Writings » Risa Puleo, Negation and Embrace: A Few Reflections on the X, Essay for the publication Sigrid Sandström–The Site of Painitng - 2016

Negation and Embrace: A Few Reflections on the X                                                 

The spectacle he is observing is thus doubly invisible: first, because it is not represented within the space of the painting, and, second, because it is situated precisely in that blind point, in that essential hiding-place into which our gaze disappears from ourselves at the moment of our actual looking.

—Michel Foucault on Diego Velázquez, The Order of Things

 “X” used to mark treasure on pirate maps. Now, a little blue dot tracks our every step on the Google maps app of our smartphones, locating each of us at our exact coordinates in time and space at any given moment. We no longer move towards our destinations guided by paper maps, the night sky, compasses or other analogue means. Instead, we are tracked from the sky by satellite. Among the things lost in the switch from analogue to digital wayfinding systems are the joy in the search, the anxiety of losing yourself,  the ability to finding yourself again, within your own body, within the space of the world.[1]

In their phenomenological pursuits, Sigrid Sandström’s recent paintings speak to internal orientations set within and against external coordinating systems, asking us to be aware of what is inside us in concert with what is around us. The paintings do so by giving us an experience of ourselves while looking at them. X marks the spot definitively in compositions that swirl in disorientation, a respite of stability that loudly declare, “This is the place! if only for a moment. In other paintings, the X unfolds its crossed arms to stand side by side with itself, a mirage that sends us in search again within the abstracted landscape of the image. Uncrossed arms find matches in their reflections as Sandström has staged mirrors in between paintings to extend the painted field into an endless visual echo. The mirrors also break the painted illusion by also reflecting everything that passes in front of them, including us as viewers. Thus, we have the opportunity to look at the paintings frontally or in reverse. The mirrors remind us that we are physically standing in front of the painting, so that when the painted image does not coalesce into stable ground, the ground beneath our feet becomes a place to stand firmly. Any illusionary space in the image is recast into the surface of a painted object. With this shift in perspective, we too reorient our position from external focus to internal locus. Using the X as a stand-in for the figure—synthesized into wholeness and fragmented into component parts—mirrors allow Sandström to paint relationally. Occupying the space in between perception and reality, figuration and abstraction, Sandström’s paintings converse with mirrors to double the self, externalizing the body and placing it within a visual context. They straddle the blind spot, the dividing line between internal and external.

The X as an image, the mirror as a material, and reflectivity as a strategy and a quality appeared in Sandström’s earliest paintings when she used a highly reflective polycarbonate as a support for nighttime scenes from beneath the iced-over surface of a frozen ocean. In paintings from 2005 like The Surge and The After Party, water is implied by the luminescence given to paint by this support. Here, Xs are the result of landscape elements like branches and ship parts like planks, crossing and doubling over into reflection in the painted water’s surface, which functions as a type of mirror within the image. In recent years, questions of perception have percolated in Sandström’s writing and actual mirrors have provided reflection and reflectivity. Where in the essay “Leap of Sight” from 2012, she explores sight as the primary means by which we navigate and know the world,[2] by 2015’s We are Ignorant, 2015, written with Grant Morrison, Sandström challenges knowledge as a goal of painting and suggests other means to know and not know beyond observation.[3] A series of prints made in 2013 introduced Sandström to what she has called “a truly physical way of thinking.”[4] The printmaking process is one of mirroring, in which one must anticipate and predict the outcomes of inverting a drawn negative image to produce the resulting positive print. Two images from the suite of sixteen[1] , for which Sandström imprinted a studio rag, give the paintings she would make after a central image and a method. In Untitled, 2014[2] , studio rags were used to swab and wash colors that dissolve across the canvas’s surface and also pressed up against the canvas to imprint it with an image of the rag’s solidity. Other materials from the studio like reflective tape are present in the trompe l’oeil application of shiny silver paint in long bounded lines and absent in places where actual tape has been pulled away to mark off clean, white edges. Both painted and exempted areas pull the eye to the surface; their hard edges contrasting with the formlessness of rag marks. As such, paintings like Untitled from 2014 are one-to-one representations of process and Sandström’s studio as well as abstract image of collapse that obscures the immediate recognition of a painting’s component parts. In later painting from the same series, the fragmented studio has been Frankensteined back together; the painted tape affixing part to part and circumscribing a territory on the canvas. X marks the center .

