting, however, it is transformed. She paints that same or similar scene over and over again. The details become more accessible and apparent by looking at the subtle differences among theimages. For example, the angle of the earth where it connects to the point of the car – pictured here only as an abstract black form (the dashboard) – is thirty instead of ninety degrees. Each individual manifestation retains its uniqueness and allure. There is within our daily lives the repetition of events, actions, and locations. Much like the life of the character played by Bill Murray, the protagonist, in the popular film ‘Groundhog Day’, some or all things must be done repeatedly – until they are perfected. Klein paints and paints and we, the viewers, look and look. It is here within this process of looking that we can learn to see. There, within the details, is something that can be termed grace.
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Director and Chief Curator
Aspen Art Museum
1. Adrian Searle,’I’ve never been canoeing on a toxic swamp. (A conversation with Peter Doig)’ Blotter (Berlin and London Contemporary Fine Arts and Victoria Miro), 1995, p 10
2. 2 P. van der Lugt , K Baars, ‘Carla Klein and Charlotte Schleiffert’, Attitude
3 (Stadsgalerij Heerlen), 1998, pp 7 – 113 Micaela Giovannotti, “Carla Klein’ 3. ‘Tema Celeste: contemporary art’, October/December, 2000, p 79
4. Johanna Burton, ‘Carla Klein’, Time Out New York, January 10-17, 2002, p. 625
5. Philip Peters, “Heeft het schilderij ‘ Green Easter (Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle) 1997, pp 37-47
The Secondary Brilliance of the Journey Begins: On Recent Work by Carla Klein - Johanna Burton
by Johanna Burton
Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated. Admittedly, there is the primal shock of the deserts and the dazzle of California, but when this is gone, the secondary brilliance of the journey begins, that of the excessive, pitiless distance, the infinity of anonymous faces and distances, or of certain miraculous geological formations, which ultimately testify to no human will, while keeping intact an image of upheaval. This form of travel admits of no exceptions: when it runs up against a known face, a familiar landscape, or some decipherable message, the spell is broken: the amnesic, ascetic, asymptotic charm of disappearance succumbs to affect and worldly semiology.
Recently, Carla Klein took her show on the road, which is to say that a number of the paintings she has produced in the last months are based on snapshots made while driving (or, alternatively, while being driven, as the case usually seems to be) across the United States. These source photographs, as they may be somewhat imprecisely labeled, are of the variety with which many of us have filled our own rolls—hurtling cross-country down sparse, baked, two-lane rural highways, the light catching the pavement just so, each click of the camera an attempt to capture another overwhelming, perpetually unfolding vista, to document what it feels like to be there and there and there. (These instantaneously occupied, ultimately interchangeable, points of reference seem, at the time, completely, if ungraspably, unique.) The landscape, so endlessly fascinating, morphing every instant into something new—somewhere new—is impossible to describe, so we do what we can to capture its flickering material likeness on film. Atmosphere and terrain are filtered through (and framed by) the windshield, that thin glass membrane shielding travelers’ skin from the elements while allowing their eyes to pick up every visual facet, every crisp ray of sun- or moon-light. Never mind where you’re on the way to, forget the concept of destination. This is, counterintuitive to our usual goal-oriented tasks, all about the journey. Road trips may be understood as one of the last truly Romantic acts, pilgrimages whose end-points exist only in the middle and whose dearly held relics amount to little more than fingernail clippings: referring to but indelibly severed from their living contexts.
The method of taking pictures that necessarily ensues is a bit like shooting blanks, and not just in the metaphoric sense. You may come away with hundreds, even thousands of images that en masse are meant to offer some clue, some sustainable evidence, as to where you’ve been or, better, what it was like to not be anywhere exactly and yet to feel precisely, if rather schizophrenically, located. Nevertheless, fresh back from the Photomat, nine times out of ten, the photographs are not only unspectacular, but they are also virtually empty: long expanses of creeping horizon-line, with colors below and above bleached uniform brown and blue and white, the road ahead no longer an animated being but instead a stationary, ossified thing. There are hardly any details, save a stray road sign or your own rearview mirror, and these were not really what you were looking at, not really what you saw, even if they were the most consistent markers in your field of vision. This pile of snaps, spread across your kitchen table in their multiplicity (you’ve pawed through them already, thinking there would simply have to be one transcendental, breathtaking image but found you were wrong), suggests a strange approximation. They look like frames, empty frames whose content has somehow managed to partially slip away from the inside. It was there, you can still sense traces of it even if you can’t say what it was. The absence of access to all those now past presents is all the more acute because they are nearly palpable in their presence.
But this is, of course, the nature of photography as Barthes so elegantly postulated it—as bodying forth the “that-has-been.” This conception of Barthes’s has been endlessly cited, for it succinctly expresses all that photography is and, for that matter, all that it isn’t. That is to say, the photograph can only show what is gone; it cannot, by terms of its own material and temporal limitations, show what stands in the present. It is precisely a marker of what came before (before in time, before the lens, before the thumping tires of your speeding car). Unless, that is, one considers absence its own kind of presence. Or, taking things a step further, unless one considers absence something waiting to be filled, as not only a kind of inverted presence but as a kind of (shaky) future anteriority—a “this-will-be.” Looking at all these surprisingly empty frames (a.k.a. road trip landscapes), one can nearly will the latter idea into plausibility. There is nothing to see and yet one keeps looking, squinting deeply all the same, combing the 3 X 5 rectangle for some clandestine kernel to emerge, like a pearl sifted from sand. Besides, Barthes has a second way of describing photography: “the Intractable,” he calls it. This is hardly a word that conjures the fleeting, the ephemeral, the “always already deferred” that places the content of every photograph squarely in past. Derived from the Latin intractabilis [un + treatable], “intractable” implies obstinacy and unruliness, a flat-out refusal to behave in any prescribed or conventional manner. So, while the photograph is often heralded for its fragility, its ephemerality, its barely-thereness, one should also consider that such slipperiness stands not only for the vulnerability of the medium but as its strength (and stubbornness) as well.
It is precisely the stubbornness of the photograph that compels Carla Klein’s use of it. She is, quite importantly, not a photographer, though she more often than not takes her own photographs; she is, rather, a painter who works from and with the photographic image, complicating ideas of direct representation exponentially. Of course, painting from photographs is nothing new, and the fraught relationship between the mechanical and the expressive; the “objective” and the intuitive; the reductive and the additive has been (arguably overly) thought through for decades. But these are dialectics that exist almost as a matter of course in Klein’s work, which forcefully contends with painting’s hearty historical baggage without taking it as sole content, and with photography’s immanent relationship to lack as an unexpected pregnant possibility. Quite stunningly, Klein focuses on painting as a means to conjure back into the photograph what has seeped out of it. This is not to say that painting operates as a positive where photograph acts as negative; quite the contrary. It is to speculate that the flicker between photography and painting, in Klein’s hands, offers up access to a quite liminal space and time—one that is neither now nor then; here nor there but somewhere suspended between them. And this is not to suggest that her version is imprecise: Klein’s are crystalline visions of quiet, perhaps even mute, exactitude—spaces overflowing with their own emptiness.
