Abstraction And Materiality

- abstract expresses in the wake of post-conceptualism

Written by Hanne Beate Ueland, director Stavanger Art Museum

In 2011 a young female artist was awarded The Autumn Exhibition Award for a large abstract textile work. The work, with the title Fan Their Hearts, Inflame Them More, was made of coloured threads of nylon, and measured five by seven metres. The dimensions made the work resemble a stage curtain. Other connotations were of abstract painting. The artist behind the work was Aurora Passero, who that year had graduated from The Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, Department for Textile Art.

In its citation for the award the jury highlighted Passero’s connection to a group of artists working on a revitalization of textile art. The jury eyed a new tendency in Norwegian art, represented in this work, a reinforced interest for the crafts and in the importance of materials. At the same time they drew parallels to Op art and non-figurative painting.[1] Following The Autumn Exhibition Award, Aurora Passero has received a lot of attention for her abstract textile works in hand coloured woven nylon. Her works are usually created specifically for the rooms where they are to be exhibited, and the relationship to the architecture is an important starting point for the process. The latter was particularly evident when she in 2013 exhibited the work Positions at the Norwegian Sculpture Biennial. The dual work related both to Vigeland’s sculptures and the grey-green walls in the Vigeland museum’s high ceilinged exhibition hall. The delicate textiles in soft colours (hues of red, yellow and mauve) were a full 8.5 metres high, but still perceived as beautifully proportionate in relation to the traditional surroundings. In the few years that have passed since she graduated, Passero has distinguished herself as one of our most interesting artists, with a prolific exhibition portfolio that testifies to her international recognition.

Aurora Passero is not alone in making abstract artwork with a renewed interest for the material as a point of departure. In 2013 Hans Hamid Rasmussen, who also teaches at the Department for Textiles at The Academy of Fine Arts in Oslo, gathered some of his most promising students for a group exhibition at the Gallery F15.[2] In addition to Aurora Passero there was Ann Cathrin November Høibo, Maria Brinch, Kjersti Willemsen and Camilla Steinum as part of the exhibition. Their work relates in various ways to textile tradition and a strong interest in the material's properties, and conspicuously often this results in abstract works. Line Ulekleiv draws in her text about Passero links to Robert Morris’ felt works and Cy Twombly’s paintings.[3] One may also think of Rauschenberg’s textile works from the 1970s. It is tempting to see connections to late modernism painters, when confronted with the works of Passero and her contemporaries. In the link between abstract painting and textile art, there are several points of contact. It is relevant to reflect on how earlier generations of artists have explored these connections. Not least how the artist duo Løwaas & Wagle in the 1990s used as a starting point the obvious connections between the historical textile arts and modernism’s flat painting. Astrid Løwaas and Kirsten Wagle began collaborating already in the early 1980s, but it was not until the characteristic “tights paintings” during the 1990s, that their art was truly noted. Textile work made from recycled materials was elevated from a purely arts and crafts context and exhibited in the visual arts scene. In 2008, when the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design had a retrospective exploring the artists’ works, the art historian Vibeke Waallann Hansen pointed out that the duo obtained their inspiration just as much from folk art and textile as from the 20th century’s abstract painting tradition.[4] Løwaas & Wagle represented a new development of textile arts, which had had its true renaissance in Norway in the 1970s, and was closely associated with the rise of feminist oriented art. The combination of nylon stockings and grid pattern (which both refer to the Norwegian tapestry tradition and the modernist painting) stands out as one of the most important images of genre transgression, and new opportunities for textile arts from this period.

Young contemporary artists working with textiles are to a greater extent detached from a feministic tradition and from the links to crafts and folk art. Aurora Passero describes an intimacy to, and an interest in materials and materiality as a point of departure for her own practice. In an interview made in connection with her participation in the Art Basel Miami in 2014, she explains that the basis for her work is the resistance and balance between materials, form, colour, room and content. She worked initially with a wide range of perishable materials in site-specific installations before finding her preferred form, the weaving of nylon threads.[5] The synthetically made material is first and foremost associated with industrial processes and is far removed from a conventional textile tradition. In the citation from The Autumn Exhibition jury, is mentioned a new interest in materiality. Implicit in the artistic assessment of Passero’s work is an understanding of the art direction that had been dominant in the years leading up to the award. The jury has obviously in mind the post conceptual art, where materiality and crafts are subordinate to the idea behind the work, which also governs the execution or presentation. There are fundamental differences between the strategies of an artist like Gardar Eide Einarsson and Aurora Passero, but both work with abstraction. In the case of Einarsson, references to the abstract painting’s foremost exponents can be motivated out of an interest for the modernist flat painting as a political project.[6] Such was the case with the Astrup Fearnley Museet’s 2010 exhibition Power Has a Fragrance, where references to various (lawless) subcultures were juxtaposed with Pollock-like drip paintings and Reinhardt-inspired monochromes.[7] It is tempting to see Einarsson’s interest for the historical flat painting as a comment to the abstract art’s political potential, not only from the middle of the last century in the USA, but all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, where abstract expressions in art and design was created as a consequence of radical political stances.[8] The motivation for talking about Einarsson and the post-conceptual art in this context is not just about emphasizing how the new interest in materiality can be seen as a backlash against the so-called idea-based art. It can also be interesting to reflect on the significance of the interest for abstraction, as it is expressed in the works of Mathias Faldbakken, Gardar Eide Einarsson or Marius Engh, in relation to a following generation. The post-conceptual art has highlighted and opened to debate the legacy of minimalism and the modern painting, and paved the way for a new attention to abstract art. At the same time one should not underestimate the importance of the works of an established generation of Norwegian artists that through the 1980s, 90s and up until today have worked with abstraction, and further developed abstraction in the form of painting, sculpture, photography and textile. I have in mind artists such as Arne Malmedal, Torbjørn Sørensen, Harald Fenn, Susanne Kathleen Mader, Stein Rønning, Kjell Varvin, Wenche Gulbransen and Hanne Friis.[9]