Soon after these painted experiments with imprinting, Sandström cast painting into sculpture to play with the image’s materiality. A painting entitled Original, 2014, was used as a mold for the two sculptures that comprise Split Version, 2014. In the “original,” painted silver tape lines outline negative space of equal proportion in a lighter silver. All are crossed by a thicker, much more silver diagonal line that makes an X of all lines standing straight, ticking them off as an even dozen. By casting the painting in jesmonite, an acrylic-based cement-like compound, Sandström created mirrored mirror-objects instead of a mirror image. Upon reversal, raised lines recede and receded lines rise; the slick and impasto textures on the original’s surface impart additional depth. Sandström then laid one mirror-object face up and the other face down onto mirrors slightly larger than the mirror-objects themselves. The mirror signals its presence by reflecting back we who look down upon it. In the physical reversal of mirror-object onto mirror, the crossed lines of the stretcher bar’s back brace are revealed. Here, reflection obfuscates seeing as much as it reveals, as the mirror image of the mirror-object is hidden from us by the mirror-object itself. If shiny paint was actually able to reflect the mirror back to itself, the double reflection would create a hologram of infinity. But because shiny paint can’t reflect back, it deflects in transference and projection, revealing the finitude of its limitations. Painting negates mirror.

In the installation Z-piece from the same year, Sandström used mirrors to add the element of time to the conversation she staged between mediums as well as between us and her work. Two paintings were presented freestanding, connected by a mirror of equal size and shape in the center of a room on a carpet the color of painter’s tape. Trompe l’oeil tape lines are painted every color except this blue, indicating the places where they were used to mask off tape-proportioned lines on the canvas. Like the lines that cross into Xs in the painted water’s reflection in The After Party, lines cross into Xs and chevrons in the mirror’s reflection, extending their length into the doubled space. As in Split Version, we too are reflected back by the mirror. However, in this replication, Sandström gives us access to the entirety of the painting as well as the image of our body. Interrupted in the act of looking, we see ourselves look, we watch ourselves move and be surveilled. The mirror, a low-tech mediator, traces our activities as they happen, reminding us that our experience of any “thing” is actually an experience of our own subjectivity over time.[5] The mirror reconfigures the abstract painting as a figure that stands with us, and a fact, testifying to the solidity of its objecthood through its re-presentation as an image. Mirror embraces painting and makes it doubly visible.

The chevrons that double over into an X in Z’s mirror return to the canvas in another untitled painting, reinscribing [6] reflection back into image. A line that bisects the vertical axis of the canvas into two equal halves marks the site of reflection’s crossover. The chevron on the left extends its single arm and leg to occupy the fullness of its space, while to its right, its reversal identifies itself by shrinking slightly within its designated side and flickering in as a lighter shade of silver; an imperfect, watery copy. As a counterpart to Z’s mirror reflection, where the X embraces our image as part of it, the painted X negates us. Its shiny paint is a foil that refuses to reflect us back despite acknowledging us by licking the light as we move around it. This affectation of desire expresses its only interest is our sightline. Like Narcissus, the painted X only reflects itself and doubly negates us by doing so. We watch it look at itself and long for it to see us too while knowing it doesn’t have the capacity to do so.

Moving through Sandström’s history to the present, we arrive at her most recent experiment: the staging of paintings in conversation with mirrors. In the past, she collaged fragments of older paintings—photographed, copied or reproduced by other means—into newer paintings to create a sense of continuity through fragmentation. Here, she achieves the same effect by staging mirrors in between paintings to offer glimpses of paintings that stand physically behind us in the mirror before us. When viewing the paintings through their mirror reflection, a MacLuhanism echoes: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”[6] Here, the mirror spatializes our subjective experience of time and makes it literal. We walk momentarily in the hologram of infinite, knowing the space between reflection and projection is an illusion that attempts to replicate the experience of reality. Here, the sound of our feet as the echo in this hall of mirrors brings us back to ourselves, alternately held in an embrace by the mirror who ultimately refuses to be seen and negated by painting that is emphatically visible.

Rather than treating painting-as-window, a trope to describe perspectival painting that invites viewers into illusion, or the flatness in Greenberg’s definition of modernism that denies access beyond painting-as-surface, Sandström taps into another tradition. Painting-as-mirror has been most famously explored by Jan van Eyck in The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, 1434; Diego Velázquez in Las Meninas, 1656, and Edouard Manet in Bar at Foiles Bergere, 1882. Each artist depicted mirrors in proximity to windows as pictorial metaphors for the (im)possibilities of representation. In each, the figure, like Sandström’s X, is a stand-in for the true subject of the painting: the act of looking from the viewer's position. The convex mirror in the center of the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait reflects the backs of the newlyweds as well as the artist himself, presenting him as witness to the nuptials and turning the portrait into a self-portrait. In Velázquez’s portrait/self-portrait, it is unclear if the artist peers out into the viewing space to look us, the subject of his gaze, from behind all the tools of representation: canvas, brush and palette, or if he looks back at himself reflected in a mirror not represented in the painting. Velaquez’s painting raises the penultimate questions of phenomenology: Can we burst the bubble of perception to see any thing beyond ourselves? Or are we always, only looking at our own perception? By including the mirror only implied in Velázquez’s painting, Sandström expands upon these questions by doubling of painting within the mirror, and doubling our body, as an internal experience now shared with an external apparatus with which we view it. When am I looking at my self and when am I looking at my body? Your body? You? Do I see You when I look at you? Do you see me? When are my body and my self—we—the same and when do I float above, elsewhere at a safe distance? How to know the difference?

