Private View: 7th Febuary 2020
Vulnerable and cussed. Indifferent and in need of protection. A scrap of overlooked scrubland near a refugee camp in east Jerusalem. A trail once used by the Comanche, where Donald Trump now wants his wall. A place of retreat in India. A coastal nature reserve in Norway.
Vibeke Slyngstad, one of Norway’s leading contemporary artists, has produced an extraordinary series of paintings for her first solo exhibition in Berlin. In different ways, for different reasons, each of the five locations featured in the collection has found itself pushed to the margins of human attention. On their behalf, Slyngstad pushes back, producing landscapes of such psychological complexity it makes more sense to think of them as ‘portraits of place’.
“I grew up by the sea. From the age of 5 I would walk down to the shoreline and play on my own. I made pools with crabs, arranged stones, and created small maritime environments. I had a sandbox that contained a whole world and a universe made of plasticine under my desk.” Vibeke Slyngstad
Recalling that child’s eye view, Slyngstad works from photographs taken at ground level. She does not hide the fact that she is making images of images, disrupting the surface of her works with the flares and luminescence produced by photographic backlighting. Nor does she seek to reflect her own preoccupations in the composition of her works. Every ‘thing’ in her paintings is equally mysterious, a fragment of scrubland no less deserving of close study than an endless sky.
“The places I have chosen are so difficult to paint. I love them in part for how fiercely they resist me. Capturing each detail is a process that takes time and patience.”
The technical skill on display is formidable, each painting a miniature world summoned in breath-taking detail in paint applied so delicately one can trace the strokes across the weft and weave of canvas. A transparent, ‘honest’ approach to the representation of nature which finds its counterpoint in the deep mystery of the subject matter itself. More startling still is the discipline with which such virtuoso skill is subordinated to the brutally egalitarian sensibilities of a camera. The ‘things’ captured by Slyngstad with such care are not ranked or organised. They are given space to speak for themselves. In this way, despite containing superficially similar elements, captured via the same creative process, each location vibrates with its own distinctive personality.
The result is landscape upended, fragments chosen by child’s eye and camera’s lens to show nature on its own terms rather than ours. These are not landscapes as we traditionally understand them – as backdrop to human preoccupations and activities, rather they are character studies of locations which carry their own scars, their own hard-won learnings, contradictions and rhythms – even their own language, eloquent enough to unsettle even the most complacent viewer’s unthinking solipsism.