Material Matters

The texts in this publication derive from presentations given at the conference Material Matters,
held at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm on December 13-14, 2018.


For most painters material concerns are unavoidable, and they can be both the blessing and the curse of our daily painting practice. A shortage or lack of a certain material can force us to think anew and to make unexpected experiments which allow for new material discoveries. Materials not behaving predictably due to unusual treatments, or through intentional manipulation, can also lead to unforseen and productive results. And yet, knowing the exact behaviour of one’s material might be key to achieving the level of precision and control that the execution of an artwork demands.  Material knowledge often comes through experience, such as knowing how different pigments work, the characteristics of various brands of paint, and how they 'behave' and the gained knowledge of when, at what point, something cracks, or what brand of medium is needed for a specific paint and surface. Through trial and error, we gain experience and obtain material knowledge.

Material is matter from which a thing is made or can be made of. Matter is everything that has mass and volume and is made up of atoms, which are the smallest particles of matter. The arrangement of atoms in an object determines whether it is a solid, liquid, gas, or plasma. In a solid, the atoms are packed closely together and cannot move, which results in a definite volume and shape. In a liquid, the atoms are close together but can move around. This allows a liquid to take the shape of whatever container it is placed in. In a gas, there is more space between the atoms which means that they can move so freely that if the gas is not trapped in a container, the atoms will diffuse and spread throughout the atmosphere. Plasma is an unusual state of matter here on Earth, but it may be the most common state of matter in the universe. Stars are essentially superheated balls of plasma.

We can also view materials beyond their state as matter and instead relate them to the making and processes of practice. According to the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, materials are always in the state of becoming. To reflect on materials as something in transit is, of course, something highly relevant also for painters. As painters we are tied to our medium and its “tense”, the time span we have to execute the work, and the fact that what we are left with are traces and evidence of this past activity. Yet these evidential traces exist in various degrees of fixedness: a finished painting is unfolding itself to us as viewers in the present tense, and we project ourselves and our experiences on to it. The painting is thus in a process of becoming thanks to its materials, over and over again and dependent on the contingencies of each encounter. Mind and matter in new dialogues.

A painting is also evidence of a past tense. In viewing a painting one 'sees' the absence of the maker through the traces left behind. The presence of the absent past may be one of the reasons we as humans are drawn to look at the dried-up image and yet still feel the passage of time. Painting is made of materials that develop over time it is both a thing, and an activity. As a wet and fluid medium, is to some extent uncontrollable, loose and formless. A painting is an attempt to address both space and time in one dried frame. The viewing experience unfolds over time with the material properties of painting being in transit – liquid becomes solid.

One can also see painting as an extension of the self both in the making (a hand holds a brush as an 'extension of the body') and in its expectation/requirement to be looked at and engaged with, as inevitably the purpose for a painting is to be seen. And a viewer must want to stay with it, look at it, be with it. Viewing painting is different for each and every one of us, but is nevertheless a shared experience.

Material can be symbolic and coded. For instance, knowing that an object is made of lead is going to have an impact on how we perceive and reflect on it. Knowing that something is painted with watercolour, that is non-fixed once dried and can be wiped out with water will have another impact on how we approach the image that permeates or sits upon the surface of the object. Our experience of the temporality of the medium becomes apparent only through our knowledge of the behaviour of the material.

In the arts, our daily material is often the digital mediating of other materials instantly through social media, where the scroll is endless, accumulative and in transit. The possibility to endlessly edit and add and erase posts in no time may also result in a fatigue of keeping up, consuming all these instances, and instead we yearn for a kind of slowness and patience we no longer have. Who looks at a painting on a screen more than a few seconds? Why would we when there is always another one to scroll down to? The flow as a damned and blessed torrent. Forgiving, moving, forgetting, erasing - the fatigue of the eternal now.

Many painters today work in other media in addition to painting such as printmaking, film, sculpture, ceramics, weavings etc, and choose to exhibit these together with their paintings. Here I find that the easel painting is part of a different conversation than before, as it is functioning both as an object with specific material properties and an internal logic and as a thing that exists in relation to other things and media.

The digital flow can result in a more extreme analogue response in painting in which the haptic and sensory side of materials become crucial, where smell and touch might be part of the content. Where the touch and thingness might be key for us to physically 'react'.  Focusing on the material aspects of a painting, how it is made and with what, might help us to think of painting more as a vehicle or tool than a commodity and object of transaction.

As the world becomes ever more digital and physically removed, we still rely on a lot of materials (i.e. technical equipment and tools) to facilitate that remote accessibility. And yet, as we become more physically removed, our fascination with “real” stuff is simultaneously and continuously enhanced.

In this light, the importance of the material properties of art objects is suddenly hard to neglect, and a series of questions might open up. Does the idea and the thing thus coexist in a more balanced value system, where the thing and the meaning are intertwined in co-existence? Or does the “thingness” of a thing close down further extensions of possible meanings? To what extent are the choices of materials political, or ideological?

Highlighting the material aspects of painting makes us perceive their physical presence, yet the same material properties might call for immaterial reflection and introspection. What is the meaning of a given material right now, why and for how long?