The interest for abstraction among contemporary young artists is expressed through different means. An artist like Marte Johnslien has explored abstraction’s significance in our time. She is preoccupied with how great challenges linked to environmental problems, and a lopsided distribution of wealth – a situation that demands action – can be reconciled with an increasing interest in seeking introspection, towards mindfulness and meditation. In her artistic projects she explores points in common between different withdrawal strategies in our society, and looks into transmission and utility values in an artistic context. Other young artists look into the possibilities of abstraction within a variety of modes and techniques. Traditional expressions such as painting, sculpture and installation art have a strong presence, while we see how some artists expands the formats and examine abstraction’s possibilities in the meeting point between sound and image. Consequently, today we have a wide range of artistic expressions that work with a continuation of the opportunities of abstraction.

Aurora Passero’s links to textile art traditions make it interesting to reflect on her production in relation to other young artists who largely work on the basis of an extended form of materiality. Several of them work with non-traditional textile materials as a foundation for paintings, or build up sculptural works based on pre-existing structures. Henrik Olai Kaarstein is one of those who experiment with use of materials and materiality. He paints on car mats, cardboard, sleeping bags and concrete blocks. The results are paintings and sculptures with an individual narrative connected to the materials used. Likewise we can talk of Tiril Hasselknippe’s molded sculptures, which are often based on existing structures, architectural elements, furniture, surfboards or disjointed fragments from the public space. Through her artistic project the objects’ original function slowly dissolves, and in its place abstracted forms arise, shaped by materials and process.

The closeness to the materials and the material controlled processes facilitate a subjectively based abstraction. With her distinctive woven fabrics, Aurora Passero is reminiscent of Norwegian tapestry artists such as Frida Hansen and Hannah Ryggen, and she reminds us of the political importance of the textile arts in the 1970s. We get at the same time associations to central modernist painters. But first and foremost we experience her works in relation to the beholder and the surroundings in which they are exhibited. The works’ physical presence, with their often-monumental dimensions, is of great importance to how we perceive them. A meeting with a work about craftsmanship, time and process, in a world characterised by great political and environmental challenges, can have its own unique value. Passero’s work is not primarily abstraction, it is woven textiles in large formats, which by virtue of its own language and its own style contributes to enrich and expand contemporary abstract art.

[1] http://www.khio.no/Norsk/Nyheter/Aurora+Passero+tildelt+H%C3%B8stutstill...

[2] The exhibition carried the title Parabol and ran from 28 September to 17 November 2013, http://www.punkto.no/parabol.5125257-181205.html (http://www.punkto.no/parabol.5125257-181205.html)

[3] Ulekleiv, Line, Ivory Tactics, http://www.aurorapassero.com/node/18 (http://www.aurorapassero.com/node/18)

[4] Waallann Hansen, Vibeke, Løwaas & Wagle. Stofflige konstruksjoner, http://www.lovaas-wagle.no/tekstsider/4_wollan_hansen.html (http://www.lovaas-wagle.no/tekstsider/4_wollan_hansen.html)

[5] http://bullettmedia.com/article/levis-made-crafted-presents-good-things-... (http://bullettmedia.com/article/levis-made-crafted-presents-good-things-take-time-feat-aurora-passero/))

[6] The relevance of the abstract artwork, as a powerful political expression, with tangible meaning for our time, is partly elucidated in the exhibition series Abstract Possible, curated by Maria Lind. The basis for her project was the renewed interest for abstraction, which has manifested itself since the late 1990s where young artists have both interpreted the legacy of the formal abstraction and created a social version of it. Another important tendency Lind has explored is abstraction in the form of economic processes, and the her last approach has been looking at how abstract systems often generate a certain logic that is transferable to recent political counter-reactions. http://eastsideprojects.org/past/abstract-possible (http://eastsideprojects.org/past/abstract-possible)

[7] http://www.einarsson.afmuseet.no/ (http://www.einarsson.afmuseet.no/)

[8] See for example the exhibition Adventures of the Black Square. Abstract Art And Society 1915-2015 on Whitechapel Gallery http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/abstract-art/ (http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/abstract-art/)

[9] Last summer the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design had an exhibition elucidating the emergence of abstract art in Norway from the end of the 1950s. The exhibition Rom for abstraksjon – Impulser i norsk kunst 1957-75 (Room for abstraction – Impulses in Norwegian art, 1957-75) highlights key artists that have had a significance for a further development of abstract art in Norway in recent times. http://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/no/utstillinger_og_aktiviteter/utstillinger...