«There is not much painting to be seen in the leading galleries at present. Will presentations of art photography help to liberate painting – to give it a second chance? Despite its weaknesses, this is what the exhibition “Down to Business” seems to suggest.
Painting, as we all know, is no longer what it was.
Although the art historical canon regards painting as one of the main protagonists of the Western cultural heritage, and possibly also an essential prerequisite for self-understanding, for decades it has been viewed with scepticism. Is it a uniquely adaptable art form, or has its expressive potential been exhausted? It is not without reason that painting today seems so intent on contemplating its own status and function.
In exhibiting his paintings at Galleri LNM (the Association of Norwegian Painters’ own gallery) under the ambiguous title of “Down to Business”, Per Hess (b.1946) alludes paradoxically both to painting’s function as a decorative but tradable security and to a more hard-nosed bottom-line attitude. This ambiguity reminds me of the aging American conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s description of painting: “In the mid 70s painting was an abandoned language. An immense palace with no one home. I pitched a little tent there and discovered loads of interesting things to do” (Stian Grøgaard: “Det vage objektet, 12 samtaler om kunst”, 2001).
Now that “other techniques” have come to seem like art’s normal forms, perhaps painting can be viewed as an alternative, or unusual technique.
The language of finance.
Per Hess’ paintings require us to sharpen our gaze: clinically white picture surfaces seem almost to merge with the walls behind them. It takes time to notice their indistinct motifs, texts and visual nuances. In one key work the words “white wash” are shared between two canvases. Subtly applied in white on white, the text prompts thoughts relating to painting, such as the illicit money that often surrounds it, minimalism’s rejection of representation, or more specifically the white of these pictures.
But perhaps “white wash” is a comment first and foremost on the picture Temple that hangs on the opposite wall, a stretched out depiction of the Oslo Stock Exchange, consisting of forty photographs covered in thin white paint. The result is flattened; something misty and mysterious envelopes the empty building, which appears less real and more disturbing than usual – not least because there are no expensive cars, only a single bike, standing outside.
In several paintings, the artist invokes the language of economics by citing elements from graphs and presentational charts. The carefully traced lines, barely visible on the bright surfaces, look like they come straight from some annual report. Narrow lines and cool, precise abstraction, forming a contrast to the tradition of expressive painting that features dramatic creativity as its theme and content. But behind Hess’ “neutral” language, we sense the dramatic impact that economic forces have on our lives, forces that are surely no match for the more or less chaotic inner world of a single artist. The decidedly low-key references to an outer world create a playful exchange between metaphysics and realism, suggesting a surprising affinity between the discourse of art and human experience, and possibly also between aesthetics and ethics.
Lit from within
The dominant white of the exhibition emphasises distance and silence. Even so, we identify the boundary between whiteness and colour as an underlying theme. With his skilled hand and solid experience, Hess is able to make it seem as if some of the paintings are lit from within – rather than being painted surfaces. Here, one could say, colour is allowed to be what it really is: light.
The exhibition has a sharp focus on content and perfectionism in terms of craft. With the subtlety of its techniques and its daring conceptual leaps, “Down to Business” requires the viewer to be highly attentive.»
From the Art critics of Lotte Sandberg, for the newspaper Aftenposten.