A very patient man
A text on the artist Lars Strandh and his works

Artist Lars Strandh works in a large, well-lit studio in a shabby building on Oslo’s east side. This in itself is not especially unusual. What is more interesting is the artistic territory that he occupies. Strandh has chosen to discard a large portion of the repertoire that other artists normally use. He has done so with no regrets. This artist has assumed a task that most resembles a self-imposed punishment. He has chosen to paint his way painstakingly through a long series of monochrome rectangles. In this way, he wants to be able to “rid himself of” distinctive colours and formats. He wants to “purge” them from body and mind. Whereas other artists take a step back each day in order to view their work from a distance, Strandh instead gets closer and closer to his works. Ultimately, he views them at very close range. From this vantage point he makes his survey. With his back turned to the window and the street beyond it, he scrutinizes the painting on the wall in front of him. With all senses open, he studies meticulously the colour, stroke, canvas and frame. He paints slowly. His studio is perfectly silent. This is how he spends his days. It is melancholy, comical and beautiful at the same time. Lars Strandh is a near-sighted visual poet.

In the Internet-based Baroque Minimalist’s review of Strandh’s exhibition at Galleri Brandstrup, the artist’s productions are described as follows: “The works are extremely simple and clean-cut in expression. Accordingly, they can be briefly summarized as evenly painted colour surfaces, using a limited colour range, on plain white canvases. His paintings evoke an impression of neatness, orderliness and simplicity. Even when approached and inspected closely, they retain their superhuman and mechanical traits.” (1)

My first response on reading the above attempt to capture the essence of Strandh’s paintings is that it does not succeed. Rigid, clean, even. Such repetitive strings of adjectives seem to follow the artist like shadows. Clearly he has a problem. He is the victim of a chronic misunderstanding that sees him as a declared minimalist. In my view it is only partly justified to identify him with this school and its inherent manifesto.
The minimalist art that developed during the 1960s displayed a certain resistance to what most would consider an essential element of painting: the components of meaning that emerge from the physical work and thereby establish a basis for interpretation. Some proponents of minimalism sought to preclude this possibility by rejecting all metaphorical, allegorical and illusionist visual constructions. What you see is what you see, nothing more and nothing less. This tenet implied a change in the relationship between the work of art and its viewer. On the one hand, it could be regarded as a loss, since the viewer is denied the traditional opportunity to interpret a work; on the other hand, it places greater emphasis on the viewer’s physical presence. Art historian Øystein Ustvedt writes, “Due to this lack of transcendent opticality or imaginative visualization the work can only be experienced in real time and actual space, in other words, in the same way as we experience everyday objects and ordinary things. An element of time and transience arises from our interaction with such objects, a duration that stands in contrast to modern art’s emphasis on presentness. It is in the space between visual creativeness and the theatrical that the viewer is included in earnest.” (2) Michael Fried’s critique of minimalist art centres on the suggestion that this art form makes itself “dependent” on the viewer and therefore emerges as incomplete and empty without the latter’s supporting contribution.

As I see it, Strandh has no interest in ascribing his style of painting to such a dogmatic programme. Although his paintings have much in common with minimalism with regard to form, Strandh breaks the rules. In other words, he does not do what other generations of artists have tended to do; he doesn’t hitch his art to an “ism” and its governing ideas.
The artist makes it perfectly clear that he has little interest in specifying either a “correct” or an “incorrect” way of appreciating his paintings. He offers us, as viewers, a choice in terms of the components and traits we might wish to focus on in his works. On the one hand, we can opt to see the painting merely as a residual trace of the artist’s work process. In this case, what we view as the painting’s “subject” is its genesis and body. The frame, canvas, priming and colour receive their due attention as essential and equal elements in the composition of a painting that manifests itself as a thing, an object in and of itself.

Alternatively, Strandh also provides viewers with the scope to exercise their own imaginations. The fields of colour in his paintings have an atmospheric quality that invites just such an approach. It is possible to lose oneself in the spacious areas suggestive of water and air. The illusion is within reach for anyone willing to see it. As viewer, you can shift perspectives, recall and revoke the mirage. You can turn the “perception switch” back and forth, depending on what you wish to see. Neither perspective takes priority over the other. The two ways of viewing the paintings are equally weighted, producing an ambiguity the artist does not want to clear up. The artist paints his works with a “double brush”, thereby declaring a pragmatism that releases him from the tenets of any manifesto. It is a language of having it both ways, which identifies him with current artistic realities.