The Royal Institute of Art (Kungl. Konsthögskolan, or KKH) has a long tradition of conducting education and research on art materials and in 1935 a Material Institute (Materialinstitutet) was founded as a department within the school. The Material Institute has, over the years, served students and artists in the field by responding to and engaging with their material quests and concerns, and operates both as a place for focusing on current uses of materials and on developing new sustainable approaches within the area. As part of a thematic focus on materials/materialities during the academic year 2018-2019 within the 2D and 3D areas at the Royal Institute of Art, a conference on material and painting was organized on December 13-14.

The conference, Material Matters, was a way to address different approaches to materiality in relation to the field of painting, and reflected both theoretical and practice-based concerns. The invited contributors were a mixture of faculty and researchers within the 2D-area at the Royal Institute and external invited artists, art historians, philosophers, material scientists and curators. Each had a distinct take on how to approach material meaning. My ambition was to introduce the audience to the kind of work and thinking that takes place within the institution and among its faculty. In addition, I wanted to invite a range of scholars and artists who would contribute from a variety of perspectives to the notion of material matters, stemming out of technical, poetic, political, ethical, environmental, formal or symbolic intentions.The conference offered a wide range of lectures, presentations and talks with topics ranging from health and sustainability concerns to the growing interest in technical approaches in the field of art history, new materials that can grow, build, heal, and transform their function over time, as well as talks addressing the political aspects of materials and more philosophical discussions around material meaning within the arts. The contributions to the conference, and the texts in this book that have come out of them, represent a great diversity of practices and materials, but also the diversity of meanings suggested by the title Material Matters. The texts address the materials needed for the implementation of tasks (that which forms a given practitioner’s medium, or media), the material out of which things are made, the material for or subject matter of scholarly work, and matter itself, the raw materials of our surroundings. A number of intersecting themes can be plotted between the contributions: the lifespan of materials, from their creation to their preservation; the interaction between painting and other types of material; the ways that meaning is carried within the materials and matter that artists work with and make work about. Painting, and the media it is in dialogue with, is shown here to be sensuous, palpable and corporeal as well as responsive to the theoretical and socio-political dimensions conveyed by its materials.

The conference took place in the Mural workshop, where students just days earlier had finished a 10-day long intensive fresco workshop led by Professor Daniel Bozhkov (invited guest teacher from Hunter College in NYC, and one of the contributors to this publication). The audience of the conference was therefore surrounded by the work samples resulting from a number of experiments.

Fresco is a painting method where a mixture of wet lime and sand applied to the wall reacts with pigments diluted with water when applied to the humid surface which in the drying process crystallize and become part of the wall structure. The paint application has to be made wet on wet, and once applied there is no return. There is only a short window of working time before the lime mixture gets too dry. The material behaviour constitutes the working method. The working window is specific: as long as the plaster has just the right amount of humidity you are free to work, and then the window closes again. For larger frescos you will have to plan ahead and work in sections. For a fresco painter time and humidity levels are key concerns. Your material is responding to its surrounding environment, and you just have to stay focused and run with it. The timing is key in order for the right transformation to happen, it is exciting and constraining. It keeps you on your feet; mentally and physically alert.

The aim of the conference was to function as a springboard into a continuous dialogue and inquiry at the school, and elsewhere, around current material concerns in artistic practice today. And for us to focus on the various meanings tied to different materialities. Does a focus on material presence philosophically expand our knowledge horizons? The philosopher and physicist Karen Barard has argued for the necessity to engage with material means to formulate a critique of logocentrism and the predominance of written languages as a tool to generate and communicate meaning.1

As humans (objects of flesh and blood), how do we comprehend and respond to the continuous expansion of matter, where boundaries are pushed, limits erased, and new extensions and hybrid forms of bodies are established. Elizabeth Grosz further proposes in her essay The Thing to seek an “... altogether different lineage, one in which the thing is not conceived as the other, or binary double, of the subject, the self, embodiment or consciousness, but as its condition and the resource for the subject’s being and enduring.” 2

In offering a wide range of approaches to material concerns in painting my hope was that each and every one of the audience members, as well as the invited presenters, would walk away with some new thoughts, discoveries and meaningful inquiries. Why are material concerns of interest to us at the moment? What do we hope to “see”, uncover or decode through stressing the material aspects of our work? Can we communicate or visualize things differently through material approaches? What could we gain from shifting gaze, lens and focus?

My aspiration was for some of the material concerns brought up during the conference to keep drifting, and that this publication consisting of texts and conversations derived from the papers given at the conference would allow for the dialogue to travel further beyond its first forum and to extend over place and time. The contributors have fulfilled this aspiration in the way they have extended their original presentations into such a range of thought and enquiry.

The aim for this publication is to provide new insights, reflections and conversations through its variety of approaches, views and perspectives on materials and processes and what they do to painting. In asking ourselves what new knowledge and conversations can be generated when looking through a material perspective we keep broadening our notions of how art is made and why.

1 See Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham, NC, Duke Press 2007

2 Elizabeth Grosz, The Thing, in Cynthia Davidson. Ed., Anything, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001