THE SENUOUS SURFACE - IMPRESSIONS AND IMAGES IN THE ART OF JÓHAN MARTIN CHRISTIANSEN
by Maria Kappel Blegvad
We are driving on the country road along the coast. The sea is surrounded by rocks with black, apparently ancient layers of basalt, on which longhaired sheep graze. The water is calm, deep blue and glittering. “It looks like mercury,” says Jóhan Martin, recalling the first sentence of William Heinesen’s novel, The Lost Musicians: “Far out in the mercury-glowing ocean lies a lonely little lead-coloured land…” I look out at the ocean and see exactly what he means. The conversation has me tuning into the landscape: the moss-covered slopes, the tall grass and the yellowish-green and brown colours, which are intensified the moment the sun penetrates the clouds in the sky.
Nature makes an impression. It attaches itself to your retina like a graphic imprint. Jóhan Martin and I talk about the relationship between sensory impressions and their impact on our consciousness: not only in relation to perception, memory and creativity, but also in concrete terms, when something external is constantly getting stuck to something material.
“It is interesting how differently each of us takes in the world. Things have different ways of implanting themselves in our consciousness. They settle in the form of traces, both in your consciousness and in your body,” he says. I ask him whether he is particularly interested in these traces of external influences. “Yes. Very much so,” he answers. “Anything that impacts the final result of a work – particularly the tiny details that finally reveal themselves in a work – bear witness to a broader context. I love that idea.”
Jóhan Martin describes how, in his works, whether his sculptures or his larger-scale fabric installations, which generally express an abstract idiom, he aims to create something sensuous in the surface. This can be tactile details, scratches or marks that ensconce themselves in the surface, evoking particular memories or associations in the viewer. He also likes to give us something to think about. That is why he often embeds hidden references, for example, to Bible stories or ancient Faroese tales or adventures; but always in an ambiguous way that leaves room for a variety of interpretations.
THE PATTERNS OF THE MOUNTAIN
We park the car on a muddy country lane. As I step out, I breathe in the fresh sea air. In an attempt to crystallise my experience of this exceptional countryside I take endless snaps with my iPhone. However, the need to be present in the nature soon predominates, and it does not take long before I put it back in my pocket. Instead, I yield to the alien landscape that surrounds us. We are standing in front of a large mountain that forms a triangle-like shape. The black-patterned cracks on the mountainside are reminiscent of endlessly ramifying root structures or of the wrinkles on an old man’s skin. It is as if the passage of time has clung to the earth, plants and rocks on the mountain’s surface.
The sun is peeking out and I end up staring at it slightly too long. When I blink, I see violet-coloured circles on my inner eye – a so-called ‘after-image’: something the great poet and scientist, J.W von Goethe, explained for the first time in his Theory of Colours (1810). At the time, in his role as a colour theorist, Goethe discovered and passed on the fact that when you look at a single colour (for instance, red) and then look at a white wall, this generates the complementary colour to red: green. Thus, Goethe defined the eye and the brain as the co-producers of what is seen. This meant that the eye was no longer perceived as a passive recipient of impressions, but as an active sensory instrument. He focused on the phenomenological qualities of colours, stressing that their very appearance depends on a variety of parameters – the perceived object in relation to its surroundings (whether it is light or dark) – and on other colours that appear around the central colour. Hence, what Goethe defined as after-images are traces of what one has seen. It is the impression that settles on the retina and impacts our experience of it, which we then look at.
IN THE STUDIO
The previous day I had visited Jóhan Martin in his architect-designed home with its sea view. The house previously belonged to the Faroese artist, Janus Kamban, and is now owned by the Faroese Art Association and available to rent by artists. In the house’s high-ceilinged studio hung an unfinished fabric work sewn-together nappies in various patterns and colours, mostly monochrome: either white or blue or shades of beige and pink. Among the fields of monochrome colours and standing out mysteriously hung some individual, dyed fabric nappies. Jóhan Martin explained that all the fabric nappies were dyed using ink, tea, coffee or red wine. However, the handful of fabric nappies that stood out had not absorbed the dye as the others had done: maybe because parts of the fabric had not been covered by the liquid when lying in the tub; or maybe because, during the drying process, the sun had bleached some parts more than others. The striped ones had acquired their pattern from the rubber cord of the drying rack. Others were harder to decode. They resembled Rorschach patterns with hidden faces or shapes concealed in them, leaving you with the feeling that something inexplicable had occurred in the process of forming images.
