Where painting is

Mikkel Bogh

One of the most interesting questions we can ask in relation to painting today is: Where is that which we see? There are many other relevant questions to ask: in relation to content (what do we see?), form (how is it composed?), technique (how is it made?), presentation (where is it shown?) or perception (how do we see?). However, if we start by posing the question ‘Where is that which we see?’ we will immediately be more or less in direct touch with all the other questions that painting could give rise to. The question of where painting is cannot be answered simply; painting is in part a physical event, an object with its own characteristics, and in part a semantic phenomenon, meaning that what it reveals is bound to mean something for someone. Painting creates pictures on a material basis: a material basis that, along with the way in which the material is used, always insists on coming through in the finished picture. Like a story that cannot be told directly yet neither can be deleted. In other words, a painting does not merely hang there on the wall; it has an imaginary space and a viewer who contributes to the organisation and interpretation of what is seen on the surface. This means that we can never see a painting without simultaneously seeing something located somewhere other than on the surface of the painting; that is, something that transcends the object that the picture is. What we see in the painting is found on, below and above the painted surface; a plait where different layers – other pictures, colours, imagined spaces, stories, the texture of the painted surface – lay on top of each other in turn. Perhaps it is this braiding that lends certain materials a special dream-like and physical presence.

The title of one of Martha Kramær’s paintings from 2009 is “Entrance without admittance”. While the title refers to the motif found in this specific painting it could just as fittingly be used as a heading for a great deal of Martha Kramær’s artistic works in recent years. Many of her paintings play with the idea that painting can show entrances to spaces; situations; different layers of consciousness; possible paths into the picture and connections between things: yet it cannot actually offer entry to anything other than its own surface. This may well appear to be a trivial conclusion – are we not talking about a basic condition which applies to any two dimensional picture? It is, of course, correct that all pictures have a virtual dimension that promises, in some way, more than is reasonable to expect. However, far from all pictures both actively and consciously embrace this duality and choose to use it to achieve new insight into the picture’s functionality. On closer inspection it appears to encompass an almost unlimited potential for aesthetic exploration. A number of questions relating to issues such as visibility, meaning, idea and expression arise in this intersection between surface and depth or between the picture as object and semantic entity. In this respect, painting is especially interesting. More so than other forms of visual media it offers, due to its material form and direct relation to the body (that of the artist, that of the spectator), the opportunity to investigate picture formation on the threshold between things and signs. Painting has the opportunity to show us spaces that only exist as painting: both imaginary spaces and imagined spaces, which, however, are never more imaginary than their appearances right in front of us as concrete painted phenomena. Painting offers entrances to these types of spaces. But without admittance.

There are many openings in Martha Kramær’s painting “Entrance without admittance”: a piece of furniture in the foreground with an open lid; an empty frame propped against the wall; a dollhouse with open windows and doors; an open door on the back wall, behind which a staircase leads up to something we do not see; and, not least, placed approximately in the centre of the picture, a circular opening in the wall – perhaps a window or possibly just an empty surface. These hints of inaccessible, empty or invisible spaces can all be seen as parts of a motif that evoke a mysterious atmosphere somewhat like that found in the work of the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico. It creates the impression of a type of silent communication between empty yet symbolic things in the space: things that create an order we do not have access to because it is only presented to us in fragmented and unresolved form. However, we can also decode these objects as small allegories of the painting itself: motifs which play with our perception and create variations of the painting’s elementary functions. There are frames everywhere: frames that lead the gaze in a certain direction, frames that mark a field within which events can take place that are only associated with painting and colour – ‘singular’ in the sense that they are articulated here and nowhere else. But there are also frames that set ideas in progress because what we see in the painting will always be more than material and optical events. The painting frames a semantic space: a space where each pencil stroke, each field of colour, contributes to a play on meanings which appeals to the eye – but necessarily to the brain as well. The things shown by the painting invite us to inhabit the space mentally: to see through the frame, to walk up the stairs or look down into the apparently empty piece of furniture with the open lid. At the same time – and it is in this elementary sense that there is no access to any of these places – the gaze is constantly directed to the painting’s surface. The surface constantly pushes itself to the fore. Most of the painting does not even so much as hint at depth. On the contrary, depth clearly appears as a distinct perceptual effect that only works in limited areas – constantly in competition with the vertical fields of colour which stretch over the picture surface. Each of these fields encompasses a sea of nuances and events that are read on a more intimate level which, from the very moment attention is turned to them, make the things in the space seem like completely detached shapes without any internal connection except that they happen to appear within the frame of this painting: that is, inside this continuum of colour and lines. In this way, they block access and turn the space into a vision.