What I personally see in one of Strandh’s triptychs are squares within other squares, three red rectangular fields of colour, each set against its own lighter background. At first glance, they appear to be three identical figures presented side by side. In the next moment, however, I notice that not all the fields of colour interact in the same way with the outer format against which they appear. One of them is aligned lower than the others, not much, but just enough for the difference to be perceptible. As I inspect this, I become unsure as to whether this field of colour is actually as large as the others. My glance shifts, trying to measure the red areas against one another. I am unable to reach a decisive conclusion. The physical scope of the middle colour is different, but it is impossible to determine the nature of the difference. Distortion cannot be interpreted as a refined element of composition. It is neither elegant nor exciting. It is simply there, just as the red colour is simply red. In these works, there is neither figuration nor abstraction, just colour, paint applied by hand.

It is this quality in the paintings that I find most interesting. It is what they are not that makes them pregnant. The way one experiences the striking presence of this colour is difficult to convey through common vocabulary. Language with reference points in traditional picture analysis, theories of colour and composition, fails to properly express the phenomenon we encounter here. What we are dealing with here is something quite different: the fact that we see colour alone. What is strange and fascinating about these mute surfaces is that, in the absence of other references, they suggest a simple and fundamental circumstance: that of ourselves as seeing individuals in our encounter with the visible. As Merleau-Ponty says in talking of Paul Klee: “Turning back to colour has the advantage of bringing us closer to ‘the heart of things.” (3)
Strandh’s paintings are impossible to render adequately in a catalogue. Such a format does not do them justice. If you encounter them physically, however, you will find that they can be read in various modes and at different speeds. The first impression is unmediated and insistently forceful. If, however, you see them thoroughly and in detail over time, bringing to them the same attention, interest and closeness that the artist himself lavished on them during their creation, a visual, poetic patience becomes apparent. What manifests itself is the laborious and meticulously slow work that they have required. Over the years, the artist has methodically researched colours in various nuances, sections and volumes. It is not a question simply of any colour at all. Each has been carefully selected through a meticulous process in which the artist seeks out unidentifiable resonances, a personal fixation that expresses itself in an insatiable urge to paint in exactly that colour. Strandh has his favourites: a cadmium red, a black that borders on violet, green and blue, an uneven orange and sea green. In some works, these colours appear alone, in others they appear together. The result is harmony and dissonance that alters the experience, which in turn fosters new series, new investigations. An eternal and impossible quest, “it is a question of colour dimensions that in and for themselves create identities, differences, a texture, a materiality, a something …” (4)

Other artists choose to associate their art with contemporary thematic currents. They infiltrate society and the media, and prefer the public space as their arena. They are busy executives of entrepreneur-like firms, with an office, computers and a “network” as the most important tools of their trade. The irritating, reprehensible, fascinating and, at the same time, beautiful aspect of Strandh’s project is his sluggish, tenacious manner of art production, pursued in the loneliness of his studio. The time and concentration that must be invested, the lack of speed and the concurrent need to disregard changing appointments on the calendar, are conspicuously evident. The numerous seemingly identical canvases on display bear witness to a palpable obstinacy. The clear absence of politically correct social activity in Strandh’s art is in itself a statement applied in brush strokes by an artist who has his own ideas about what art should be and do. He has chosen to take the time to devote himself to silence and the tiniest of nuances. This, in the final analysis, is as political an attitude as any other.

Per Gunnar Tverbakk
Freelance curator

1 Aud-Kristin Kongsbro Haldorsen: ”Ekspressivt og minimalistisk på Galleri Brandstrup”, Barokk Minimalist, no. 6, vol. 1 (February 2002). 2 Øystein Ustvedt Passasjer – betrakteren som deltaker, catalogue, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, 19 January–21 April 2002, p. 34. 3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Øyet og ånden, artes, Pax Forlag, 2000, p. 59. 4 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Øyet og ånden, artes, Pax Forlag, 2000, p. 59.