“When Emptiness Holds Meaning”, an introduction to the art of Janine Magelssen, 2007

In the plays of the Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse, it is in the pauses between dialogues and the empty gaps and intervals that the real meaning of the text lies hidden. In other words, what is left unsaid is often more important than what is said. In Janine Magelssen’s works we find a similar interest for what lies “between the lines”; the layer between the concrete and the abstract where the perception of art is less dependent on a clear-cut understanding than on intuition and sensuousness.

Magelssen began her career as an artist using a figurative idiom in which the body and the portrait were predominant motifs. Her point of departure was her interest for drawing and modelling, media that have continued to be key components of her oeuvre. However, a commission for the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra attracted her to a non-figurative idiom. The commission involved drawing illustrations which reflected musical elements and translated them into a pictorial form of expression. This project was the catalyst for an important period which offered Magelssen new means of approach and sources of inspiration. As a result, she moved towards an abstract language, both technically and mentally, in which the human spirit took precedence over human physicality and formed the theoretical springboard for further work.

Ever since, she has worked in a borderland between drawings and objects and has focused on investigating formal artistic effects, where her chosen forms and use of colour have gradually become less and less complex. While her earlier works had a rougher and more definite structure with colours in for example monochromic reddish-orange or brown, her most recent works are smooth and almost structureless objects in white. This tendency away from the use of colour and towards a simplification of form can be regarded as steps in the direction of a reduction of artistic effects. When Magelssen does use colour, she is interested in the vibration or frequency created by the colour, what she terms the “sound of the colour”. White, which actually cannot be called a real colour, is both empty and full at the same time. This dichotomy is paradoxical – the reductive objects are both emptied of meaning but simultaneously open the door to new interpretations. Magelssen’s present focus of interest is the interspace between emptiness and meaning and the sensuousness that gives rise to a free flow of associations.

Technically speaking, Magelssen has moved away from conventional drawing and over to a construction technique involving sheets of PVC, Plexiglas or wood. She builds up her objects from the inside by means of wax, putty or mouldings and gradually creates barely obvious lines, surfaces and dots – either shaped like convex elevations or gouged out like concave hollows. The elevations are primed with glue and chalk or cast in synthetic plaster. This technique is time-consuming and involves a process of polishing and grinding until a soft, smooth surface is achieved. The lines and dots form a relief in which volumes meet each another over surfaces and create spaces. Magelssen’s technique can be regarded as the transformation of the strokes of a drawing into three-dimensional volumes and lines. Her diminutive reliefs create effects of light and shadow on the smooth surfaces of the objects and the latter therefore change character according to the time of day, as the shadows move with the passing hours. In this way, the dimensions of time and movement are incorporated into the works.

In the words of Magelssen herself, she “creates spaces without verbal interpretations”. This perhaps mirrors what an observer feels, since the works evoke a physical and sensuous experience rather than the need for a perceptual or intellectual analysis. There are several reasons why the works set our senses in motion, but the main reason is their tactility. While her minimalist and subtle forms are relatively difficult to discern with the naked eye, the softly undulating and shadow-based shapes invite the observer to touch them. Instead of looking at the works from a distance and analysing what we see, we are gripped with a desire to come as close as possible in order to experience the work in a directly physical way. Secondly, the reliefs, in which lines and volumes are contrasted with smooth surfaces, can be said to create a sensation of sound. The observer can sense this as an abstract and silent picture of sound that arises as a physical response in an extended field of sensuousness.

In short, Magelssen’s works are about abstract feelings. In addition to her strong relationship to nature, she finds much inspiration in literature and philosophy. One example is the Swedish philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) whose theories on intuition and the intellect have been a major influence on Magelssen’s understanding of her own artistic activity. Bergson defines intuition as a higher level of consciousness than the intellect, a level that surpasses all forms of conceptual cognition. While the intellect is related to a traditional concept of knowledge, predominated by logic, rational analysis and methodology, intuition is linked to reality in the form of states of mind and consciousness. Magelssen’s objects are a reflection of these ideas: the fundamental difference between the inner world of consciousness and the exterior, physical world is materialised in her empty, yet nevertheless meaningful, white objects.

In the context of art history, Magelssen’s reductionist idiom has somewhat erroneously been linked to the minimalist movement of the 1960s. But while the minimalists’ simplified and strict art form aimed to eradicate material sensitivity and empty their works of content likely to stimulate reflection, Magelssen’s works can be said to have completely the opposite intention. One of the few minimalists Magelssen does have links to is the American artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). Even though both artists have media in common, it is first and foremost Martin’s literary works that interest Magelssen. These texts talk for example about human beings’ ability to perceive experiences on an abstract and sensuous level, and this is one of the cornerstones of Magelssen’s artistic concept.

In contrast to minimalism, it is rather the modernism of the early 20th century and particularly the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich’s (1878-1935) theories on Suprematism that lie closest to Magelssen’s own artistic project. By means of geometrical abstract shapes and colourless motifs in either black or white, Malevich rejected all conventional definitions of art and replaced them with an artistic investigation into a spiritual reality. His paintings conveyed a “pure language” which contained neither narratives nor social comments in any traditional sense, but an extended level of consciousness in which religion and mystery were key elements. Suprematism also expressed an interest for spatial movement in which a simple idiom often consisted of squares positioned inside one another at different gradients. This asymmetrical form of expression resulted in motifs characterised by an energetic dynamism. Several of Suprematism’s fundamental principles are discernible in Magelssen’s objects. Both her simple, geometric idiom and her use of monochrome white are directly related to Malevich’s theories on the depiction of spiritual power by means of a purity of expression. Her volume-based reliefs are also a reminder of his ideas on spatiality and movement in that the dynamism in the reliefs’ scarcely discernible volumes creates an area of tension relating to space and movement.

Janicke Iversen
Art historian

Janine Magelssen is a Norwegian artist, who live and work in Oslo, Norway.