"...an angel through the room."

Simplicity can be provocative: The sneaking suspicion of being underrated, of being lulled into a streamlining way of thinking that robs the world of its complexity and wealth of nuances. The simplicity in Strandh’s art is not like that. The paintings may not even be as simple as they immediately appear to be or feel like. With a closer look one quickly discovers that there is a preciseness to the work done here, this is an artist who has put brushes and palette to use and created a meticulous and patient work. This discovery may give a more nuanced view of the simplicity, but it does not cease to exist for that reason. The paintings still do not offer much more than a painted surface with lines. There are no festive optical illusions hidden in the linear patterns, no surprising effects, figures or messages.

To me, the simplicity in the expression lies in what is not there. The absence. The paintings do not carry a reference to things that actually exist in the world. If we ask what the paintings are a picture of, if they have a specific motif, then we are probably asking in vain. Because even though Strandh’s paintings bring up associations to the shredded patterns in Japanese zen gardens, growth rings in tree trunks, wind and water, they are hardly an attempt to recreate such phenomena. But do they evoke something? Can the shades of color and the linear patterns evoke something else, for example red for another living feeling, black for stillness, lines for...? Possibly, but not in the sense of a symbol that refers to one particular thing or an allegory that leads to an understanding of something beyond the painting itself. The painted surface could just as well be what it immediately presents itself to be, lines and colors, beautifully shaped, but that and nothing else. In that case, the beholder can take joy in the intellectually unchallenging aspects of the paintings.

Strandh’s art is a welcome change in a time where the only purpose of the prevailing visual language seems to be to entertain, seduce or persuade. This is not about fast-paced adventure, about the desire to create a sensation or to stimulate demand. Chatter and effects have been replaced by an unassuming, subtle simplicity. The paintings convey to us without grand gestures, without pushing, agitating or shrieking. Yet they still draw attention, they do not demand it, but draw it anyway. There is something impelling, almost suggestive, about these sharply demarcated, lined surfaces. The regular repetition that is reinforced by the finely tuned color shades, the absence of a theme – insistent in its indetermination, yet still echoing something familiar.

Strandh’s works represent an opportunity to calm down, compose yourself, maybe even meditate. Yet I do not find the works to be an invitation to stop thinking, as in the meditative practices of Zen Buddhism, for example. The calming effect is not intellectually pacifying, rather it spurs me on. First I ask: What is this? then, Why lines? and then when I begin to “see with eyes that see”: a general admiration that a person chose to spend time and energy on creating these very paintings. For me the questions lead to new questions that are more relevant to me and my ability to see, experience and think. What is happening in the painting becomes less important than what is happening inside of me because of the painting. It also strikes me that it may be good to leave the prevailing way of thinking that rationality raises us to follow behind for a more experienced way of thinking, a way of thinking that allows more in than out, that is more receptive than forceful.

It is tempting to look at the paintings as a tribute to slowness, peace and reflection. But it is not wise to be too steadfast in such an interpretation. A friend of mine did not think too highly of my way of thinking, he definitely felt that the paintings had a flurry to them that left him feeling rushed. He said that the linear pattern that flowed mercilessly across the canvas reminded him of how brief a time we have in life – about the flow of life. He gave the paintings an existential dimension that often becomes relevant when you are standing before a work of art that largely leaves you to your own interpretation.

The absence in Strandh’s paintings is not an absolute absence in the sense of “void” or “nothingness”. They are painted, square surfaces that create their own “theme”, they refer to themselves, and are an object in themselves. But what are they about? They are about themselves, about shades of color and linear patterns on a white canvas. What more? Does there have to be anything more? A painted canvas with linear patterns is, and remains, a painted canvas with linear patterns. It may be even misguided to try to “read” anything else, anything more into it. “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose….”, wrote Gertrude Stein, insisting that a rose is nothing more than a rose. But she also said: “In that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years”. I do not know if Strandh’s paintings say: “A painted surface is a painted surface...” etc., but I feel that they have a different appeal to me each time I see them. And the appeal is precisely in their rich nuances and colorfulness. The paintings conjure up feelings about what they are themselves, but also for what they are not, for the things that set them apart from other things in the world.

In my opinion the paintings are neither self-sufficient nor autonomous. They are more than decorative objects that exist in a purely external/superficial relation to the world we live in. It is true that they do not tell a story about this or that, they do not have a narrative structure, yet there is still something happening inside of them. What is happening is an affirmation and distillation of the here and now. At one and the same time the paintings frame and contain a frozen moment and a moment that is inevitably unfolding. This moment grasps and brings out the contrasts between movement and standing still, flight and constancy. It is a glimpse of something that fundamentally pertains to our time-limited form of existence.

