As the source of the Berlin-based Norwegian artist Øystein Aassan’s second solo exhibition at PSM Gallery, a quote from Barnett Newman is cited: “The painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, because in that sense I was there.” Aasan achieves this sense of place through a very literal emphasis on making and context. The paintings in the exhibition are presented on what the artist refers to as display units, in this case, wooden frameworks that stand vertically or lean toward a corner of the gallery. A series of small photographs mounted on taped cardboard are arrayed diagonally on a low shelf. The images are of either architectural details, such as windows and grills, or installation views of abstract painting.

Installation view: Øystein Aasan. SOLO-SHOW. PSM, Berlin. Photo Credit: Hans-Georg Gaul
Installation view: Øystein Aasan. SOLO-SHOW. PSM, Berlin. Photo Credit: Hans-Georg Gaul

Given Aassan’s interest in Newman, it is not unexpected that the exhibition also recalls the presentational strategy of Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century, another icon of Modernism. At Guggenheim’s gallery, paintings would be suspended away from the walls at right angles and fixed to angular rods, as seen in Berenice Abbott’s photo from 1942. In Aasan’s installation, the support structures are not intended as part of the works, but rather, as a striking context. By this simple means, an awareness of the painting or a collage as something that has been made is restated as something that also has to hang, sit, or lean. Currently, presentation is a subject for many artists dealing with painting, their solutions often employing the wall as an activated element. The idea that a white wall is a neutral context for painting is nothing new, however; this notion has been challenged since the early days of Modernism saw the removal of patterned wallpaper and silk from studios and salons. More recently, artists such as Jorge Pardo have also used the design elements of a space as well as paintings and sculptures. This extension of an art object into the world of design is not Aasan’s interest, although some of his work may momentarily point to this objective.

In building his display units, Aasan uses the tools and materials of his wood workshop. Paint is then applied with cardboard to wood rectangular, square, or diamond formats. Tape is used, over-painted, and later removed, to make horizontal and vertical lines. Identification of the paintings with the method of construction and the grid form common to both, inevitably leads to a contemplation of the grid as subject matter and the history of its use. Rosalind Krauss (writing in 1979, a period in contemporary art in which the grid was at its most prevalent) said, “In suggesting that the success of the grid is somehow connected to its structure as myth, I may of course be accused of stretching a point beyond the limits of common sense, since all myths are stories and like all narratives they unravel through time, whereas grids are not only spatial to start with, they are visual structures that explicitly reject a narrative or sequential reading of any kind.”* In repeatedly using this form, Aasan positions his work at that point where the grid is not only an ordering principle and familiar structure, but also a subject of myth; it can, in other words, be read. In the past, the artist has configured grids using text to invent both optically and conceptually. From a distance the visual grids appeared to consist of drawn or painted lines, but with increased proximity a recognizable text became visible.

In a modern city we not only live on a grid that we know to exist imaginatively; it also exists as a continuous presence in the structuring of buildings and the interior spaces that we experience. The grid is always with us as an idea and as a form. The revisiting of such a familiar device as a means of display joins a preoccupation with context, presentation and ideas of originality which Aasan shares with a number of Berlin based artists: Kirstine Roepstorff, Michaela Meise, Björn Dahlem and Jan Christensen, to name a few. Their concerns have focused primarily on sculpture and installation, however, not on painting. Aasan has turned this questioning to abstract painting and to the self-reflexive possibilities of its immediate surroundings. A sculpture exhibited in 2006, “Bootleg Piece #2 (Brussels),”was a plinth-like object supporting a stack of illegal CD recordings. The sculptural form of the piece recalled Russian Constructivism while the CDs themselves raised notions of intellectual property. It was a very simple statement. That Assan deals these issues the viewer’s way with such direct, formal expediency and visual precision, accounts for the very engaging nature of his work and ensures that it is never overly dry or pedagogic.

Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968) pointed to the fact that “art history has consistently decided upon the virtues of a work of art through considerations completely divorced from the rationalized explanations of the artist.” It could be said that Aasan, in this particular exhibition, is finally conflating the opposed readings in Duchamp’s statement, putting realization and interpretation in a continuous loop. 

* “Grids,” October issue 9, 1979


David Rhodes


JUNE 2011

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