The fact that these are images at once viscerally familiar and yet elusive of easy linguistic identification speaks to the epigram for this essay, where Baudrillard compares driving across America to amnesia (another breed of empty-fullness were there ever one). “After the primal shock,” he writes, “the secondary brilliance of the journey begins.” Secondary brilliance, which is at once gorgeous and ghastly, split-second and interminable, casts a kind of spell, one which, web-like, renders every mile of landscape into something new, something “discovered” only at the very moment it is destroyed, literally passed over and by—“obliterated,” Baudrillard calls it. His use of the term obliteration is far from accidental: Its 17th-century Latin etymology can be decoded as “against script” or, more loosely, “effacing letters.” Amnesia, then, can be understood, at least in Baudrillard’s simulacral world, as a temporary suspension not simply of memory but of memory’s relative, linguistic operations. (Pace Saussure: “In language there are only differences.”) Amnesia disallows meaning born of comparison, since it wipes clean the slate of prior experience and leaves only empty frames of referencelessness—much like those offered by Klein.
Klein’s road trip was largely conducted on the West coast, though it’s hard to tell by looking at her paintings. None of Baudrillard’s “primal shock of the desert” or “dazzle of California” is recorded here, at least not in the usual ways. Instead, Klein turns forcefully to what Baudrillard calls “secondary brilliance,” which locates itself precisely in areas, on the canvas and off, that appear to be quite vacant and yet emit a sort of low visual hum, putting into question any gauge of absence. Klein’s hum can first be heard by way of her palette: cool, watery grays, greens, blues, and whites that have neatly embodied glistens, gleams, shimmers, and translucencies since Dutch still-life painters used them in the 17th century. (An artist from the Netherlands herself, Klein is an interesting example of a painter who renders the landscape—both natural and manmade—its own version of nature morte.) The works seem to chart times of day, for when looking attentively at them, one discerns that the brightness, angle, and opacity of light vie for attention with any object bathed in its paint-concocted rays. (Although, interestingly, for all the precision of light, season is often confounded. Is that surface, cut by lines of past travel, bleached desert sand or, rather, thickly crusted snow? Can the sharpness of light there be attributed to warmth or chill?) While such shifts might initially be taken for “mood,” the impulse to read drama or intrigue into things is abruptly done away with. There is no narrative here, no characters, no grounding in the luxuries of theatrically endowed premise. If the sky is bright, it is likely due to no more than the way the sun shines midday in the heat of summer; if it is dark, maybe the time of season is early fall, perhaps there is a storm on the horizon, or night is simply falling. Nothing more. Pathetic fallacy marks the naval-gazing way we typically understand the world without stepping outside of the human economy. Yet, Klein’s canvases, which obstinately focus on all that we normally disregard (all those insignificant details that frustrate us in our own “empty” pictures) refuse to mirror us back to ourselves in this way.
And yet, for works so “empty,” there is so much there. Simply put, these are landscapes, clearly modeled on photographs taken while in a car. Sometimes, there is only a slight hint of the windshield or side-window, a subtle glint marking its transparent presence. Other times, the interior of the car asserts itself more aggressively, and one’s eye is directed to equipment (a video camera?) propped on the dashboard, or to the reflections caught in the rearview mirror, or to the curves of the metal that make up a side- window frame. But no matter the precise set-up of the painting, there is a kind of dialogue induced, formally rather than theatrically, between the inside and outside of the car, and between the moment of the shot’s capture and the painted format in which it now finds itself. As much as these images lean and even press on definitions of the photographic, they slip into flirtations with the filmic as well. The paintings, for all their sparse expanses, are often executed on enormous canvases whose length is some twice their height and which nevertheless give the feel of “the-original-presentation-has-been-formatted-for-your-television” scaling. This is because, no matter how large, they still capture a mere fraction of the world’s “original” dimensions, regardless of the fact that they are actually modeled on photographs small enough to be held in the palm of your hand.
Such fluidity of scale manifests in a number of ways. Not only do the paintings look as though they are simultaneously smaller and larger than what they “actually” represent (i.e. the “real” site and the photograph of it), they also shuttle, rather in the mode of the duck-rabbit game, between abstraction and figuration (though here without any figures). As much as the landscapes themselves can, at a glance, be described as sparse, the paintings themselves, qua paintings, can only be called lush, full, even gorged—the manifestation of emptiness incongruously achieved. There is no confusing the surface of the work with a photograph, no matter where one stands in a room. (If there is anything photorealistic here, it is, ironically enough, only the attention to what in the photographic is normally disregarded for not having enough “picturesque” detail—something that shows us how painting-like we demand our photographs to be.) Scale, or the sliding of scale, is something Klein negotiates with agility, skillfully and insistently pairing the abstract with the representational. So many of her driving shots could be superficially aligned with Ab-Ex compositions, with their bands of condensed color suggesting a confluence of thick materiality and spiritual escape from the worldly. Yet, such comparisons, while delicious (one of Klein’s nearly black-and-white interior car shots is a perfectly secularized Motherwell) are limiting. After all, the notion of the autonomous object is antithetical to Klein, whose own canvases reveal their contingency baldly: why else paint what could only be photo borders along the peripheries of a painting?
It is helpful, in this vein, to narrate a quick teleology for Klein’s career, which has always complicated and conjured the relationship: empty/full. Indeed, since the beginning, she has stealthily pursued the ways in which, when one thing disappears, another appears on the proverbial horizon—however initially invisible to the eye (secondary brilliance often goes unnoticed). While she is known for presenting public places eerily divorced from the public that ostensibly occupies them, some of her earliest works did allow for bodies of a kind: those found in Natural History Museums (taxidermied, pinned, petrified) or morgues. But even then, one could see the bodies as little more than (emptied) vessels themselves, and it was clear that her interest wandered to surfaces of presentation: panes of glass and wood structures that so easily could be seen as frames. Thus, every display case was already isolating its contents into potential photographs and paintings, into representations before they were even thought as such. So, why bother with the contents, Klein seemed to decide, if they are the given? The artist went on to paint terrariums (without occupants), swimming pools (without swimmers), modern houses (nobody home), bridges (untraversed by cars), sports stadiums (between events), televisions (switched off), airport terminals (planes circling rather than clearly departing or arriving), and entryways for city subways like those in every metropolis, save the fact that these are (disquietingly) deserted. Klein’s work has often been discussed in terms of alienation, and particularly with relation to the kind of spaces to which she seems most drawn (Marc Augé has famously nominated similar sites “non-places”): liminal spaces devoid of cultural histories or lasting social engagement. And yet, for all the satisfying melancholy of Klein’s images and the way they do, in fact, approach a certain breed of globalized space, they do more than make visual comment on a world increasingly filled (with bodies) and emptied (of meaning). Whether a tiny terrarium (which painted just so looks to be a monstrous modernist construction) or an enormous stadium (which painted just so looks to be a feather-light model), Klein has been painting so many versions of landscape, fleeting instances captured by the camera and then re-thought, re-invested by the paintbrush.
