Painting between sound and silence

Zoë Whitley

cururator at Tate Modern and Tate Britain

Zoë Whitley — You’ve mentioned that the hardest thing to talk about is “the point in time when a painting is finished.”Having completed your latest body of work, this therefore seems an apt place to begin our conversation. Let’s start at the end, then: at which point do you deem the painting done, and at which point can the viewer then enter?

Sigrid Sandstrom — Well, this must be every painter’s greatest challenge to articulate…but the simple answer is that it is done when the challenge or curiosity is over, when I somehow suddenly lose an interest in the painting and start thinking about the possibilities for other paintings. I guess it is at that point in time when the viewer can access the painting; the moment when the painting has transformed from being in-the-making to having-been-made. Also, I almost always think of painting in relation to the space in which it will be exhibited. So the given architectural framework is omnipresent already in the painting process. It is within this space I imagine there is a viewer.

ZW — Take me as your proverbial viewer. When I have entered the space and encountered one of your compositions, it calls to mind a simple yet difficult to execute meditation exercise where one concentrates on the space between breaths - that fleeting moment between inhalation and exhalation - which serves as an intangible membrane between diaphragmatic contractions. I’m reminded of these quiet but vital liminal spaces when standing before your work.

SS — A critic recently described the work as coming across as violent, as obstructions blocking the viewer from “looking in to the painting” – it had not occurred to me that they could be seen as violent, but on the other hand, I strive for them to be something immediate and in the present, as if held in suspension. I am after some sort of tension, with something at stake, much like a visual, sensational sensory punch that later unravels into reasoning and decoding.

ZW — Yes, you’ve referred to this “punch” as being “hit with a surprise” in our past exchanges on the subject. The sensations that go along with the immediacy of the viewer’s first encounter with the painting are very important to you. The thrust for me is less a violent one than a meditative one. But a sharp intake of breath - or having the wind knocked out of you - can make one as aware of what was previously taken for granted as meditation can. Perhaps they are two aspects of a shared response?

SS — The process of making the paintings is a state of mind that is highly concentrated and fully absorbed in the moment, something outside of time and space somehow, but at the same time the paintings are results of activities at a very specific point in time. And as I listen to the Swedish national public radio all day in the studio, I am sure that the temperament/ mood of the current atmosphere somehow is reflected in the work. It’s interesting that you mention that they are meditative, another writer, Risa Puleo (a contributor to this book) also referred to meditation when discussing my paintings. She describes how one in a meditative state at first begins to look at oneself looking and then gains distance between the object one is looking at and the way in which one is looking. The meditation later opens up as an un-analytical way of being, that de-emphasizes filtering the world through the eyes and brain; instead prioritizes bodily knowledge and physical sensation. So instead of ‘looking at oneself looking’, one can be with oneself in an embodied way. Being and experiencing are privileged as opposed to looking and seeing. I am also thinking about the difference of looking, seeing and viewing. I would define looking as the closest to visual perception, whereas seeing would be its cognitive counter-part. Viewing implies another meta-level with a focus on the activity itself, with a "critical/ analytical" aspect tied to it.

ZW — Yet you simultaneously call attention to the surface of the canvas and then undermine it again by seemingly peeling away flatness, so there are overlaps and disconnects in the act of spectatorship that means one both sees and doesn’t see. This is perhaps what the critic was referring to in relation to the potential obstructions?

SS — Now that is super interesting! The dual focus on the modernist flatness emphasizing the surface and at the same time using classical devices such as trompe l’oeil effects are repeated from painting to painting: a wish to have it all to look at AND look through, but your thoughts on peeling the surface away are fascinating as that implies a sense of wonder, of not knowing yet seeing what’s behind, and opens up for projection.

ZW — Yes, I’d say inherent in the both denotation and connotation of ‘projection’ is an idea that gets us back to your triangulation of looking, seeing and viewing:

SS — In thinking about the relation between these three, I see looking as an attempt to gather further information, whereas seeing seems connected to knowing, a cognitive endeavor. Where ‘viewing’ is a conscious act of looking, a self-aware activity. A projection (from Latin proicere ‘throw forth’ can either be the presentation of an image on a surface, or a mental image viewed as reality, or an unconscious transfer of one's desires or emotions to another person. In my case, I was implying projection as a form of speculation, or as a set of possibilities based on the viewer’s previous visual experience and her/his expectations/desires. I was here thinking of projection as a means to harness the unknown through expectations.