Martha Kramær refers in her works to a long tradition of both abstract and figurative painting in which painting’s relationship to the frame, the surroundings, the viewer and the viewer’s time, as well as gesture and colour, are investigated. There is a sense of continuity right back to Eduard Manet and Berthe Morisot; Pierre Bonnard and the Intimists; J.F. Willumsen and, further into the twentieth century, Frank Stella, Bridget Riley and Ellsworth Kelly. However, Kramær’s painting, in contrast to the latter, never directly approaches the abstract surfaces. Rather, it is painting about the abstract: painting which further develops the area of abstraction through different figurative and pictorial registers rather than abstract painting in any pure form. You could say that the abstract is held at arm’s length as it, in its various guises, is bent and stretched, tested and challenged. But it does not lose any of its presence as a result because the movement also goes in the other direction. Abstraction and surface interrupt and suspend the formation of images, ensuring that the painting remains in a state between object and image. Thus, the picture becomes both material and semantic at the same time. On this threshold, a series of complex spaces and shapes occur that cast the gaze around between the different layers of the painting: one moment you find yourself in the picture’s two dimensional plane and the next moment you are exploring the texture of a piece of cloth; a folded and painted canvas; a striped shirt or the boundaries and surfaces in a perspective space. This dual movement is perhaps nowhere as evident as in an untitled painting from 2007: a painting dominated by horizontal stripes in shades of green, blue and yellow that refer to something appearing to be an underlying landscape. The stripes establish a two dimensional field between the landscape and the striped bag underneath, in the utmost foreground at the bottom of the picture. In the active weaving of the stripes, which can resemble flickering foliage, the viewer’s gaze is challenged to its limit as it is impossible for it to focus on only one area at a time. Another work which demonstrates a movement between material and semantic space is “Eklipse” from 2009 in which the doorway and lines and surfaces behind it draw the gaze into a spatial world of geometric shapes, while the colour fields persistently insist on their own parallelism with – and concrete presence on – the picture surface.
Thus, the viewer moves in and out of the pictures, as if the gaze on the painted canvas were a negotiation around, but never directly on, the painting’s surface. Similarly, these paintings are themselves composed of other paintings, woven together from other images weaving themselves in and out among each other. In a new series, there is an actual element of paintings based on earlier works by Kramær herself, albeit works cut into small pieces and literally woven together again. It is about constantly reflecting the artistic practice and those factors – whether they concern materials, experience, art history, media, or something personal – that create the fabric which constitutes the work. These works are never allowed to unfold their otherwise intensive pallets as pure colourism. On the one hand, the abstract stripes are just what they are – coloured stripes treated with different degrees of intensity on a canvas. However, at the same time they refer to something else which makes them more than mere aesthetic events. This could be former works or perhaps clothes to which the artist has a relationship and with which she shares a history, so to speak. Throughout the twentieth century, radical abstract art has had a connection to culture, which sooner or later came to take over its expressions, just as art also took things from culture when weaving its pictures together. Culture also constitutes an undeniable part of the artist’s and the viewer’s horizon of experience. In Martha Kramær’s works both the colours and artistic gestures are brought into a space and context which gives them a narrative, reminding us that her painting always forms semantic spaces that point beyond the mere pigment on the surface. However, there is no suggestion here of contexts that anchor the colour and fill it with deeper meaning. Instead, colour is constantly balanced between presentation and representation; it presents itself as colour while simultaneously being used to describe and thereby represent something: wallpaper on the wall in a room, a person sitting, a piece of furniture, an item of clothing, a painted canvas...

In an untitled painting from 2008 there are two mannequins in striped shirts and dresses of painted canvas that are actually earlier works by Kramær repeated here in a wild variation. The space in which these two colourful and headless figures are found is white, resulting in a great deal of our attention being directed towards them. In contrast to the stereotypical shoebox surroundings, they incorporate a complexity and a presence not only due to the way the garments’ visual patterns are folded and stretched, but also due to the silent communication between the two figures. The figures – which are neither presented as people nor statues, but which nonetheless seem to have traits of both – have an ambivalent presence in the space. They draw attention, colour and other images and paintings towards them, filling them to the brink with history. Yet they refuse to be seen as representations of living people with experiences and intentions. They are like empty shells. If they are alive, and if they have a potential for communication, it is alone due to the expectation that we as viewers have to that type of figure. Not least, figures placed in the same room have a capacity to create movement in the space between them. We cannot help attributing them with certain subjective and social characteristics, intentions, depth, history and direction. These expectations, however, are not fulfilled, because just as the spaces in other Martha Kramær paintings do not offer access, these characters do not allow us to go beyond the functions in the image that create this effect. On both the figurative and pictorial level they demonstrate that in their very essence they thrive on painting.
The paintings will never be direct or absolute. They will never be pure narrative nor abstract and unmediated gestures and colour surfaces. They blend things together, and more importantly, they blend into and with each other. They blend together and they repeat, bind, weave, twist, bend, fold and compose – and all this with a forceful gesture that puts our eyes, imagination and senses to the test. A painting such as this, executed with precision, cannot be devoid of significance.