If it is somewhat more obvious to see how Klein’s works can be thought in terms of landscape with her newest canvases—those that I’ve been calling her “road trip” paintings—consider the ways in which every one of her paintings documents a place of some type of passage. For one reason or another (and for one length of time or another), one is always moving through, crossing, traversing, or visiting the sites she focuses on (even the homes we occupy, the offices we work in, can be thought this way). Yet, rather than simply reading these as places we feel no real connection to or, worse, that effect a kind of post-post-modern ennui, one can think them through more ambivalently. Indeed, to consider Klein a contemporary landscape painter is to recognize the emptiness of her paintings but to see in that emptiness a particular fullness, too. Her skies, often filled with lavish clouds that perpetually threaten to turn into brush-strokes, are breathtaking examples of so-little-so-much. Barthes, who spoke almost exclusively of people as represented in photographs, did have this to say about photographs of landscape: “Looking at these landscapes of predilection, it is as if I were certain of having been there or of going there.” Here, Barthes allows a strange confluence of the “that-has-been” and what I earlier called a “this-will-be,” a bringing together of the past and an as-yet undetermined future. And in Klein’s landscapes—by which I mean all her work—this sense of a past that has a future hovers between camera and brush—by which I mean on the canvas. It is there in abundance—just look closely where it appears there is nothing much to see.
 Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London; New York: Verso, 1988), 9-10.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 77.
 For a brilliant read on the photograph embodying the presence of absence in postmodern art, see Douglas Crimp, “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” October, no. 15 (Winter 1980).
 Barthes, ibid.
 See Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960).
 Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe. (London; New York: Verso, 1995).
 Barthes, 40.
THE OBSERVER’S PARADOX - Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith
by Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith
‘There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.’ A quick shuffle through the heap of photographic prints strewn across the table in Carla Klein’s painting studio initially suggests a blithe indifference to this distinction made by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger during the course of his famous illustration of quantum indeterminacy in 1935.[i] For a start, Klein’s proliferating collection of snapshots seems equally accommodating of blurred photographs of objects and phenomena and photographs of blurry objects and phenomena. Shot on the road during her extensive travels to increasingly far-flung places, and developed personally in the darkroom on her return home, this substantial trove of photographs provides much of the source material for a distinctive body of paintings produced over the past ten years. Klein generally works in series and prefers to work on several paintings at once, regardless of size, which has tended of late toward the large-scale panorama. Her self-consciously reduced and instantly recognizable palette of cool blues, aqueous greens, sombre grays, and snowy whites has over these years proved remarkably adaptable to a wide range of subject matter. This includes, in rough chronological order, the shadowy interiors of natural history museums and terraria, the icy stillness of unoccupied indoor swimming pools, the impersonal functionality of foyers, stairwells, escalators and sundry transit areas, the cold monumentality of contemporary architecture and engineering, and, most recently, the disorienting panoramic vistas of some of the world’s less hospitable landscapes.
Schrödinger distinguishes between an imprecise representation and the representation of that which is inherently unamenable to precise representation, and he makes this distinction in the course of an attempt to address a particular instance of what is generally known as ‘the observer’s paradox’. This concept, which is equally applicable to the social and the physical sciences, suggests that the observation of a phenomenon will inevitably alter its nature, and the attempt to record or measure a process will invariably affect its outcome. Much of Klein’s work might be said to grapple with this paradox, within the domain of aesthetic representation, to the point of rendering it thematic. This is most evident in her gradual, though never total subordination of pictorial content to the mechanics and materiality of what were once perceived as contrasting, if not competing forms of image-making, namely painting and photography, a point to which we shall return. Yet even early on her work acknowledges indirectly the aspirations and limitations alike of empirical observation, scientific interpretation, and imagistic rendition. Klein’s professed interest in scientific methodologies and classificatory systems has been registered in different ways in her work over the years. It is most obviously to the fore in the early paintings of meticulous taxonomic arrays of stuffed specimens from the animal kingdom displayed in the dusty vitrines of various traditional natural history museums. These paintings acknowledge, at the level of form as well as content, the incomplete, inconclusive and belated nature of any attempt to capture or calibrate the reality of the world around us. The bleached and gloomy colours reflect that curious sense of unnatural preservation and incipient decay associated with such institutions: the queasy, antiseptic lighting, the occasionally empty vitrines, the gapped displays of dishevelled taxidermy from a bygone age. The expressive, wet-on-wet handling of paint, the swift brush strokes and apparently casual dribbles, as well as the often rudimentary depiction of the specimens, incidentally remind us that, regardless of the museum’s aspiration to totalizing order and comprehensive presentation, what we are left with in the end is but an imperfect notation of a world that has already passed away. While the individual, carefully preserved specimen can tell us much about the land of the living, it is manifestly no longer of it. As Klein notes, a stuffed animal is both a representative of its species and a unique (and somewhat disconcerting) object in and of itself.[ii] Even the paintings of terraria, those glass cases in which small land animals and plants are kept alive in unnatural conditions for the purposes of observation, empahasize the chilly artificiality of such environments. In many instances they appear to be empty, more redolent of absence than the presence of life. In a comparable manner, the later paintings of deserted swimming pools, airport corridors and departure lounges are, without exception, luminously forlorn. They are bereft of the people who might ordinarily animate such ‘non-places’, to use a term coined by Marc Augé, which has, perhaps inevitably, been invoked in previous accounts of these paintings.[iii]
A crucial aspect of the non-place is its relative inhospitality, and this sense of the inhospitable continues to inform Klein’s choice of subject matter up to the present day, even as she addresses natural landscapes more typical of the tradition of the romantic sublime than the artificial spaces of what Augé calls ‘supermodernity’. If space, for Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, is largely a matter of ‘frequented place’, defined by ‘the intersection of moving bodies’, Klein’s current interests clearly lie elsewhere, in the exploration of places that are unfrequented almost, if not quite, to the point of inaccessibility. Her most recent, specifically commissioned suite of large-scale panoramic paintings is a case in point. These pictures present us with various views of the intimidatingly harsh winter landscape of Rensjösätern in the Jämtland region of central Sweden. This project has its roots in an earlier body of work resulting from a lengthy road-trip Klein made in 2004(?) across the United States of America. In fact, a number of her paintings from early 2005 of the vast, disquieting expanses of the Salt Lake Desert in Utah, are informed in turn by an earlier encounter still with the frozen wastes of a region of Finland north of the Arctic circle, which Klein visited in 200(?). She made her brief trip to Finland with the intention of eventually producing a series of paintings depicting the changes wrought over time on this forbidding landscape by seasonal variations of light and climate. While this project remains unrealised, it anticipates in essence the paintings of Rensjösätern. Of course, in some ways the sun-blasted, dried-up vistas of the desert may be seen as the exact opposite of the freezing, light-deprived Arctic tundra. Yet, from a painter’s point of view, they share considerable common ground. Both of these virtually uninhabitable, physically discomfiting, and visually disorienting landscapes present a comparable challenge to the process of depiction. The question they pose is how might an artist take effective pictorial measure of the effectively incommensurable? While the landscape of Rensjösätern in the summer months may display the comforting contours of recognizable and navigable terrain, the winter snows render it both visually intractable and physically demanding for those familiar with it, and downright dangerous for those who are not. In order to fulfill the requirements of the commission Klein had recourse to an expert local guide, specialized clothing and exotic forms of transport including a snowmobile and a helicopter. The emphasis on inaccessibility, which was already signaled by the locked or empty vitrines, the unpeopled swimming pools, and the evacuated architecture is, quite literally, amplified by these bill-board scaled paintings of wide open spaces, of harsh environments that are largely resistant to human inhabitation.
