In one day, the number of photos we see is equal to the total number of paintings produced during the entire renaissance era. Janine Magelssen’s works remind us that the saying “you can’t see the wood for the trees” still holds true.
The painter Paul Cezanne made the rhetorical claim that drawing was about what existed between the trees, and not about the trees themselves. The inspirer of the later movement of cubism had grasped something important: pictorial art is about how people see things, not about what things look like in reality.
This realisation came at the end of the 19th century, but the art of drawing can still teach us something about how we view the state of things. Appropriately, Janine Magelssen’s series of wall objects at Galleri MGM is entitled “Between the lines”. From outside in the street, it looks remote – just monochromic, expanses of light and dark colour in a white room. But if you enter the gallery, you experience something strange: the objects turn out not to be cold and impersonal after all, but reach out to you with a message. They tell stories about the alliance between material and form.
A consistent modernist
Magelssen, born in 1964, is something so unusual as a consistent, Norwegian modernist. The exhibition is remarkably clean-cut; a quality emphasised by the gallery’s sober, white walls and plain appearance. This is serious business. In contrast to most of her contemporaries, who keep to non-figurative form conventions, Magelssen’s works are devoid of an ironic distance to formalism. She is interested in what the pictures actually are; in other words a minimalism that is a far cry from the cafÈ-minimalism of the nineties. Neither does she show any obvious links to the prominent German artist Eva Hess, who created feministic versions of modernism’s cubes during the seventies and contributed to the criticism of a formalism that was accused of being masculine and authoritarian. Magelssen’s works are nevertheless strangely feminine. Some are dainty, some physically robust, such as the large work made of black plasticine. Magelssen, petite herself, has here used her own height (1.7 m) and scope to create the framework for what appears as a large and physically dominating object. It has rough, but nevertheless symmetrical, vertical lines made with her fingertips. The artist employs simple effects with precision and we can therefore sense a visually generated irony. The feminine aspect of the works arises neither from a culturally determined clichÈ nor from a doctrinaire policy, but emerges as a complex part of a strong expression.
Little things that mean a lot
The other reliefs are made of white layers of chalk and glue or moulded in coloured, synthetic plaster. The works of chalk/glue have matt, lifeless surfaces with small variations between almost symmetrical lines. The strings that lie outermost cast shadows that fuse with the soft shadows from undulations in the surface. Here Magelssen is playing with our habitual way of looking at things and hinting that we may well need to adjust our powers of observation. For it is not immediately obvious what is the front or the back, or what is actually space and what is form. Apparently uninteresting questions such as these take on a new relevance because the works’ physique and temperament make us want to understand them.
Magelssen’s minimalist effects demand a high degree of precision in order to function properly. Occasionally, as in the case of the works with rather mechanical and insignificant pencil strokes, she has difficulty in convincing us. These objects are not as visually sensitive as the two small red-and-white ones which join together in a union that is at once harmonious and incongruous.