Closer in time to our own, but with equally philosophical pursuits about the nature of representation and reality, in the late 1960s, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s collapsed the viewing space with the pictorial space by using mirrors as the support for painted figures engaged in everyday activities. The arena of display becomes the background for the painting when reflected by the mirror. Transposing three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional image, we share illusionary space with the painted figure. While Pistoletto’s paintings-on-mirrors synthesize, Sandström’s duplicate; doubling the painting in reflection. Both artists turn the act of looking first into an experience of consciousness, an awareness of self, that becomes self-consciousness the longer we look as we begin to question exactly what we are looking at. Sandström’s installations complicate this experience because her images, unlike Pistoletto’s are abstract; imploding, deflating and collapsing or bulging into becoming, they rarely hold still as a stable image. When duplicated in their mirror reflections, the effect of instability is doubled making the experience doubly disorientating and self-orientation all the more necessary to navigate the unstable visual terrain.

Sandström paints herself out of the room as the maker by staging an experience of her work as one in which a viewer is viewed in the act of viewing. She reinforces a dependency by triangulating us between mirror and painting. In his series Fenester (Window), begun in 1967, Gerhard Richter painted the back of mirrors a uniform smoke grey that reflected the surrounding reality in its colored lens. According to Lynne Cooke, Richter’s mirrors-as-painting “Purged of all evidence of the maker's presence, they absorb as their content the ambient world before them in all its transitory serendipity. Subsuming spectators into that fluctuating matrix, depriving them of any clear, fixed, stable relationship to space and place, his mirrors seductively undermine the viewers' authorial independence and autonomy by dissembling traditional hieratic perspectival systems of perception.” [7]

Richter experiments with reflectivity mirror the activities of sculptors investigating the highly reflective surfaces of metals and industrial materials to reinforce materiality and objecthood over illusion and image. Where perspectival painting allows one to enter into the illusion of depth, sculptural practices in the 1960s pushed shiny surfaces outwards into space, testing the line between image and object. Sandström similarly tows this line, buzzing in between two, three and fourth dimensions. Through this entendre of dimensionality, twisting in and out of definition as painting, sculpture, environment and surveillance film, she ultimately creates a visual field akin to analogue version of the internet. Together, Sandström’s paintings-seen-with-and-through-mirrors create the holograph of a digital organism in a state of constant collapse and regeneration, a circular attempt to spark life. Thus, images of Sandström’s fragmented studio cobbled back together with painted painter’s tape are truly painted Frankensteins, depicted at the moment when the artist attempts to shock them into life and imbue painting with agency.

Sandström’s X marks the meeting point of these many places. In the realm of internal and external subjectivities, she does not assume that neither an internal world nor an external reality is a fixed or solid entity. The ground may stand below our feet but our ability to stand firmly upon it is challenged by our perceptions of space and time as constructed by this holographic landscape. Materiality and image push in and out of dimension. Illusion appears as real as reality. But, we—body and self resynthesized—remember that it is I who breaths as I exit this stage.

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty expresses a similar sentiment in the mid-20th century, before the internet changed our perception of space and time: “the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is the awareness of our own contingency and the horror with which it fills us.” Sara Ahmed cites Merleau-Ponty in “Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4, 2006.

[2], Sigrid Sandström “Leap of Sight,” http://sigridSandström.com/writing/leap-of-sight/

[3] Gavin Morrison and Sigrid Sandström, Ignorance: Between Knowing and Not Knowing (Stockholm: Axl, 2015).

[4] E-mail conversation with the artist on June 27, 2015.

[5] Martin Heidegger, W.B. Barton and Vera Duetsch, What is a Thing? (Chicago: H Regnery, 1968.)

[6] Marshall MacLuhan, The Medium is the Message (Corte Madera: Gingko Pr, 2005), 74-75.

[7] Lynne Cooke, “Gerhard Richter,” Dia Art Foundation, http://www.diaart.org/exhibitions/introduction/93