By rising to the challenge of producing painted images of such physically inaccessible landscapes Klein throws into sharp relief certain qualities and limitations inherent in different modalities of pictorial representation. In order to bring these to light it is worth returning to the question of contemporary painting’s vexed relationship with photography. Klein is by no means unusual among her peers in her use of photographic source imagery. For instance, the recent admixture to the resources of contemporary painting of images of scientific provenance, previously inaccessible but newly available through advances in microscopic and telescopic technology, has greatly enhanced the lexicon of contemporary abstraction. However, Klein’s preferred source imagery remains essentially in the domain of the amateur tourist snapshot, despite the fact that these images are produced by a skilled and self-conscious artist. She is also unusual in the degree to which her painting emphasizes the mechanics of photographic reproduction as much as the accidence of painterly execution in the completed image on canvas, especially in this most recent suite of paintings. These paintings pointedly call attention to the multiply mediated nature of the imagery they present. The myriad imperfections we commonly associate with the casual production, inexpert development or careless handling of everyday snapshots are laboriously reproduced and accentuated by hand as an integral part of large-scale paintings destined for formal presentation in a gallery context. Blemishes are literally blown out of proportion, ‘mistakes’ are writ large. In various different works Klein carefully reproduces the scratches, stains and smudges that can mar the surface of a photographic print, the deleterious effects of electronic corruption on a jpeg, the fuzzy indeterminacy of low resolution imaging, the botched effects of misprinting, and the distractingly blank white margins produced by printing on standard sizes of photographic paper. Her decision to do so reflects a belief that these apparently accidental and extraneous aspects of the photographic image are all, in her own words, ‘part of the image’. In the painter’s eyes, they are literally part of the bigger picture. Klein’s painstaking simulation by hand of a plethora of deformations more proper to photographic reproduction, mechanical or electronic, brushes against the grain of an increasingly fluid painterly technique historically and conventionally associated with gestural expression. This is in keeping with her stated objective ‘to produce a layered form of painting where oppositions and contradictions are accommodated’.
The play-off between painting and photography is just one instance of this hospitable attitude to ‘oppositions and contradictions’, which in itself may be ironically contrasted with the lure of the inhospitable, in terms of subject matter, to which we have already alluded. The play between space and time, the spatialization of the temporal and vice versa, is also an increasingly significant aspect of her work. Klein’s unrealized Finnish project was based on the idea of returning to the same spot at different times of the year and photographing the same view, thereby registering in the resulting paintings certain changes over time. The Rensjösätern paintings, on the other hand, involved traveling to various spots in the same general area in a relatively short period of time, and photographing them from various perspectives, including that of an airborne helicopter. Even on the ground, multiple perspectives were deployed. As Klein has noted, ‘I like to paint paintings from a series of photographs that I take seconds after each other. I am dealing with stillness and movement in time – these frozen seconds…with the way reality and atmosphere changes with every movement of the horizon, as I move to the left or to the right with my camera.’ Of course, while ‘reality and atmosphere’ can change according to shifts in spatial or temporal perspectives, the representation of that ‘reality and atmosphere’ can also be manipulated by various technical means available to the photographer, either in situ or later in the darkroom, long before the painting commences. The related questions of mutability and mediation thus attain comparable significance in these works.
Given Klein’s characteristic readiness, one the one hand, to inscribe into a given painting various accidental or extrinsic aspects of the photograph from which it is derived, and, on the other hand, her willingness to alter at will certain features of a given ladscape on purely formal or compositional grounds, the question recurs as to how to characterise the relationship between the empirical reality of a particular place and its representation in the painted image. In the exceptional case of the Rensjösätern paintings the constraints of a private commission were such that the landscape needed to be recognisable, at least to anyone familiar with the location. While Klein is happy to respond to the specifics of the landscape in front of her, and as it subsequently re-presents itself to her in the form of a heap of snapshots on her studio table, she admits that she has little interest in specifics per se. An undue concern with the particularity of a real-world scenario might hamper her desire, as she puts it, ‘to work abstraction against the image’. The paintings of the Salt Lake Desert and the Rensjösätern series come closer, both in form and content, than the earlier works to the tradition of the romantic sublime, including the abstract sublime. For instance, the white margins of these canvases, though derived from a photographic model, recall the ‘zips’ of Barnett Newman, for whom, famously, ‘the sublime is now’. Yet the insistence on seriality, on repetition and difference, confounds this tendency somewhat and suggests a different perspective again. Given what Klein has referred to as the ‘semi-scientific’ aspect of her approach to painting, we might conclude with a suggestive analogy from the scientific domain invoked in the opening quotation. The theory of ‘superposition’ in quantum physics supposes, however contrary to common sense and casual observation, that an object can be in multiple, infinite or even contradictory states simultaneously and that it is only the insistence on measuring it that limits its possibilities and fixes its state. Perhaps something similar can always be said of the artist’s attempt to capture the elusive reality of a physical world that will forever lie beyond conclusive comprehension and precise representation.