I could not help thinking of the French art theorist Roland Barthes. When describing photography, he refers to a so-called ‘punctum’ factor: the details in a photograph that jump out at us inexplicably. These can include details that hint at certain memories and feelings, but which you cannot instantly pinpoint. Even though Jóhan Martin’s fabric work hanging on the ceiling was a million miles from a photograph, nonetheless there were certain similarities between its evocation process and that of a photograph. The remnants of ink, tea, coffee or red wine had left behind lasting traces on the fabric, while the sunlight had bleached the colours, thereby impacting the final colours. They expressed an abstract element, which was linked to randomness as a phenomenon.
I asked him whether the traces maybe suggested an artist who liked letting go of control during the genesis of the work. In other words, my aim was to find out whether Jóhan Martin, unlike the classic notion of the artist as a self-willed creator, consciously avoids commanding the creation of a work from start to finish. He confirmed this. He explained that his interest in the principal of accident and his desire to do away with the stereotypical myth of the artist had actually been part of his approach ever since his final year at the Academy of Art in Malmö, from where he graduated in 2014. The unpredictable elements in a work of art, everything that sneaks into a work without the artist’s conscious intentions, are generally a phenomenon that occupies him a great deal. The unintended, abstract patterns and colour effects, which are not visible until the end of the creative process, add an important poetic element to a work. “In my opinion, the beauty is to be found in the neglected, random elements,” he said. This statement did not surprise me. Even at our first meeting in the café at ARoS a few months before, he had explained how rejected, discarded, screwed-up or destroyed materials appealed to him much more than art that is carefully arranged and organised right down to the smallest detail. On that same occasion he described how he wanted to pick up where the French Impressionists left off. His abstract, minimalist idiom may be far removed from that of the Impressionists, but like them he attempts to embed volatile reality in his art.
By extension, it is tempting to characterise Jóhan Martin’s works as a concoction of Neo-Impressionist, Neo-Minimalist and Neo-Conceptual elements. His work also suggests a kind of ‘aesthetic of ugliness’, given that he deliberately leaves room for accident and error, discolouration and distortion. “I tend to see great beauty in a mucky, crumpled tarpaulin flapping in the wind, and I can draw inspiration from clothes casually thrown in a heap on the floor. I don’t see such things as messy. Instead, I see how colours and textiles merge together in a beautiful, random way,” he admits.
SHADOWS AND HIDDEN FACES IN THE FABRIC
The obscure image patterns revealed in the coloured pieces of fabric made me think of the story of the Veil of Veronica: a legend about the woman who, when Jesus was on his way to Calvary, handed him her veil so he could wipe the sweat from his brow. After he had done so, to her amazement she saw an image of Christ imprinted on the cloth.1
Jóhan Martin was familiar with the story and thought it was a perfect allusion to his work, because the story is about the formation of an image on several levels, including the artistic level. The imprint of Christ’s face also alludes to the memory of the images we form mentally when we think, fantasise and dream.
Jóhan Martin also thinks the story is interesting, because, when he was coming up with the idea for the work, he was reading the writings of the French psychoanalyst and art theorist, Julia Kristeva. He is particularly interested in her theory of ‘hidden faces’, which, on the basis of the work of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, she describes in her article ‘On the Melancholic Imagery’.
In the article Kristeva describes melancholy and depression as an expression of the narcissist’s morbid longing for a paradisiacal condition. Maybe the artist is similarly associated with the sorrowful aspects in the life of a melancholic or narcissist, with death and with his or her own craving for something greater: beauty. Hence suffering becomes a point of reference for the melancholic individual’s spiritual engagement. This suffering, which involves a longing, is also linked to love, albeit an unfulfilled and constant yearning for love. It is the result of the realisation that it is impossible to enter into direct connection with the absolute: the equivalent of grieving over the loss of someone you have loved and lost, or simply miss.
Images of the dead Christ contain sublime beauty, because as an image of eternal suffering He represents the transition, which a death wish triggers. Even though the idea of total meaninglessness is associated with great anguish and suffering, it also contains intensity, beauty and intimacy. In the moment of suffering you are aware of your feelings: an inner force that makes life significant. You are also aware of a yearning for perfect harmony in everything. This point relates back to the story of Veronica, whose love for Jesus was rewarded with His image. The incident is of course open to interpretation, most obviously as a symbol of Veronica’s faith, but there are also people who sincerely believe that the event actually occurred. In this light, Jóhan Martin’s fabric piece comes across as a mosaic of mirrors with ‘hidden faces’ in them. Whether he or she sees Christ’s face or your own, is totally up to the viewer.2
The story of the Veil of Veronica is also a perfect parallel to the medium of photography, in which a transient ‘now’ is similarly captured as a truthful impression of reality. However, in contrast to the photographer, who uses developer fluid, Jóhan Martin makes use of materials, which will ultimately perish or whose colours will fade. So, his works can be interpreted as a modern memento mori: a reminder of life’s (and a work’s) impermanence.
