Within the frame – outside the frames
By Nora Ceciliedatter Nerdrum
It is often said that painting is dead as a form of artistic expression. Everything has been done before. The properties of the two-dimensional, rectangular canvas have already been explored and drained. Hence most texts dealing with contemporary painting will need to focus on the artist’s references; the stylistic, formal and colouristic impulses derived from various art historical sources. This can also be a fruitful approach to the art of Morten Slettemeås. His paintings include traits from the Expressionist movements, references to the vehement painting or “heftiger Malerei” of the 1980s, and conscious or subconscious elements derived from the art of Per Kirkeby and Håkon Bleken.
As one of the few artists of his generation who strongly maintains painting as his form of expression, it is easy to dismiss Morten Slettemeås’ art as being overly conservative. Because, why would one really insist on pursuing a form of expression that never can be renewed, that never again will be avant garde? Yet the interesting thing about the art of Slettemeås is that, while obediently relating to painting as such, accepting all the connotations given by this medium, he simultaneously takes a stand against the painting’s undeniably high standing in the canon of high-brow culture.
For the past 30 years art history as a discipline has increasingly been criticised for being elitist and excluding – not taking into account the artistic expressions from non-westerly countries, but also excluding popular culture; for instance film, computer games and advertising. The fairly new discipline called Visual Culture can be seen as a response to this. Rather than pursuing elitist orientated research limited to addressing established and commonly recognized forms of artistic expression, all visual expressions are equally addressed, without taking the possible aesthetic value into account.
The art of Morten Slettemeås relates to this turn towards a more democratic, Visual Culture attitude. Because even though he definitely relates to art history - by choosing painting rather than a lesser established form of expression - he freely picks his reference from art historical giants like Albrecht Dürer, as well as from contemporary comic strips and mass media. The references are mixed together and combined within the same painting. The original messages are decomposed, and more often the individual elements are rendered so unrecognizable that their origins are left untraceable.
The stories in Slettemeås’ paintings are thus told through an array of visual fragments entered into new contexts. A cast of characters heavy on symbolic meaning, like standard bearers, men in uniforms and a rider on horseback, all seem ridiculously misplaced, left solitary standing in the semi-abstract pictorial space of Slettemeås, deprived of their markers of standing and identity. In a recent painting, a small number of people are occupied with carrying long sticks towards either side of the canvas. They seem to be demounting something, but without having any form of interaction or there being any sense of a common understanding between them.
Perhaps then, it is precisely in this decomposition, the breaking down, the deconstruction, that we find the essence of Slettemeås’ project. Like in a Trojan Horse, he is seemingly a painter dedicated to tradition. But in reality he confronts “good taste” in a subtle manner: He challenges the authorities using their own means, conveying his own canon – or anti-canon –
by way of free brush-strokes and an anarchistic attitude to our visual heritage.