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, January 2007.
[i] Erwin Schrödinger, ‘Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik’, Naturwissenschaften 23 (1935): pp.807-812; 823-828; 844-849. The opening quotation is from a translation by John D. Trimmer, which can be accessed at www.tu-harburg.de/rzt/rzt/it/QM/cat.html.
[ii] All references to the artist’s observations on her work relate to the interview on pp.?? of this publication.
[iii] Marc Augé (trans. John Howe), Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso, London and New York 1995), See, for example, Anke Bangma (trans. Nancy Forest-Flier), ‘non-places’ in Carla Klein (Artimo Foundation, Amsterdam 2000) pp.59-61.
De meest eigentijdse schilderijen tentoonstelling - Laure van den Hout
Uit de catalogus van: De meest eigentijdse schilderijen tentoonstelling
Tentoonstelling in Het Dordrecht museum
Samengesteld door Han Schuil en Gerrit Willems
Tekst door Laure van den Hout
Carla Klein gebruikt fotografie als bemiddeling tussen de werkelijkheid en haar schilderijen. De plek die ze fotografeert moet een zekere anonimiteit hebben. Om die reden verwijst Klein in de titels van haar werken ook niet naar de plek of het land waar de foto’s gemaakt zijn. In plaats daarvan heten haar doeken Untitled.
De camera vangt de werkelijkheid altijd anders dan dat wij haar zien. Waar in vroeger tijden gedacht werd dat fotografie de werkelijkheid kon representeren, is het proces van foto-graveren in feite manipulatiever dan het lijkt doordat je ook kiest wat je niet laat zien. Een gekaderd ogenblik is de keuze voor een bepaalde werkelijkheid. Klein is geïnteresseerd in de ruis die door de fotografie meekomt in het beeld. Een foto vanuit de auto genomen, laat het vuil op de autoruit óók zien. Maar ook de tussenkomst van stof, haartjes en krassen die zich op de lens bevinden of beschadigingen die ontstaan op de ontwikkelde foto’s zijn elementen die Klein aanspreken. Net als vlekken die ontstaan door uitgewerkte chemicaliën tijdens het ontwikkelproces, of lens flares op de opnames zelf, worden het – doordat Klein ze vertaalt in verf – abstracte elementen in haar schilderijen. Het gezichtspunt in Kleins doeken is een samenkomst van lagen: het werkelijke landschap, de ruis die ontstaat door het maken van de foto en de spontane verander-ingen die optreden tijdens of na het ontwikkelen van het beeld. In het werk van Klein is sprake van een zekere mate van vervreemding.
Ze schildert verlaten landschappen zonder mensen. Industrieel aandoende stedelijke omgevingen, of eindeloze wegen gezien vanuit een auto. Af en toe is er een stoplicht, auto, vliegtuig, verkeersbord of wachtruimte in beeld. Het contrast tussen het door de mens gemaakte en de wilde natuur spreekt Klein aan.
Recent schildert Klein interieurs van kassen. Exotische planten hangen in rijen vanaf het glazen dak of staan in bakken naast elkaar. De weidse landschappen zijn ingeruild voor een afgesloten binnenruimte, maar de vervreemding blijft. Die is aanwezig in de wetenschap dat je kijkt naar iets dat exotisch is, maar door de mens gecultiveerd wordt en uit zijn oorspronkelijke context is gehaald. Deze doeken doen denken aan Kleins vroegere werk, met aquaria en terrariums. Wederom het contrast tussen de menselijke hand en sporen van oor-spronkelijke wilde natuur. In Kleins werk mag de fysieke mens dan wel buiten beeld zin, de artefacten van het menselijk bestaan zin alomtegenwoordig.
Laure van den Hout
Voelen en vallen - Rudi Fuchs
Het rood en oranje van Carla Klein is niet slechts rood en oranje, het is een zwellende gloed. Klinkt als Mozart.
Natuurlijk moest ik daaraan denken toen ik de rode en oranje schilderijen van Carla Klein voor ogen kreeg – of liever de kleuren die tussen rood en oranje zweven en die daar proberen los te komen uit een aantal begrenzingen en onderbrekingen van (ongeveer) zwart, eigenlijk om meer licht te krijgen. Een groot verschil is dat bij Newman de interrupties (van geel en blauw) verticaal zijn: daarom hebben de schilderijen een architectonische werking – een dicht, frontaal rood dus. In Carla Kleins doeken verloopt de opbouw in horizontale bewegingen. Daardoor zit er een herinnering aan landschap in haar vormgeving. Mij is verteld dat de visuele set-up van het beeld uit een foto komt: het bovenste deel in het rode schilderij is een blik vanuit een auto door de voorruit naar buiten. Het kleine ding links is trouwens een andere camera daar gemonteerd om al rijdend foto’s te maken. In Kleins praktijk leveren die weer beeldmateriaal.
Of de foto’s waarvan de schilderijen een vergaande transformatie zijn ook een rood bevatten (van een vlammende zonsondergang misschien), weet ik niet en wil ik ook niet weten. Dat soort realisme is irrelevant – net zoals de mate van abstrahering van het fotomotief dat is. De ontdekking in het schilderij is niet eens het rood of oranje maar de betoverende gloed van die kleuren. Die zijn geschilderd in doorzichtige, horizontale lagen in brede bewegingen van links naar rechts die, anders dan verfstreken van boven naar beneden, de fragiele kleur er ijl laten uitzien. Zo dun is de verf opgebracht dat je er de bevingen van de kwast in kunt zien. In het rood, waardoorheen ook nog donkere vegen hangen, is de gloed donkerder. Het oranje straalt helderder. In beide schilderijen fungeren de donkere lijnen en hoeken als een chromatisch repoussoir. Het merendeel van die balken is vast uitgewerkt toen de schilderijen al naar hun einde gingen – toen de kleuren maar bleven gloeien. Voor dat sterke licht was een heldere articulatie via dat donkere schema precies op zijn plaats.
De zin van dit alles? De schoonheid ervan. Of Vermeer in het Gezicht op Delft die stad topografisch correct heeft afgebeeld, interesseert alleen nog boekhouders. Maar met het zonlicht zo stralend op de daken, zo ziet Delft er pas uit, onvergetelijk. De perplexe schoonheid van kunst is dat je je er zonder reserve aan overgeeft. James Joyce zei: ‘First we feel, then we fall.’ Met andere woorden: niet zeuren. Waar blijven we zonder het wonderbaarlijke? In de film Amadeus vertelt Mozart aan de keizer over zijn nieuwste nieuwigheid. In Le nozze di Figaro heeft hij een scène waarin iemand begint, dan komt een tweede, een derde, zo tot acht. Ieder zingt zijn eigen melodie. Hoe lang kan ik dat volhouden? De keizer heeft geen idee. Twintig minuten! Twintig minuten in elkaar geweven melodieën, een patroon van muziek waarin elke melodie helder blijft terwijl de harmonie aanzwelt tot één klaterende klank. Zo stelde ik me Carla Klein voor die een steeds zwellende gloed schilderde en dat een schilderij lang kon volhouden. Toen ik wat moest zeggen heb ik de anekdote uit Amadeus maar verteld.
