Considerations on Recent Paintings by Bodil Nielsen
It was about thirteen years ago that I was first seduced by Bodil Nielsen’s paintings. That’s a long time, and so I thought before writing this essay it might be interesting to remind myself what I’d written about it at that time. Her work has changed a good deal since then, but at least one thing I noticed about it back in 1997 still seems true to me: that in it “an acute use of color interactions allows … for the breakdown and the recuperation of pictorial unity to occur simultaneously.” The paintings keep taking themselves apart and putting themselves together as you look at them. Though maybe “simultaneously” is misleading: Although these processes of constructing and deconstructing, gathering and dispersing might potentially be going on at the same time, that potential can only be realized in perception sequentially.
In any case, that all might sound like it ought to be exhausting, like a pictorial equivalent of perpetual revolution: Eventually you’d just want all the commotion to let up for a while and just let the painting (and with it yourself, the satisfied beholder) relax for a while, content in the lull of a sensuous/intellectual caesura. Actually, that’s just what happens. But where and at what point in the process of looking at the paintings this hiatus occurs is unpredictable; it seems to depend more on the inclination of the viewer than on the structure of the painting.
The critic Pernille Albrethsen has said that Nielsen’s works “express a kind of painting that provides space – does not take space.” That’s well put. But I would also emphasize a complementary truth: The paintings expand or stretch or open up time. We associate this engagement with time with the art of music more than that of painting but how can we forget that the perception of a painting is something that takes time and uses time? It’s not true that we perceive a painting all at once. We move through space as we look at the painting—get closer, step back, focus attention perhaps on the left side of the painting, then the right, or instead the top of it, the bottom…and then try to synthesize these separate perceptions into a totality. All this takes time.
Nielsen’s paintings are quintessentially about the relationship of part to part and of part to whole. Their subject is the very process of looking at a painting. So, like other paintings, they take time to look at, but unlike some others they are also about the time that we take to look at them. And unlike most, just as they seem to generate more space than they occupy (which might be one definition of what the decorative in painting is or can be) they seem to give back to the viewer more time than it takes to look at them. That’s because the contemplative pause, or caesura as I have called it, implicit in the process of looking, is one which temporal scale becomes relative, variable.
I don’t think that Nielsen’s paintings could have the effect they have if it were not for the peculiarities of their facture, which distinguish them from many other paintings that might seem superficially similar. To say it bluntly, the construction of these paintings is self-evidently geometrical, which puts them into an artistic tradition that is now nearly a century old. They are constructed of colors arrayed in simple geometrical figures: rectangles, triangles, parallelograms, and so on. But the boundaries of these shapes are not clean or hard-edged, as in the works of a painter such as Ellsworth Kelly, and neither do they constitute a freehand, subjective approximation or interpretation of geometry, as in the work of someone like Alfred Jensen. The boundaries of the shapes in Nielsen’s paintings are carefully measured but the lines are not necessarily clean and smooth; instead, they are rough, the color has a tooth—the color areas can seem to eat into each other, or one can bleed into the next.
Looking at these edges again, a strange thing struck me: Although they are not typical of the facture of modernist or contemporary painting, I kept thinking they reminded me of something I’ve seen before. Thanks to a recent exhibition at the National Gallery in London, I now know what that something is. For it was there that I saw—as I wrote in a review for The Nation magazine—how in the paintings of Christen K°bke, the light “seems to carve the edges of things with such meticulousness but not too much polish, so that one seems to feel the grain of the surface with one’s eyes.” That “grain” along the edges of things is also what gives such tactile concreteness to Nielsen’s color—what keeps it from being a purely “optical” phenomenon like the color in the painting of the 1960s. What makes this even more surprising is that Nielsen seems to have a taste for hues that feel ungraspable, almost immaterial—colors that go off like a flash, or permeate an imaginary atmosphere rather than defining the surface of a volume. That is, the colors in themselves would seem to put an emphasis on opticality but at the edge, where their grain makes itself felt, they evoke tactility instead. And here, along these edges, the eye lingers. It takes its time.
K°bke’s geometrically constructed naturalistic images seem at once to catch things in motion and to suspend them in time. In them, as the American critic Sanford Schwartz once wrote, “we’re made keenly aware of the edges of shapes.” At those edges, in a bright, even, dry light, forms materialize and dissolve. Is it strange that I feel compelled to speak in similar ways of a painter of today and one of nearly two centuries ago? Perhaps, but the time of painting is different from our time. Paintings, then as now, are not really images. They are pieces of time preserved and ready to open up and expand in your mind.