The triangular shape of the fabric work was reminiscent of the Faroese mountain whose black pattern of cracks resembled roots or an old man’s hand. The slightly truncated triangular shape, which the work will eventually acquire, also alludes to the shape of the Faroese mountains. The shape also evokes the letter ‘V’, as in the name Veronica, and Christ on the cross, whose outstretched arms, in certain crucifixion paintings, also form a V shape. Jóhan Martin explained how he intended to create three versions, because the number three is associated with the crucifixion, when Jesus hung flanked by two crucified thieves.
TRACES FROM THE WORLD OF NATURE AND CULTURE
In the studio there were also a number of life-sized plaster sculptures.
They looked like minimalistic versions of midsummer witch effigies or scarecrows: most of all because there was something weird about all these different looking ‘people’. Long tufts of grass poked out from several of them. One had been decorated with a piece of fabric at the top, while another had a surface texture like whipped cream on a sponge cake. As an artist with a great interest in tactility and the surface effects of materials, in this series of works Jóhan Martin succeeded in integrating a sensuous expression that evokes things other than what we see in the work. Somewhat in tandem with Barthes’s indefinable punctum, these works provoke an indefinable feeling in us. They are works that pave the way for a myriad of associations, leaving it up to each individual viewer to decide upon the work’s ultimate meaning.
On the floor there was a stack of unfolded cardboard boxes, which Jóhan Martin had kept out in the tall grass in the garden for a number of weeks. They were still soggy and formed the basis for a new series of plaster works, which would also be included in the exhibition at the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands. Soil and grass were still stuck to the boxes, emphasising the works’ connection with nature and giving rise to strange structures on their otherwise smooth surface, interrupted only here and there by curved edges and bumps or wide pieces of tape. This approach helped Jóhan Martin to unite impressions from nature with the lines and marks that originated from the original surface of the unfolded cardboard boxes
THE ART OF OVERLOOKED THINGS
You cannot help seeing Jóhan Martin’s works as quasi close-ups of materials, which you would not normally associate with high culture. The plaster impressions of cardboard boxes and cloth nappies dyed with ink and tea are reminiscent of early avant-garde artists’ use of found objects: so-called objets trouvés. In general, they evoke something familiar. But, by virtue of their uniqueness, they also represent something elevated and sensuous. Like avant-garde conceptual artists, Jóhan Martin manages to transform overlooked everyday objects into art. As he explained at one point, he finds it interesting that a used removal box – something relatively inconsequential and low-status in the vast scheme of things – can leave the most delicate imprints on the surface of the plasterwork. “What it’s all about is sensuousness and texture,” he explained.
I understood the importance of the sensuous element that applies to the majority of Jóhan Martin’s works. Looking at the fabric work reminded me of when, as a child, I would run around among newly washed sheets hanging to dry in our laundry room. The long sheets formed narrow alleyways for hiding behind when I was playing tag with my little brother. Jóhan Martin’s work had provided me with a sensuous experience that had evoked a pleasant childhood memory.
PRESENCE AND ABSENCE
The plaster works that Jóhan Martin has produced for exhibition at the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands are generally extremely minimalist and simple in their expression, even bordering on total lack of content: to such an extent that you are forced to relate to the tiniest details that reveal themselves as you look more closely. In other words, the series of works encourages you to attend to, and study the (insignificant?) details, delicate marks, scratches and dents, as if the works were a kind of scarred material with small, but not entirely invisible traces of a course of action, a process or a narrative.
Up against the wall of the studio stood another finished work, which Jóhan Martin had made out of a cardboard box. It was from Steinprent, the graphic workshop in Tórshavn. Steinprent’s stone printing workshop, where many Danish artists also get their prints made, is located on the quayside in Tórshavn, a place where Jóhan Martin has often spent time. His first exhibition there in 2014 included a series of graphic works he had produced at the workshop and which he titled DRESS. So, it comes as no surprise that in the left-hand corner you can read the words, “With love from Steinprent”: an affectionate greeting, which testifies to Jóhan Martin’s close relationship with the printers. But the text makes me think of Jóhan Martin’s generally graphic method, even though he does not work with graphics in the classical sense of the word.