Caoimlín Mac Goilla Leíth in conversation with Carla Klein
Caoimlín Mac Goilla Leíth in conversation with Carla Klein
Jarla Partilager, 2007
The use of photography and the processes and accidents involved in various forms of photographic printing are fundamental to your working method as a painter. Could you talk a little about this?
My use of photographs in painting comes from wanting to paint facts, not fiction. I use photos, in a way, to paint the way you see things in an abstract manner. So, by using photos and showing something of the process of photographic development, I can paint both the image and the non-image. I often incorporate into the paintings various “mistakes’ that occur during the development process. These include ‘mistakes’ that occur while taking the photo and while scanning the negative, as well as all the deformations that can happen while processing an image. I also use computerised faults and accidents: for instance a corrupt jpeg, a misprint, and very low resolution images, all the things which are not ‘manmade, but which are changed by a machine or during the ‘mechanical’ process of production. Using these elements gives me the opportunity to devalue the image in the painting, combining the image and the process by which it is made, and saying something about the complex nature of how we view the world. This gives the paint itself and the painting a more important role, by not only referring to what you see – the ‘realness’ of a landscape, a swimming pool, an interior and its faraway horizons – but playing with different or opposing aspects of paint, image and the painting itself, such as the size of the painting and the material reality of a canvas, The shortcomings and the realities of the different processes are reflected in the use of the paint, the sizes and serial organisation of the paintings, and the combinations of different paintings in one show. So this is what I want to accentuate in the painting, I’m trying to abstract reality, and trying to produce a layered form of painting, where contradictions and oppositions are accommodated and merge into one overall result. These layers include the painting itself, its sculptural aspect, the image, the photographic print through which it is mediated, the abstract quality of the picture, and the whole process of trying to grab reality, By doing so something different is produced, which not only reflects that reality, but at the same time says something about the choice of context, representation and framework That’s why I like to paint paintings from a series of photographs that I take seconds after each other. I am dealing with stillness and movement in time these frozen seconds (just like the video stills and TV stills which I sometimes use as well) – with the way reality and atmosphere changes with every movement of the horizon, as I move to the left or to the right with my camera. While the image is from the same source, from the same general location, the outcome will be completely different. I use the white borders in paintings also to point out the strange way standard sizes work. When you bring your photos to the shop to develop, the size of the photographic paper is not the same as the size of the negative, which I find really strange and (somewhat) annoying, because I don’t see the reason for the variation/ difference between the two. That’s why I started to develop the photos myself. But, also, in the range of photographic papers available the same standards occur. If you fit the whole negative onto the paper you will end up with a stripe/or stripes of unused paper. At least when I do it myself I have the whole image I took, and the whites are in a way (part of) the consequence of acquiring that image. The way I see it, this part of the photo went through the same process of being lit in the dark room and developed in chemical baths, so it is really part of the image as a whole. And again it adds a degree of abstraction to the image, the abstract consequence of the photographic image. It indicates something of how you are sifting through reality and trying to capture it all. You see standard sizes everywhere: A4 paper, 10× 15 holiday snaps, wide screen televisions and so on. A lot of these formats have white, or black borders around the images, as if the size is not right, or you don’t have the right equipment to see it as it was supposed to be, and it changes the way an image looks /is.
Your fascination with natural history museums suggests an interest in taxonomy and the archive. How is that reflected, if it is indeed reflected, in your recent work? Does the repetition in series of a particular landscape viewed from slightly different perspectives stem from this same taxonomic impulse?
The way you archive, as you try to make an order in the world, to preserve and to conserve the present, is reflected in natural history museums, and in the depots and storage spaces of these museums. The material in the archive, when it is displayed, ideally shows all the known variations of the same species, the overlaps and the differences. This material is grouped together and separated from the outside world. In photography the same thing is involved. You are trying to preserve and to conserve your environment, to understand it and to systemize your surroundings and give them also a place in time. What photography does is to create a different reality. By trying to capture an immense space you end up with a piece of paper. The same thing happens with taxidermy. Most of the qualities and characteristics of the subject (stuffed animals, insects, organs) have gone. It represents its species, but at the same time becomes an object that stands for what it is itself. It has been taken from its normal environment and placed in another order of existence and representation. Another overlap between the archive and my way of working is in the production of series of photographs, the repetition of almost the same landscape, almost the same photograph, but each slightly different from the other – variations of the same in order to emphasise similarities by showing differences. Or you can turn this around as well and talk about how the same thing represented in different ways becomes à different thing, It is all a question of presentation, re-presentation and representation.
How differently do you view the painting of architectural spaces and the depiction of the landscape? In both instances, after all, the subject matter carries a rich freight of art historical precedent.
I don’t see a lot of difference between the two subjects. Both are environments or places that you almost cannot imagine, but do exist. Both are nonhuman in a strange way in that they are not really liveable in or even, fundamentally acces-sible. You’ll find this with the swimming pools as well. They are weird, closed-in environments with no other references then to themselves. With the architectural spaces it is more about the way you don’t seem to see these environments. You just pass through them. And maybe because you are so used to these kinds of places they all just look the same, as there is no hint as to where they are. After all, you are going to find similar spaces elsewhere. These transit areas also have a resemblance to the spaces which play a big role in science fiction. When you are in transit you’re nowhere. When you’re driving through a landscape it is a bit different, but you are rushing through this as well. Going from one desti-nation to another. You can stop and get out of the car on the way, but there will be no change. You’re still just on the road. The surroundings are still basically in-accessible, at least the landscapes I’m drawn to. There is no other way than the road/direction you are taking, and by seeing with the eyes of a camera, the fabri-cated distance makes it a ‘real’ place. ‘This is where I was’. Yet at the same time thecamera becomes the observer who is just seeing and registering what is there, without saying anything about the reasons for being there. The abstraction of the landscapes becomes clearer through the photos and the method of printing.
How would you describe your relationship to art history? How do you view your own painting of the landscape in relation to, let us say, the tradition of the romantic sublime including the abstract sublime?