ZW — In your text “Notes on Nothing of Painting” from 2011, Samuel Beckett is quoted - are there other modernist writers who you reference in your work?

SS — I rarely reference literature in my work, but fiction has been my main source of inspiration. I studied literature at the university before I started with art. I see the act of reading as similar to the act of painting, where one is fully absorbed/engaged in an activity. I am also interested in the way fiction can propose/illuminate philosophical questions and concerns. Fiction also opens up for new possibilities to imagine and experience without any visual references, which as a visual person, I find inspiring. Among the modernist writers, Virginia Woolf has been very important to me. I also once based an exhibition on a short story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges.

ZW — What are you reading right now? Do you feel that text actively influences your work?

SS — Right now I am just starting to read a novel called Ladivine by Marie Ndiaye. I don’t know that I use text as an active component in developing my paintings, but reading literature and essays are hugely important to me in other ways, as another type of thinking tool. I have together with writer/curator/artist Gavin Morrison been the editor of two anthologies. In the first anthology, we aimed for melancholy to be culturally understood as an active aspect of the psyche and not an affliction requiring elevation or eradication. In the other anthology we were looking at how different forms of ignorance exert force within creation and reception of art - that not-knowing can play a motivational and inspirational role in art-making, which is not to be underestimated. In another book that’s already been referenced in our conversation, Studio Talks -Thinking Through Painting that I co-edited, artists and philosophers discussed how thinking and painting are interconnected.  So among many contemporary thinkers and writers, Annie Dillard, Jennifer Radden and Rebecca Solnit have been influential to me.

ZW — I’d like to touch upon your often cool and restrained use of color. To my eye, the restricted palette - monochrome warmed in some areas by yellow and cooled in other areas by blue - allows us to return to the areas of color all the more intensely.

SS — Blue has been my most frequently used hue over the years. I am addicted to a particular dark navy blue vinyl paint that has a very deep, absorbent appearance, like velvet.  Maybe it comes from my fascination with Giotto’s blue frescoes that simultaneously radiate color and absorb light in such a mesmerizing way. But blue also fits into the subject matter of my early landscape paintings (around 1999-2001) that described arctic nocturnal land and waterscapes. As these barren landscapes lack greens, I focused on a wide range of blues and greys those years. I also very much like how Rebecca Solnit speaks of the color blue in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost where she describes blue as the color of distance, and as the color of where you are not.

Throughout the years I’ve used a painting tool (a box of hundreds of matte painted paper cards in different hues, shades and tints) called Color-aid. In 1948, Color-aid was initially developed as a backdrop for photographers, and was soon thereafter discovered by Josef Albers. It has since been used as a teaching tool in art and design classes. I would use these cards in quite a chance-related way to determine a color, as I also pick colors based on what I have lying around at the studio; such as yellow, pink and blue tape, different colored plexiglass samples, certain plastic paint jars and trash bags etc.

I have a few other recurring key hues other than the deep navy blue, such as raw umber. In contrast, I also deploy a quite jarring palette of lemon yellow and saturated hues of pink and silver. These color choices are possibly visually demanding and insistent or arresting, while all the same appearing a bit distanced or chilly. My aim is treat color to identify layers rather than being used as emotive expressions. An expressive brush stroke may not necessary have a symbolically emotionally charged color/ hue, and vice versa.  I often have a somewhat dirty palette in parts of the paintings (such as certain umbras, whereas other parts are very cleanly painted in high-key hues, such as those lemon yellows or magenta pinks). As you mentioned, I tend to keep areas rather monochrome as a means to let the hues retain a visual impact and not break down into itty bitty bits and pieces. A field of dark blue might need to be rather expansive for that reason.

ZW — And within those fields, there is an undeniable quality of the printed surface in your work. It calls to mind relief printing techniques; cyanotype in particular seems to share references in sensibility. There’s a certain photorealism, too, in your evocation of textures. I wonder whether this coolness, this aloofness - that might even be interpreted as barring access to the viewer to a certain extent - might be understood as your hand emulating mechanical reproduction in some way. Does this have any resonance for you?

