The Expressive Heritage
By Tommy Olsson
When we then reach Morten Slettemeås (he says, as if he has already spoken for a long time about something, which is correct in a way, even if this particular text – which should be read as a continuation of a dozen others – just begins with this), it is easy to see his work as a logical consequence of a significant re-evaluation of the possibilities of painting anno 2008.
The resonance echoes far, far back, over a hundred years – all the way back to the late 19th Century paintings by Edward Munch. It is hard to argue against this statement; both the execution and the various artistic strategies used by Slettemeås are easy to recognize in this recycling of cultural baggage. But all painting being worth the effort is always to a degree process-orientated, and Slettemeås moves consistently towards the utmost margins of what we already know – time and time again it looks like these paintings strive towards achieving something that in reality is impossible. Which they probably must do to get somewhere.
But I have to be careful what I say now – lately I have been accused of being a romantic several times a week. (It is strange, really, how this word has acquired such a dismissive ring to it). But it should be fairly safe to say that the history of expressive painting is founded on precisely this; a quest towards something impossible. But to exceed the framework of the possible, in this year and date, is no simple matter. It is increasingly uncertain where this framework is situated, and whether it ever existed at all. And to insist on such an agenda, now, that would most certainly be hopelessly romantic to even say out loud. So this is not what the overall objective is here. This is not about modernism, it is – like all painting after the 20th Century – post-postmodernism that is the issue here; the logical effect of different types of accumulated material of experience. On one hand, Slettemeås is in a halfway destructive mode – the starting point is nearly always an existing picture which is to be “destroyed.” On the other hand, the effect is always a new picture, partly reconstructed, recycled, spin-dried and manifested in a colour exploding visual orgy, quite seductive to the eye. And there is never any doubt that the closest historical kinship of this painting lies in Berlin in the early 1980s. Slettemeås is most definitely a vehement painter, impossible to imagine without this period, but he is also a vehement painter from this side of the Millennium. Something has happened during the time which has passed.
Let us go a bit further into details, to see what can come out of it;
1) The Colours
Here already things happen; in spite of the paintings having an intense effect on the eye, every nuance is in fact finely tuned in subtle tones. The colours are not striking viewed separately, but they are more often many, and introduce sudden contrasting effects. This man knows what he is doing; these shades of colour belong to him and no-one else – it is not very hard to recognise a painting as being just his painting. For that matter, colours are rarely unimportant for any painter, but here it seems like a certain control over matter, not usually thought of as being distinctive for this kind of wild visual excess, is very much present. The colours look more randomly applied than they in reality are. I think – but I am by no means sure – that he spends a great deal of time blending the colours, maybe even more time than he spends applying them to the canvas.
2) The Starting Point
It is a common thing for painters to start from already existing pictures. It is neither uncommon that the resulting image totally secedes from the starting point and lands in a very different place. However, it can be rewarding to look at what kind of pictures Slettemeås starts from. He has a preference for sampling material from the older, pre-modernistic era of art history. If we just stopped here, we could quickly imagine that we had a clear idea of what his art is about, but it is not quite that simple. Because just as frequent are images from newspapers; apparently randomly picked fragments from the news. This tells us a bit about the scope and complexity in his work – some place between the period of court painters and the breaking news photo; it lands in a cascade of spontaneous brush strokes. It is nearly as if one can hear the ink splash with a splattering sound. A specific, unexplored place, somewhere between Bjarne Melgaard’s larger paintings (but more calculated cool than Melgaard’s militant mania), and Håkon Bleken’s later work (but with necessity being somewhat more restrained), and in many ways related to both.
It seems like painting constantly has to be reconquered after periods of collective hibernation. This always appears to be a reaction, or counter attack. And never happening in isolation, always as a sweeping motion across the planet. Maybe it has something to do with cause and effect; but when it comes to expressionism in particular, there also seems to be a permanent inner conflict between the figurative starting point and the more abstract resulting image – a conflict that Slettemeås consciously relates to, and that makes his paintings pulse. Traces of history of painting in encounter with the balanced attitude of the artist – equal parts critical analysis and wild passion – just remaining under control. Viewed in this way, it is the newest shoot of an old tree; Slettemeås never breaks with this tradition, but brings it along on the road ahead.
4) The Future
Who knows? Contemporary art is an ant hill, and painting is part of a larger, more complex pattern. A thing that needs a certain nerve to work. In this case it is fairly open – there are numerous avenues to explore within Slettemeås’ pictorial universe. Being informed by both history and the present time, it evolves in pace with a disharmonious world. Strangely, the first painting I saw by Slettemeås showed a couple of copulating dogs in purple, against a background of fertile green; a little hint at what runs this world and to what extent one can expect to gain any control over it. A reminder that in the end it will always be a question of matter over mind; absolutely nothing surrounding me – myself included – lasts forever. Everything will vanish. But in the meeting of two dogs lies a potential for a new dog. And in this way this little niche of ours works, so to speak. Nearly like a kennel.
Something like this. But all of this would be worthless if there was not some kind of basic enthusiasm present. The rediscovered, and for Slettemeås, definitely reconquered painting appears to be a more than useful means of transport for artistic work and progress. Actually, it seems like one can travel as far as one likes with it, in all directions. And sooner or later, by necessity, one has to touch upon the possibility to achieve the impossible. So it has been done before. True. But it has never been done before now.