There is a correlation between the whole that the paintings are a part of and the limited portion(s) that the works are in themselves. A vague notion that each one of Strandh’s paintings represents a fragment of a larger context confirms this impression. Here, at least, the boundaries are pushed for what it is itself, a hint that the paintings exist for my sake as much as for their own. They communicate something to me that pertains to the world I live in. They echo something familiar, but I cannot put my finger on what that is exactly. I imagine that Strandh’s art originates from the same feeling that it stirs within me. It is hard to describe this fully in words, but has a lot to do with situations where I feel there are no demands, living in the moment and quietude. It is a feeling that calms the uneasiness inside of me, the senses become more attuned to nuances in shapes and colors and I hear myself think.

If I allow myself to be led my direct associations: wind, river or rain, then the paintings are not about these phenomena, rather lead in the direction of the air’s flow, the river’s stream, the rain’s fall. The paintings are an expression of movement from what something is to how something is – the way something is. This angle of reflection makes me think of Heidegger’s thoughts on existence. According to Heidegger, existence is precisely what “is” not, the way objects and beings are. Existing is the act of giving and thus what lies underneath and determines that something can be that way at all. To assert that Strandh’s art is an expression of such an interpretation of existence is probably going too far, but there is something equally, notably “objectless” about the objects that these painting are.

When Strandh creates objects, in the sense of concrete, material artwork, there are issues that make interpreting a theme of objects problematic. It is true that I view the paintings as objects both to the mind and to the senses, yet at the same time the “theme” (the painted surface) is not first and foremost the object of the interpretation, it is more an act of thinking – an act that takes precedence over the existence of something as something. I look at, but reflect on, and I do so because what I see inspires reflection. I reflect based on the sensual experience, the feeling that the painting stirs in me.

A duplicity runs through Strandh’s paintings, on several levels. I have already touched upon several: simplicity – subtleness, stillness – movement, constancy – inconstancy, slowness – speed. I could have also mentioned the eternity in the moment, the concrete in the abstract, the particular in the universal, etc. This duplicity is paradoxical, it asserts that the same thing exists and does not exist – at the same time. But the paintings neither “exist” for one thing nor the other, they are at the crossfield in between, they are inter esse (“between what exists”): They are neither a monotone/monochrome negation of what exists nor a positive affirmation of anything other than themselves. It also brings to mind the old philosophical point, a point of linguistic logic, about the man who says it is raining and not raining at the same time. Naturally he meets protests and is asked to concede that it is either raining or not raining. Then the man replies: “But it isn’t raining between the drops”. And he continues: “At the same time it is not raining when it’s raining.” This may be quarrelsome nitpicking, but it also says something about the problematic relationship between language and the world.

To me, Strandh’s art is a reminder that it is not raining between the drops when it rains. The space in between is part of the rain’s existence, a part of what turned the rain into rain, and rain is more than water drops, it is drops that are falling, continuously defined by the space between them. If the association has any substance to it, then Strandh’s paintings say something about the problematic relation between imagery and the world.

Lars Strandh may not be preoccupied by what art is, not all of the time at any rate, but it strikes me that his paintings bring up the question. I overheard the following comment at an exhibition in Haugesund: “Is this art? It looks more like swatches.” The simple and clear-cut, yet subtle, nuances in Strandh’s art are unfamiliar and test the limits of our patience for what we are willing to accept. The paintings do not answer the question of whether they are art or not, yet equally challenge the preconceived notions of what art is or should be. The question itself appears to be part of the answer. Put another way: Art for Strandh is about asking what art is. The way he pursues the question, the way he unfolds his curiosity, is where the substance lies. In work after work he does the same, yet something new as well. He creates variations on one and the same theme. And the fact that he stays within self-imposed, limited boundaries makes the “path” of his curiosity even clearer. He still asks: What happens if I use this color, this format, this line direction? I see Strandh’s art as an ongoing exploration of the possibilities of the painted surface, but also as a world of imagery that attempts to come to an awareness about itself and the reality it is a part of. As questioning, evocative exploration, I feel this art is one of the good answers to the questions about what art is.

To surmise: I like Strandh’s paintings because they are uncompromisingly consistent, because they are carefully crafted and beautiful objects/artwork because they are inspiring in a simple way, because they draw me in, because they make me reflect, more than think, and because they make me curious about what they are themselves, again and again.
I do not like Strandh’s paintings because they make me painfully aware of my own tendency to objectify my thoughts, my own chatter and restlessness. The tranquillity that arises when encountering Strandh’s paintings compares to the moment when our conversation comes to a sudden stop – and we exclaim: “An angel passed through the room!”.

Olav Østensjø Øvrebø