w/o respect in retrospect
Looking back involves the restructuring of the past into progress. One thing is attached to another through the magic of hindsight and voila; clarity is achieved. Natasja Askelund’s project of looking back on her own artistic production over the past twenty years obscures this trajectory of progress and rather defiantly blurs the past and violently eradicates meaning. This valiant attempt to obfuscate might also lead to the creation of new meaning, but Askelund’s attitude towards a retrospective is a hazy gaze and a reworking and restructuring of the past instead of a simple representation of it.
Most people would be very familiar with Askelund’s work. Colorful figurative paintings, often with a gruesome twist. Defiantly figurative? Deviantly decorative? For her retrospective exhibition at Galleri Opdahl Askelund has rounded up several of her old canvases. Not the throw-aways, not the discarded paintings that never made it out of the studio, but rather canvases that mean something, that have gone places, and achieved something. These are paintings from exhibitions that have been important to the artist, and important to the people who have purchased them. The canvases will be repainted, in a single color, to create a monochrome that traces the original motif, but eliminates any color that might help to further shape, define, show lines, and create figures and representations. The painting will still be there, but hidden under a new coat of paint. The figures will still be there, but under a layer of monochromatic paint.
This altercating move might be considered tongue in cheek, a cruel and perhaps unnecessary makeover of sorts. It is easy to imagine the figurative painter in the studio trapped with guilt over her endeavors to represent and to tell stories through paintings. There’s always a second-guessing for the figurative painter within the world of contemporary art. After all, painting has been left for dead several times in art history and it takes a certain amount of stubbornness and persistence to still paint, and in particular figuratively. The monochrome inhabits a privileged status in the art world. It can be a sigil of seriousness or a representation of rigor, in contrast to the perceived frivolous nature of contemporary figurative painting. A monochromatic painting also embodies an ideal of a free painting, which might even inhabit a perceived status as a monochromatic deity. Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, was a Suprematist portal into a different world. The magic monochromes of Yves Klein would “open a window to freedom.” Askelund is not giving up her interests as a painter or trying to reinsert herself into a male monochromatic tradition, but her project does require balls.
Askelund is putting herself on the line here. Her and her paintings, because that is what she is, a painter, and what she does, make paintings. She might be cracking a joke, but is also being dead serious about this opportunity to look back on her own oeuvre. But the regular reordering of a retrospective is challenged by the choice to paint over the same canvas, yet again. Painters often reuse a canvas, either by necessity or because the painting didn’t ‘stick.’ These paintings did ‘stick,’ but are being ‘unstuck.’ The recently reincarnated monochromes you will encounter in this exhibition still reveal figures and stories; they are just at the mercy of a single color. This is not an attempt to realign a practice within the history of art, but an attempt at risk.
And in the end, the act of repainting in itself is not one of destruction. It is certainly one of change and of reaching a point of no return, but instead of looking at the history of monochromes to find historical precedents for Askelund’s act, maybe one of can find ones in practices of transformation and translation? This is not the Erased de Kooning Drawing by Robert Rauschenberg, even though they share a similar logic. Rauschenberg acquired the De Kooning drawing for the purpose of erasing it. The erasure was an arduous task and transformed the valuable drawing into a work by Rauschenberg. Askelund similarly takes something of value and transforms it, sacrificing one work of art in order to create another one. The difference being that she only utilizes her own work. She is both De Kooning and Rauschenberg.
The translation of one painting into another, on top of itself, is also similar in a way to Gelitin’s Tantamounter 24/7. The Austrian collective inhabited the gallery space of Leo Konig during the course of the exhibition and turned themselves and the whole gallery into a large, living Xerox machine. One item, a work of art, a trinket, a baby, a pack of cigarettes, would be inserted into the Tantamounter. A few hours later a copy would appear together with the original. Next to the baby would be a stuffed animal dressed as the baby, the pack of cigarettes would be translated into a cassette tape painted with the colors of the pack. The copy would be linked with the original through idea and representation. In Askelund’s case the copy and the original are linked on the canvas, one subverting the other.
The resulting presentation of paintings, of confusing past and present, destruction and creation, seems to be a fruitful way of not just looking at the past, but reworking it. The past is constantly reworked, forgotten, discovered, rediscovered, mythologized and recontextualized, but the process has never been as clear or as fascinating as with Askelund’s look back at her own work. The idea of progress is challenged and in particular the ways in which an artists oeuvre is constructed, framed and told.
Installation photography: Bitmap