This is not the first time that Jóhan Martin has experimented with cardboard boxes as artistic material. Removal and storage boxes with their new and unique surface of cracked edges and bulges, tape and barcodes, also formed the basis for the works in the DRESS exhibition. The series was a continuation of the artist’s degree show: LIGHTGREEN, DAYDREAM, EYESHADOW. Jóhan Martin’s contribution to the group exhibition, The Hot Show at the Nicolai Wallner Gallery in 2015 was also created on the basis of the cardboard box with an expression that was at once understated and refined. The artist’s three plaster reliefs – Cocktail Dress; Passagen. Vi falder, derhen [The Passage. We are falling, there] and Untitled (Eyeshadow) and the textile work, Waltz also received special mention in the press.
Whereas photography is a trace of reality, reality sneaks into Jóhan Martin’s plaster casts: not only as impressions, but also specifically. Remnants of soil and grass tufts make up part of the finished work: for example, in his series of sculptures, Untitled #1-15. Jóhan Martin’s plaster works were cast outside in interaction with nature. They were shaped and influenced by the sun, which bleached the colours, and bear scratches and debris or other traces of the soil they were lying on.
DANCE AS NARRATIVE
The latest video work, which Jóhan Martin, in collaboration with the theatre director Christoffer Berdal, has created for the exhibition at the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands is titled Hidden Faces. In it, the two contemporary dancers Alfredo Zinola and Búi Rouch evoke the Faroese ballads, the so-called kvæði, which until the mid-19th century were only passed on orally via dance and song. But the traditional chain dance is still practised in the Faroe Islands today. The large-scale fabric installation Cloths #1-3 is part of the scenery. The ‘final act’ of the video work includes the appearance of a Viszla: the same breed of dog that appeared in the famous mental self-portrait Melencolia I by the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer. In his video piece, Jóhan Martin also incorporates points associated with the traditional notion of melancholy as a prerequisite for creativity: a theme of suffering and longing that occurs in several works in the exhibition.
Jóhan Martin’s filming of the two dancers investigates the language, which the dancers express through their body movements and rhythm. The actual dance calls to mind a poem I recently read by the young Danish poet, Glenn Christian from his collection of poems entitled Det hjemlige [The Comforts of Home]: “Glenn Christian dances around with his very own language, occasionally in his dreams being attacked by mosquitoes that suck away at his thoughts.”
On my way to the airport I looked at the landscape from the taxi. We passed small hills with tall clumps of grass. The heavy clouds were almost touching the ground. We passed multi-coloured wooden houses, some of which had grass roofs. Like camouflaged caravans they blended with the landscape. But there is nothing warlike about the Faroe Islands. On the contrary, “the lonely lead-coloured land,” which Heinesen referred to in the introduction to his novel, possesses a characteristic tranquillity, slowness and history, and worn and weathered traces of the volcanic eruptions, which thousands of years ago created the foundation of this island country. It is a beautiful country that testifies to the progress of nature and the fierce, changeable weather conditions, snowstorms, cold and sleet, which over time have made their mark on the landscape.
Even though Jóhan Martin is by no means a traditional landscape artist, nonetheless in many of his works you come across distinctive features, which are also typical of the landscape. Just as in your encounter with the Faroese countryside, in his art you find a beauty associated with simplicity, intimacy and quietness. You find small, refined details and impressions, which make his art unique and which demand the viewer’s full attention.
Maria Kappel Blegvad, MA in Art History, Aarhus University. Curator at ARoS Aarhus Art Museum since 2010 organising exhibitions of contemporary art.
From the SPOR [TRACES] catalogue, published by the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands, September 2016
1 According to Danish translation
of Ernst von Dobschütz:
Christusbilder pp. 304-305:
"Hun foldede hovedtørklædet ud,
rakte ham det og sagde: »Herre,
tag dette hovedtørklæde og tør
Eders ansigt af med det.« Så tog
Vor Herre tørklædet og tørrede sit
ansigt med det, og straks, ved
Guds kraft, var Vor Herre Jesu
Kristi ansigt afbilledet på det og
det så levende, som var han der i
kød og blod. Så gav han hende
tørklædet tilbage og befalede
hende at hun opbevarede det
godt, for det havde nu evnen til at
helbrede mange syge. Og da
denne fromme kvinde bar
tørklædet tilbage og kom hjem,
berørte hun sin ægtemand, som
havde været syg længe, med det,
og han blev straks helbredt, og
det samme blev mange syge ved
at berøre dette hellige tørklæde."
Link to the source with the text
translated by Associate Professor
2 All this is also very interesting,
given that in Latin the name
Veronica means ‘vera icon’: in
English ‘true image’.
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