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Beyond White

One of the greatest challenges currently facing the art of painting is undoubtedly that of justifying itself in a world replete with visually advanced, two-dimensional images. There appears to be no limits to what cannow be produced using digital media, or to the crumpled, folded, movable, dreamlike, or sensuous spaces and narratives that can be created on screens and other surfaces without paint, brushes or canvas. Already at the beginning of the 20th century artists and critics began to realize that the traditional domain and understanding of pictures would be challenged by a rush of popular visual culture already busy overtaking many of the functions that were previously the preserve of art and its images. One way of ensuring the survival of painting in a world of technical images was to insist on the ability of this medium to maintain the power and material significance of formal abstraction and colour. Here was something - an intimacy, a sensuality, a kind of formal refinement, the extent of which no photographs or commercial images would apparently be able to reproduce. Parts of the painting world fought for years, only to gain a Phyrric victory in the continuously expanding world of technical images. Indeed it did win a place in the institution of art as the most mobile, manageable, and intimate of the ”serious” media, which still maintained the ability to make photography look overly simple, mechanical and superficial. Yet at the same time it managed in many ways to paint itself into a dogmatic corner, permitting itself only to display that which the newer media would most likely not be able to demonstrate with the same intensity and sensitivity. In its battle for justification, for its very own place and nature, modern painting lost a certain flexibility and versatility that had previously been a hallmark of the medium. Ultimately, this tendency resulted in white paintings; monochromatic or achromatic painting showing ever less in response to the increasing visual surplus of the surrounding culture; hence the birth of the idea of painting as negation, as a postponement of the visible world.

It was difficult to see how post-modern painting was to win back the material significance, the visual energy and the narrative or discursive potential that paintings of earlier eras have had to various degrees and in various contexts. How would painting be able to resume old virtues without becoming the artistic world’s nostalgic and commercially devious answer to an image-culture whose agenda is marketed far from the field of classic, manual media?

Certainly there is no obvious solution to this dilemma. However, for many artists in recent years, one starting point for further work has been simply to accept the sum total of whatever characteristics and possibilities they find in the medium, trusting it to go the distance. This means expanding options rather than limiting them: Rather than retouching away one or more of these - as one would with irrelevant details or so many signs of infidelity to the medium - one might consider painting, while not entirely unlimited, nevertheless to be an open framework for the formation of significances on two-dimensional surfaces, capable of mixing material, plastic, imaging, and symbolic signs into complex expressions in a way unlike any other image-media.Painting may be considered a conceptual laboratory for the examination of the interweaving of material and immaterial, of perceptual and conceptual elements in the visible world, just as it may be considered a platform for the production of images conditioned by everything from the gesticulating body and the physical properties of the materials involved over the ready-mades of visual culture to the possibilities of the digital world.

Associating these principal advantages with a significant entertainment value that might be ascribed a particular mixture of gravity and lightness associated with this, the flattest of the serious artistic media, we have an offset for understanding a number of the new positions of contemporary painting.

It is characteristic of an artist like Jonas Hvid Søndergaard that he samples stylistic traits from a number of known genres of classic and modern painting with ease: even letting the sometime originals undergo digital treatment in order to produce a sketch, without ever giving the viewer the impression that the final painting is a mere illustration, or demonstration of an idea. Painting as a physical-material practice with its inherent resistance, its inertia and its density, but also with its particular freshness interests him just as much as the presence of numerous image-references. In fact we can determine that when Hard Edge, Colour Field, Pop Art, Surrealism, Neo-constructivism, Minimalism, Op-art, traditional sign-painting and numerous other things meet and mingle in the paintings of Jonas Hvid Søndergaard it is in no way about creating a postmodern remix of the dominant stylistic trends in modern painting, far from it in fact. The numerous paths sought out and travelled by painting over the last sixty years are merely available to us with other, perhaps still untried routes for the projects currently unfolding, and the stories now playing out before our eyes. There are no limits to what previous experiences may be drawn on as long as they serve the current purpose.

Jonas Hvid Søndergaard’s paintings are expansive at two different levels or perhaps in two different directions: inwardly and outwardly. On one hand they create deep, dynamic spaces where springy shapes, sometimes perspectivist, iconic, and pictogram-like, sometimes abstract and diagrammatic conspire to attract the gaze; inviting viewers to lose themselves in the imaginary universes of painting. Here are landscapes full of mysterious references to the solitary house and apparently limitless psychedelic universes of weightless objects floating or sailing aimlessly. Or bricks crashing around the picture like remnants from exploded architecture, of unanchored constructions with no firm ground underfoot. On the other hand these paintings are expanding toward the surrounding space, this is indicated by the way the edges of the painting are brought into play. The frames are never neutral. The shapes are often extended right out the edges or dramatically cut by them, like in the big sail-picture, whose masts and spinnakers are severely cropped. This direct contact between the image and the physical edge of the picture helps suspend the otherwise characteristic depth of his paintings, thus creating a tension between the work as spatio-physical fact and the painting as an imaginary, virtual space. This effect is at its most extreme in the oblong paintings resembling ladders and railway-tracks and totally devoid of perspective; here the image becomes a semi-architectonic, semi-decorative element in the exhibition space. Like the serially positioned boxes of the minimalists it demarcates a specific distance between for instance floor and ceiling – yet these are still depictive images. These are paintings that simultaneously maintain and transcend the threshold of fiction; images pulsating on the border between material and immaterial that in this play on the borderline itself utilizes the broadest spectrum imaginable of painterly modes of presence and presentation.

In Jonas Hvid Søndergaard’s latest paintings there is an interchange between visual complexity and a striking simplicity of form reminiscent of certain types of sign- or poster-aesthetics. These are paintings as signs, paintings appealing, seducing and marking borders. But they indicate nothing beyond themselves. They present themselves for viewing in a way that defies all linguistic description. This signage does not refer to some kind of underlying idea, and certainly not to a product, rather the message is itself and its own effects. In this sense these paintings come close to certain forms of pop art. They appeal to a certain desire to see, a pleasure in viewing and seeing more, a desire released from the simultaneous desire to control, unlike the way it is normally stylized in commercial aesthetics. Often we connect visibility with clarity, transparency, and approachability; visibility provides an insight, sometimes connected to a feeling of control. Visibility can provide an overview thus providing power. Jonas Hvid Søndergaard’s paintings display a different kind of visibility. It does provide plenty to look at, sometimes in the form of an almost overwhelming, baroque-style visual richness. But there is at once too much and too little of it, since what we see in this case outnumbers the information we receive about any narrative or idea-related associations. Hence we receive neither insight nor overview, and the desire to see is thus turned on itself. In this sense the visibility opened up by these paintings is for show, a spectacular, theatrical visibility; producing rather than representing and creating imagery narratives rather than illustrating tales with which we are already familiar, that can thus be retold in a language different to the one in which they are originally presented.

One might say of that these paintings spring from a cheerful dedication to a new form of obscurity that does not call on pathetic dogma and other modes of territorializing the medium. This is painting that fears neither the demanding tradition of the monochrome nor the image-spawning of popular culture and for which there can be a direct connection between the coloured surfaces of Barnett Newman and the psychedelic flow of a flat-screen. These paintings do not derive their justification from an opposition to something they strive not to be. Conversely this is painting that wants it all and acts accordingly: stringently, inclusively, and generously. There is an underlying awareness that no painting starts from nothing, and that the colour white has indeed been used before, but not necessarily like this.


Copyright 2013
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