Yes, No, Maybe:

On Sigrid Sandström

The art critic’s job is outwardly straightforward: look at art and say what you saw. And then you come up against something like Sigrid Sandström’s Facing Scarlet (2022), and every statement invites its opposite, its reflex qualification. Facing Scarlet is, let’s say to establish an ontological baseline, a painting. Okay, except it’s also partly—arguably mostly—a contact print, wherein some lightly crumpled material coated with black paint has been pressed onto the centre of the canvas, then removed. The lower half of this residual mark is overlaid with a blushing pool of salmon-coloured paint and, over that, a heavier brushed swath of, indeed, scarlet. A pinkish circle floats atop this, just so, and a black circle hovers just above the crest of the ‘print’ area like a sun or moon above a landscape. If your categorising mind had already settled on this being an abstract painting, these celestial aspects might trouble that reading, combining with the black area’s folds to suggest glaciers or the contours of landscape. The red region in conversation with the black and white could lead on relatedly to intimations, or just sensations, of heat and cold: a counterbalance that often recurs in Sandström’s art. One may swiftly begin to extra polate, in the face of the painting’s simultaneous certitude and poker-face muteness—for it very much faces you, sentinel-like, imposing, impassable—and disinter a veiled commentary on ecological conditions. To read the title itself as fateful, as if the art were a melancholy cipher; to cast around for its ‘about’.

But you might also admit, especially if you’re healthily mistrustful of reducing the art experience to a transaction vis-à-vis stashed content, that you’re just speculating here, especially since Facing Scarlet is likely in short order to snap back into something else, for example sheer materiality, insisting on itself as a practical record of its own making. The conversation between the painting’s elements, its slaloming temperature, its dark and light circles, isteasing but finally opaque. Sometimes, after all, a dot is just a dot, a smear just a smear, in the service of enticing composition, of non-referential mood. And that opacity may lead you back to saying, well, I can at least see how this was done, just as the work’s title also reads as bare-bones description of the encounter you’re having, just as it’s equally clear that something is happening, but you don’t know quite what. You can’t—Sandström seems to intend this—hold onto both these aforesaid conditions at once, narrative and abstraction, and as a result the painting’s only certainty resides in its humming instability, which you might hope to accommodate yourself to over time. Accept as much, nevertheless, and you’re off down another (duck-)rabbit hole: is this sense of doubt confined to art, does it say something about the artist, is it the larger tenor of the times? If you’re expecting an answer by this point, look again. And again.

Sandström’s, then, is a purposefully foxing art, equal parts calculated chess-play and generous doorway to the numinous. When she displays on a low-slung dais the painted cloths she uses to make her imprints, how are we supposed to receive them, to place them in some kind of formal hierarchy? They’re suspended at once between painting and sculpture, preserved object and valueless discard, abstraction and soiled rag; they also constitute her existing paintings’ partial negative. This insistent, rug-pulling dichotomous quality is redoubled by Sandström’s freestanding Janus paintings, in which back is front and vice versa. The entrained paradox is easily grasped: as a viewer you know you’re looking at the back of the painting, which faces you as you enter the room, and through whose canvas weave the painting has stained, leaving an elegantly ghostly trace. But the artist declares it’s the front, so you try and take it that way, at least until you walk round to the other, painted side, at which point—as the visual intensity ratchets up—you’ll nevertheless have a nagging sense that you’re now looking at the back. Choice, yours, is implied. Is one side ‘better’, even? It doesn’t feel like it. The ostensible rectos, the paler images, feel a little like fading or imperfect memories of their strident versos—which, pointedly, have been made partly using the contact-print method, so they are already reversals, in a way, and have their own unstable relationship to both figuration and abstraction. And, as Sandström surely intends or at least accepts, something of the world leaks in once more: what might it mean to conjure an aesthetic of ghosts or phantoms, or fading per se, in a lightly established context of geophysical precarity?

There is purpose in this wrong-footing, not least because it pushes against a latter-day tendency in contemporary art that everything should be explainable, describable. (Yes, I am doing some describing, but I’m also trying to talk around the work, to preserve the sanctity of experiencing it, freewheeling through it.) Art, increasingly,is becoming inseparable from the decoding key of the artist’s biography, and in the process its status as one of the last remaining spaces for productive mystery, doubt, not-knowing, ineffability, is eroding. This has something to do with the expanded audience for art—viewers no longer being some specialised caste, but also enthusiastic amateurs who shouldn’t be terrified by obscurity—but also, I suspect, a shrinking appetite for difficulty. Yet ambiguity and unease are not necessarily conjoined. A portion of Sandström’s gift is to create a cushioned space for feeling unmoored, partly through the structure of binaries outlined above. There is a strange comfort in everything being double facing; if you identify one half you can find the other, and then watch them flicker like a lenticular image.