I love the overwhelming nature of Minimalism, of abstract art and of art that uses scientific methods, or rules, or classificatory processes to produce art. I love the work of Walter De Maria, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer and Barnett Newman. Or the mathematical way of painting we see in the interiors and landscapes of the Dutch painters, the Flemish primitives, and the early Italians, to name a few. The sublime in image and thought in one work is what I’m really attracted to, when it creates a different order than what we are used to seeing. I work quite rationally and intuitively at the same time. I like a particular painting of my own when it has an impact similar to a work by those artists that I really admire. I like those works of mine that succeed in combining, whether in a whole series or in a single painting, different layers of semi-scientific exploration in one work. Or when the combination of precision, messiness, meaning and supposed randomness forms a new arrangement that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.
How exactly did this particular project in Sweden come about and how did it evolve from the point of receiving the initial commission to the finished suite of paintings?
I went some time ago to Finland and stayed a few days above the Arctic Circle on the shortest day of the year. The temperature was around -40 degrees and for the first time I realized that a landscape like this was really dangerous. You could be in it, but you could not really enter into it. Also, because it was rather dark the whole time it was almost an unreal landscape. It was darker in the day than in the night because the moonlight, the full moon, was very strong. This came out weirdly in my digital photos. I became interested in the change of light, the light affecting a landscape, and thought it would be a really cool idea if you could stay there for half a year and see the changes that light and temperature can make. Then I went a few years later to the Salt Lake Desert in Utah, in the USA. What was interesting was that the landscape looked like Finland but completely in reverse: a full sun and really hot, no frozen lake but a dried up-lake which had left the salt behind. At one stage my supply of chemicals ran out and some photos came out really dark, as if it was night with some moonlight. I like the way you can get a nightscape by handling a photo in a different way. You start off with the same negative, the same fact, and you don’t change the reality. I like how you can change how a landscape looks just by adjusting colour and light. (This is true of photographs, but it is the most extreme instance of this phenomenon.) There is also the question of changing your camera position slightly, which I’ve already mentioned. For example, when you point your camera straight into the sun, you will get a very dark photo. This is the same thing I was talking about before, the way the world changes because of mechanical influences that are inevitable: the way we use equipment to hold on to the world. And also the way you get used to this change, as your holiday fades and the photographs you took take over the memories and become, in effect, the entire holiday. Anyway, Gerard saw the paintings of the Salt Lake Desert and it reminded him of his own land in Northern Sweden. He came to me with this idea of doing something with his land, which I thought was so similar to my Finnish experience that we came up with the idea of returning to the same spots, again on the shortest day with a full moon, but also in March when the landscape is turned into a sparkling white/blue. The change that occurred between the initial idea and the final outcome was that the landscape played a bigger role than I had anticipated in the beginning. It became really about this special place, which linked the reality of the place! landscape more to Gerard’s ownership and history, than an idea or a reflection about places in general. The search for abstraction in landscapes, which is what the Salt Lake paintings were about, was not so much a point here. Also, because I came back a few times it made the place more familiar and therefore the reality became more important. What was important about the earlier interiorscapes was that they could be anywhere; there was no evident link to a recognizable site. They were all underground, with no view out through the windows, if there were any windows at all. They were about travelling through a place with no indication where it was situated. So it was more like the Finnish idea, which never actually got off the ground, than the Salt Lake desert paintings. That is, going back repeatedly to one parti-cular destination rather than simply travelling through somewhere. Although being ‘nowhere’ may be a destination in itself. (Johanna Burton wrote a very good piece on this in my catalogue Scape.) The same counts for trying to paint the same painting /picture twice or more. Does the repetition of an image make it more or less important? I think there is a shift in how abstract and desolate the painting can be in combination with how important it is that this is a place in reality. Or maybe it’s that I’m stunned by a place itself, as it is so unearthly; that it actually exists in the first place, without human inhabitation; and that I have the opportunity of being there. So what I tried to do in this particular series of paintings was not so much going into the abstraction of the space itself. It was more a question of the abstraction of the photos, the change of time and light between those taken in December and the dark March ones, the way the camera works when you get the sun into view. This is almost the same change from day to night in the darkroom. So I wanted to accentuate what I saw through the camera and what I got in the darkroom, and thereby make something which has links with the real place as well as the different times spent there. And also the travels we had to undertake to get to the chosen places, which were quite different in December and March. I wanted to accentuate the desolate locations and the sometimes difficult circum-stances of travelling to them, the snow scooters, the helicopter rides in snow-storms. All very exciting and different from the ways I normally travel. This is revealed by the changes of atmosphere created in different paintings. Also the fact is that when I was there in December the full moon wasn’t to be seen as it was stormy and snowing most of the time. This is really nice because it is still just the same idea, only with a different outcome than you initially had in mind. Maybe this is more to do with an idea in your head, which you hang your plans on. But then you have to deal with what there really is. This suited the project quite well.
Caoimlín Mac Goilla Leíth in conversation with Carla Klein
Jarla Partilager, 2007
Interview van Han Schuil en Gerrit Willems met Carla Klein op het atelier
Interview Carla Klein met Han Schuil en Gerrit Willems op het atelier, 2018
Uitgeschreven door Gerrit Willems
Schilderij en foto
Schilderijen die ik goed vind, nemen en ruimte in beslag. Ze creëeren een atmosfeer waarmee je helemaal omgeven wordt. Die schilderijen brengen je naar een andere wereld dat is niet per se een figuratieve wereld. In een tentoonstelling wordt dat effect nog versterkt doordat de schilderijen onderling gaan samenwerken. Materiaal, beeld, aanwezigheid, deze drie elementen samen geven het schilderij zijn kracht. Een foto of een video werkt anders. Schilderijen hebben en uitstraling, een video wordt je ingezogen. Een foto, of die nu wordt afgedrukt op groot formaat, getoond op een lichtbak of geprojecteerd, mist die sterk fysieke materialiteit. Ik gebruik de foto wel als uitgangspunt voor mijn werk. Voordat ik een schilderij maak, neem ik heel veel foto’s. Ik ben geïnteresseerd in de fotografische afbeelding van de werkelijkheid. Ik wil de wereld niet direct schilderen, want als ik een zwembad zou schilderen of een plantenkas, zou ik alleen maar dat plaatje maken. Dat wil ik niet. Ik schilder de wereld zoals de zich in foto’s aan mij voordoet, ik schilder niet náár een foto, maar de wereld áls foto. De foto is de werkelijkheid die ik wil schilderen Hoe foto’s binnen onze huidige cultuur ons beeld van de werkelijkheid vormen, dat vind ik fascinerend. Het is heel interessant dat tegenwoordig op elke camera een bewerkingsprogramma zit, Waarmee je de waarneming van de wereld die je fotografeert kunt veranderen. Filters, vervormingen, verschillende kleuren, zo’n foto is dus een andere manier geworden om de wereld te zien en dat verwerk ik in een schilderij. De foto’s die ik geselecteerd heb, bewerk ik tijdens het ontwikkelen. Voor mijn laatste serie schilderijen heb ik bijvoorbeeld kleurenfilters gebruikt. Ik schilder soms de krassen die op een afdruk zitten of de lichtreflectie in de lens mee, juist om te laten zien dat het een foto is. Ik ben nogal slordig bij het afdrukken, niet opzettelijk slordig, maar de ervaring leert wel dat de fouten in een afdruk de beste schilderijen opleveren. Ik kijk in de donkere kamer al met en schilderkunstig oog, omdat ik daar preciezer zie wat ik wil gaan schilderen. Ik werk niet zo veel met digitale bewerkingsprogramma’s. In het handmatig afdrukken zit meer het menselijk handelen. Als jezelf een foto afdrukt, is dat een technisch en chemisch proces, maar tegelijk ook een menselijke handeling. Het is niet volledig automatisch of gemechaniseerd, je kunt verschillende afdrukken krijgen van eenzelfde negatief. De imperfecties en vervormingen die ontstaan door die combinatie van wat ik doe met het machinale van de camera en de chemische middelen van het ontwikkelen en fixeren, geven de foto’s de kwaliteit die ik zoek. Wat dan wel weer interessant kan zin bij digitale foto’s, is de omzetting van computer naar printer. Daar kunnen ook vreemde dingen gebeuren met de inkt, de afsnijding, het papier, ook daar vind ik de imperfectie het meest interessant.
