Galleri Hvelvet 27.08. – 16.10.2022
Å få forsvinne i lys og bli til farge (To Be Able to Disappear in Light and Become Colour) is the title of a recent exhibition by Gunhild Sannes, and it serves to describe what it feels like to be in a room filled with the artist’s works. The large surfaces painted in the age-old egg-tempera technique glow with light and colour. Even where black dominates, it is penetrated by larger and smaller fields of white, grey or coloured light. As such, the mainly black paintings also mostly appear as both bright and luminous. Even if the viewer does not literally disappear into light and become transformed into colour when encountering these pictures, one can easily experience being both absorbed and embraced by them.
The quality of an artwork depends on its ability to absorb a viewer’s gaze, claimed the American art historian and critic Michael Fried. The absorption is so strong, he says, that the distinction between subject and object, between viewer and work, and time itself, are overtaken by a contemplative and endless present. When Fried wrote this in the 1960s, it was in defence of modernist painting and sculpture in the face of new tendencies in contemporary art. Avantgarde artists in the 1960s transgressed boundaries between the individual media and art forms. They saw it as uninteresting and old fashioned to treat sculpture, painting, music and theatre as distinct practices with each their own rules. Media and art forms therefore came to be mixed, and even the boundaries between art and life were challenged in ways that have had an enduring impact on what has become standard in today’s field of art, examples being conceptual art, installation, performance and socially-oriented project-based art.
For Fried, the fact that these new works necessarily required time to comprehend, in contrast to the immediate presence of modernist works, meant that they became ‘theatre’ rather than authentic visual art. Another trend pointing in the same direction was that artists could include a form of addressing the viewer in their artworks, in the sense that the viewer’s movements in the gallery space, her reactions, or anything else needed to fathom the works, was proclaimed as a necessary part of the artwork. In contrast to this, Fried thought an authentic artwork was self-absorbed and knew nothing of viewers. And in the contemplative absorption of the work, viewers also forgot themselves.
The 55 years that have passed since Fried wrote his article Art and Objecthood show that he was not on the side of history as regards developments and changes in art. Of course, at times and in specific environments, traditional media such as painting and sculpture have been almost banned; painting has been declared dead and then resurrected several times. But for Sannes and a number of other artists of her generation, it seems that these distinctions and positions are no longer interesting.
Without doubt, Gunhild Sannes’s paintings resemble what Michael Fried saw as authentic, modernist art. They stand in any case with one foot solidly planted in a modernist tradition. The large canvases with non-figurative motifs, with paint applied in varying amounts of airiness and saturation, with traces of the artist’s brush, movement of the canvas, or the palette knife’s at-times brutal treatment of the canvas, bear witness of an artist who works intuitively. At the same time, we sense a strong will to experiment, to stretch and challenge both her materials and her means. To be able to ‘disappear in light and become colour’ therefore pertains not only to the viewer but also to a work method: she becomes in many ways the servant of the as-yet unfinished painting – through being attentive to the painting’s own needs and will. Here she resembles American Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, whom the critic Harold Rosenberg chose to call ‘action painters’. This was not because they engaged in any type of artistic activism; rather, they acted, as in a staged drama. Pollock like to describe his work process as a reciprocal dialogue between himself and the painting. Sannes stands perhaps even closer to Helen Frankenthaler, one of the few women artists associated with this group. But just like the new generation of artists who challenged the Abstract Expressionists when they were at the height of their fame, Sannes has also, in her own way, crossed the boundaries between art and life.
Gunhild Sannes completed her master’s degree in 2021 at the art academy in Bergen, so with such a fresh artist, it is always interesting to read the reflection text that all art students must submit along with their degree project. Here we meet an artist who is drawn towards working with painting, who almost cries out for colour, and who, with great seriousness and thoroughness, immerses herself in all aspects of pictorial production: from building stretchers (the wooden frames across which canvas is stretched), priming canvas with rabbit-skin glue and gesso, mixing pigment, egg, oil and water – to working with the painting itself, which she approaches with her whole body. In ways rivalling those of the aforementioned Americans, she finds herself in an I–Thou relationship with the painting. She seeks to become a listening presence focused on and making room for the Other, as described in the writings of philosophers like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Lévinas. She compares the attentive, listening presence in the painting process to prayer, but then she corrects herself: ‘On second thought, I don’t experience the painting process as being like prayer, it is prayer.’ And the prayer, we understand, is something she practices in different forms every day, with working on the painting perhaps taking the most time. Prayer, attentive presence, is essentially a matter of ‘making oneself accessible to God’s love’.
As a Christian, Gunhild Sannes is attracted to the tradition of both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church with their rituals and room for silence, mysticism, recognition of beauty, visuality, sensory experience and physicality. In this tradition, prayer – and thus, for Sannes, also the painting process – encompasses the whole person, in a surrendering to something that lies beyond language and which existed prior to language. In this context, it is interesting that she has chosen to paint non-figuratively. But unlike abstract art, which in one way or another is an abstraction of something specific and real, non-figurative art represents something that cannot be said in words or expressed through recognisable figuration. Something that – like God, possibly? – can only be described by saying what it is not, but which, even though it cannot be described, can nevertheless be recognised. This surrender is also linked to a mystical experience, to a sense of God in nature, in light, in colours. Is the mystical experience essentially a matter of dissolution? A dissolving of the distinction between oneself and another thing, between the self and the object, until both disappear and become ineffable, sacred. One can disappear in light and become colour.