And so if you’ve seen a painting like Lunar Distance (2022)—which, like many of her compositions, offers an explosive sense of event, seems to whirl and rotate as you look and wrangles together chanciness and pictorial assertion—then there is something like a feeling of completion amid prevailing instability when you encounter the Reminiscence (1-19) (English Reminiscence) paintings in a small, dark annexe. They hold something back—the memories, or thoughts on memory, alluded to in the title—but also suggest photonegatives of Sandström’s larger paintings. You might also bear in mind that the artist’s processes of printing and pooling paint are themselves avenues to the unknown, since she never knows exactly how they’ll turn out, having ceded a crucial degree of control. And that accepting that things are not fully in your control is some kind of life lesson, one that time itself pretty much forces on you.

If doubt is a cornerstone of Sandström’s art, then, it might not be surprising to find that condition itself situated as Janus-faced, too. These are paintings that seem to make navigating in deep fog unavoidable and even enticing; consider Dot (2022), a grey entity-likething with a central, yes, dot, like an open mouth. Like the prominent X’s in some of Sandström’s earlier paintings, this black void functions, counterintuitively, like a no-entry sign that makes you want to enter. There feels to be no way around this pictorial challenge, so you might as well go through. Doubt is, on the one hand, a perverse kind of freedom from administration, an entangled space to flex one’s subjectivity, to think for yourself. It is also, of course, a signal element of the repeat encounter with art, and Sandström’s canvases can feel bottomless in their strategic reflection of the viewer’s own momentary biases and guesswork.

But uncertainty is also something that needs to be gotten to grips with, via a training ground like art, because it has become the very air we breathe. Democratic institutions are dissolving worldwide. Old terrors such as nuclear conflict are (almost unthinkably) back, and we don’t know which way events will pan out. The chief doubtful element of the climate crisis is how bad things will get. We don’t know. And to the extent that these works circle around memory and forgetting—mark-making as the physicalised memory of an act, paintings that seem to be fading out, art that refers to memories in its titling—it broaches our amnesiac cultural moment, wherein a generation that saw and can attest to the horrors of World War Two is passing away, Holocaust deniers are rife, ‘experts’ are derided, facts are relativised, etc, and technology seems to lock us in a perpetual, scrolling present.

All of this is not in the work, and at the same time, will o’ the wisp-like—you expected this, probably—it’s not not in the work. It's there to the extent that it’s in the perceiving viewer, the human subject of our current regime, the other half of the spectatorial equation. What it’s like to be alive today is going to constitute some of the baggage you bring with yourself to the show, and Sandström’s art seems aware of that. Besides her work’s profound sense of slippage, consider how the Janus paintings might read when aligned with another bugbear of present reality, our current condition of ubiquitous surveillance. What does it mean to turn your face, your painted face, away from scrutiny, and to fuzz the idea of what your face even is? What does it mean, in an age of data harvesting and weaponised information, to refuse to provide anything like clarity (or ‘messages’); to plant yourself deeply in unaccountability? It’s arguable even that the climate-related readings hesitantly proffered above are something that Sandström’s art engages with Rorschachstyle: if her art had been made in another era, you might think, these readings wouldn’t arise at all. And so even the most topical readings one can make of her art start to fade out in contingency, phantasmlike, in alliance with time.

The largest painting in this current grouping is the four-part Bygone (2021), whose title points to Sandström’s evident interest in time and its destabilising effects, coming to grips with fading things. The dictionary definition of ‘bygone’ is ‘belonging to an earlier time’, and to the extent that this polyptych is, again, suggestive of a glacial landscape—from left to right, there is less and less white, and a riverine expanse of midnight blue dominates the right-hand side—the title could scan as a lamentation. But, as ever, that’s not all of it: allusion cedes to practicality, if only to reassert itself later. The image we see belongs also, in practical terms, to the earlier time of its making, of which it is a record: the lapsed time between putting paint on a surface—a pillowcase, maybe—and applying it. It’s additionally a work knowingly in conversation with historical art that bridged abstraction and landscape (I’m thinking of, say, Clyfford Still’s paintings), while being emphatically not of that time, rather of our time, with all its depredations. You can immerse yourself physically in Bygone as aerial vista, or as grand-style abstraction, but by design it will always do something to knock those readings askew, often by its assertion of material traces—especially when some ‘paint rugs’ are presented nearby—or its downgrading of the formerly venerated ‘artist’s hand’, something of which Sandström appears increasingly distrustful as a conduit to any kind of truth. Of course, again, to say this is to make the rookie mistake of bestowing upon this painting something like fixed meaning. But it’s only a meaning, only my meaning, and only for now.

Martin Herbert