Werelden in werelden
Ik hou van werelden in werelden. Zoals zwembaden, luchthavens, metrostations, snelwegen en nu die plantenkassen, op zichzelfstaande locaties. Het zijn bestaande werelden, maar die voelen enorm onnatuurlijk aan, het zijn afgeschermde gebieden, vreemd en leeg. Ik wil verder niet benoemen waar mijn werk dan precies over zou gaan, want dan wordt het een verhaaltje en een illustratie. Maar vrolijk is het is nooit bij mij, nee. Je kunt zien dat de verwarmingssystemen in die kassen overheersend en onheilspellend aanwezig zijn, je zou kunnen denken aan de opwarming van de aarde, maar het schilderij is geen directe verwijzing naar een dreigende ondergang. Je ziet en voelt een benauwde warme atmosfeer, het is misschien heel even prettig die warmte, maar daarna niet meer. Dan wordt het ondragelijk. Het zijn geen plekken om lang te verblijven, dat geldt ook voor die metrostations. Ik wil het beklemmende gevoel van zo’n plek weergeven. Op het moment dat je een foto neemt, definieer je een specifieke plek en en precieze tijd. Het schilderij maakt de foto die eraan voorafgaat anoniem en algemeen. Het schilderij toont een locatie die overal kan zijn. Tegelijk blijft de afbeelding op het schilderij heel herkenbaar. Het is niet dit metrostation. maar een metrostation. Het schilderij maakt het onderwerp los van tijd en plaats. De werelden die ik schilder, daar kun je zijn, maar je bent er niet. De camera maakt eerst een afstand. Het schilderij maakt het daarna mogelijk om dat beeld te manipuleren, je kunt diepte maken die er niet is en die een foto ook niet kan maken. Je kunt dingen weglaten, open plekken maken en je maakt met de verf het beeld materieel aanwezig. Met de middelen van de schilderkunst worden die beelden interessanter dan met de middelen van de fotografie.
Mijn opleiding aan de academie in Den Haag was zo af en toe oersaai, maar het heeft mij wel geholpen om te kunnen doen wat ik wil doen., Iets niet kunnen, kan je heel erg belemmeren in het maken van een schilderij. Dan wordt het verkrampt. Het helpt als je weet hoe je iets moet aanpakken. Als je iets niet kunt, kun je het ook niet gebruiken. Het is beter om iets te kunnen en dan te besluiten dat je het niet wil inzetten voor een schilderij, dan het gewoon niet te kunnen. Ik geef zo af en toe nog weleens les. Dat ‘niet kunnen’ is bij studenten bijna een normale manier van werken geworden. Dat is te zien aan de schilderijen die er gemaakt worden. Ik blijf erbij dat iets kunnen wel een basis is. Natuurlijk gaat een schilderij maken veel verder dan alleen iets kundig op het doek zetten. Dat aspect heb ik dan weer wel gemist in mijn opleiding. Dat heb ik zelf moeten bevechten. Als je blijft hangen in het materiaal en het kunnen, vergeet je na te denken over wat je dan wilt met je werk.
Mijn werk is niet politiek, maar wel filosofisch. Engagement in de schilderkunst vind ik lastig. Het is bijzonder moeilijk om beelden niet documentair te laten zijn. Ik mis bij dergelijke onderwerpen het abstracte, de afstand. Een goed schilderij moet je toch naar een hoger plan brengen. Wat dat hoger plan is, vind ik dan weer moeilijk te benoemen. Een beeld moet nazinderen, je moet nog iets overhouden als je het gezien hebt, het moet je niet meer loslaten. Maatschappelijke onderwerpen zijn narratief, ik wil met een schilderij niks vertellen. Ik wil een beeld scheppen.
De commerciële belangen zijn in de kunst steeds groter geworden en kunstinstellingen moeten publiek trekken om te kunnen overleven. Als er schilderkunst getoond wordt, zijn het vaak de grote namen van de moderne klassieken: Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian of Bacon. Maar en blockbuster in en museum is vaak nog altijd schilderkunst. Hedendaagse schilderkunst zie je minder, dat is een te groot risico waarschijnlijk. Daar zou meer aandacht voor kunnen zijn. Maar echt aan de zijlijn staat de schilderkunst naar mijn gevoel niet. Dat gebrek aan aandacht komt omdat een schilderij zelden over de actualiteit gaat. Dat maakt het misschien minder aantrekkelijk en spectaculair om te tonen, maar ik vind ook niet dat een schilderij op een directe manier over de actualiteit moet gaan. Dat wil zeggen, een schilderij moet niet onmiddellijk reageren op een situatie of gebeurtenis en daar dan iets van vinden. Het is helemaal geen medium om ergens iets van te vinden, om meningen te ventileren. Schilderen is een traag medium dat aanzet tot langer nadenken over de wereld waarin wij leven. Het denken in opinies gaat veel sneller, dat is een reactie op informatie en daar wordt dan ok weer op gereageerd met een andere mening. Zo werkt een schilderij niet. Het vraagt een andere aandacht. Het gaat ook niet om vertellen. Wat een schilderij met je doet, zit verweven in het materiaal. Het heeft een andere aanwezigheid dan een verhaal.