SS — I made a residency with a master printer (Marina Ancona) in New Mexico which was an amazing experience. There, printmaking seemed like a physical way of thinking: my brain turned into cauliflower trying to imagine and predict the outcome! The way you have to foresee things diagonally and inverted was truly fascinating. Some of that experience I have when I work with images of my paintings in Photoshop where I invert and mirror things. But the digital sensation has less magic and wonder of “Ta da – open the press and there it is!”  It is more what you thought but better in a different way…

ZW — Yes, it seems the element of pre-meditation and power over the end result come into play. So there’s a certain alchemy to relinquishing control in printmaking that you perhaps can dictate to a greater degree in your paintings. Some elements are orchestrated but others are left to chance throughout the process.

SS — There is a tandem effect. Something created accidently may become the first manifestation followed by a set of re-negotiations. At other times, something pre-planned is being disrupted by a chance-like move. I think my compositions rely on the tension between order and chaos, a certain level of friction, or of not-knowing.

ZW — I also want to better understand the ways in which you triangulate your relationship to the viewer; I’m struck by what you call the “equilateral” relationship between artist/ painter; artwork/ painting; and the beholder or viewer.

SS — Now that is of course a bit of a utopian outlook. What do I know about the viewer’s engagement? But I know that the consideration of her/his interaction with the piece is central to how I make them. And I somehow see the painting as a shield between the viewer and the maker.

ZW — So much of this conversation is iterative but this relational interplay brings us back to language, particularly given the linguistic differences in English and Swedish in referring to “Painting”; in English one word serves as both a noun and a verb. Yet there are very distinct words in Swedish, as you’ve explained it to me. These words come from the same stem but there’s a slippage between stages of painting and how it operates through making and also through viewing.

SS — Well there are two different nouns for “painting” (the painted object and the practice/discipline): målning och måleri, separates the activity by having two different words distinguishing the difference between the making and the made object.

ZW — This raises the question of whether you feel your stylistic approach has established your own language as a painter? To whom do you credit your key painterly influences?

SS — I am reluctant to talk in terms of paintings as a language and even less that I would have a language within that language. I see painting more as a category of sorts. It does not have a syntax the way language does.  However, I can see that I chew on one bone for some time (a couple of years it seems like right now). I recycle and circulate a narrow set of imagery and formal concerns as well as usage of materials and technical approaches over a period of time. I see the paintings as relatives of sorts, siblings and step cousins, in-laws etc. Suddenly they are so distantly related that they are not relatives anymore, they might know of each other but not more than acquaintances…

In terms of crediting my painterly influences I would say that Japanese screen paintings (from the Heian period all through the Edo period), Giotto, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, some Scandinavian symbolist painters such as Helmer Osslund and J.F. Willumsen, as well as the Texan modernist Dorothy Hood to name a few.

ZW — As an active pedagogue, we should also discuss what triangulation might exist between your practice, your teachings and your students.

SS — Well, I am hoping that the questions I pose to the students are somehow boomeranged back to myself in the studio. It’s a cliché but you learn so much through your students. You learn from them both as young individuals but also you can see and understand our current time through the collective concerns and thoughts that arise among the younger generations. It’s important for me not to impose my agenda onto the students. That the discursive climate is based on curiosity and with the emphasis that art-making is not necessarily equivalent to knowledge production.

ZW — Having started at the end, shall we end at the beginning? The first thing I became aware of in your works was the recurrence of undulating layers. I’d like to close upon those membranous, foliated strategies and what they simultaneously overlay and reveal.

SS — I think these are strategies to show the distance between the viewer and the artwork, the painting being a kind of hide-out. The distinct layers also visualize the evidence of time, from one thing to next, as a very slow stop-motion taking place in one very frame…

1 Kristina Bength, Jonatan Habib Engqvist, Jan Rydén and Sigrid Sandstrom (eds).Studio Talks: Thinking Through Painting 2009-2014, Stockholm: Arvinius + Orfeus , 2014