Hennie Ann Isdahl’s imagery is complex. She creates her works with monochrome surfaces. She stacks sheets of wood, layer upon layer. As other painters organise their palette on a canvas, Isdahl does her composing on small shelves or directly on the floor. At a cursory glance this might be mistaken for a random meeting of colours but an extensive process is behind each work. Each millimetre, each edge and spot has been evaluated. She brings out an identity, a distinctive note, in every work. Sometimes seductively attractive and harmonious, other times the undertone appears "almost ugly", off-key and vibrant. It is essential to find the "magic point" where the colours enjoy a balanced inner dialogue that also invites communication with the spectator.
A musical composition cannot be perceived as music if we only hear individual notes. A listener must register the relationship between notes, their placement and the space between them.1 On the whole, the same principles apply to the experience of Isdahl’s creations. Some colours are repeated more than others. All colours, whatever we choose, have a layer of feelings, personal, perceptual and cultural meanings. Here lies also the power of attraction or aversion to the individual hue and the array of compositions. These compositions are based on the various colours’ diverse qualities and intensity. Asked whether a green could have been substituted for a red at a certain spot, the answer is "yes, it could, but then it would have been a different work with a different temperature and balance (or unbalance)". The experience itself, and hence the references and the perceptual reading of the work, would be another. The specifically selected colours and compositions comprise the individual work, they are that work.
In his "Remarks on colour", the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "We will not discover any theory of colour (neither physiological nor psychological), but rather a logic of the concept of colour. And it contributes that which one often fallaciously expects of theory."2 In the same way, we can say that practical work with colours usually is based more on logical understanding than on theory.
It is common to refer to a "gut feeling" in the artistic process – the feeling signalling that a work has reached completion. This gut feeling is nothing other than the sum of an artist’s experiences. Hennie Ann Isdahl connects with her experience through her analytic, experimental and often playful activity in her studio but also via a search for colour experiences. It could be the colour of the wall of a building, or the junction of shades between two urban buildings. It can be the colour of a coat on the woman passing by on the sidewalk or any other everyday object. She makes these colour experiences her own by working with them.
In earlier works, Hennie Ann Isdahl has distinctly left her brush strokes and occasionally used unpainted chipboard, often with an uneven and broken edge. In her later pieces, the boards have sharp edges and no trace of a brush is evident in the paint. The sheets appear more like ready-mades. The painted sheets extend into the room when they are stacked. Viewed from the side, we experience the pieces as three-dimensional objects. With qualities such as three-dimensionality and ready-made, it is hard to avoid referring to the conflict between the modernistic painting and an object-related minimalism. Hennie Ann Isdahl’s work breaks through the conventional bounds of paintings and thus contradicts the American art critic Clement Greenberg’s thesis about the specific characteristic of the painting – its two-dimensionality. The painter Frank Stella felt his works should be perceived just as objects.3 (Stella started in the 1970s making painted three-dimensional aluminium reliefs.) What really points to painting in a traditional context, is that the work is experienced most completely by looking at it en face. No matter how one chooses to interpret Isdahl’s work, this aspect of the discussion currently is the least interesting and fruitful. (However, this does not exclude it as a relevant historical-theoretical discussion). The references are there and the artists are free to use them.4 One could also say that the references are here, as the references to art and everything else are in constant flux and it is now (here) that today’s art in being made and we participate and respond to them. Many earlier approaches can (and should) be re-explored with today’s context.
Hennie Ann Isdahl’s points of reference are clearly present in her organisation of colour but it is in her own experience that she finds the "answers" she presents to us. Her "answers" become "questions" for us spectators and provide us with the opportunity to pose our own "answers" in dialogue with the works. This signifies that we really are not up against a difficult or closed artistic expression, on the contrary. We find ample generosity and openness.
1. Sitert fra Josef Albers "Om färgernas inverkan på varandra". (Forum Forlag 1992/17. Oversettelse av K.G. Nilsson.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Bemerkninger om fargene" (Pax Forlag 2000/15. Oversettelse av Stian Grøgaard).
3. Se for eksempel "Art of the 20th Century: Minimalist and Conceptual Painting". (Taschen 2000/248)
4. Forsking har vist at også det tidlige modernistiske maleriet som ble ansett som referanseløst (å bare referere til seg selv) mange ganger hadde referanser til "den virkelige verden". I essayet "Abstraksjon enda en gang" (gjengitt i katalogen til utstillingen av Tomas Hestvold/Jakob Smith/Sverre Wyller på Kunstnernes Hus 1990) skriver Åsmund Thorkildsen: "Stadig flere fikk øynene opp for at det hos for eksempel Mondrian, Newman og Frank Stella var en noe skjult – men allikevel synlig – ikonografi. Det måtte virke frigjørende, at selv svært abstrakte bilder har en ikonografi og at subtile, formale nyanser kan ha et meningsinnhold."
1. Quoted from Josef Albers’ "Om färgernas inverkan på varandra" ("Interaction of Color") (Forum Forlag, 1992/17, Norwegian translation K.G. Nilsson)
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Bemerkninger om fargene" ("Remarks on Color") (Pax Forlag, 2001/15, Norwegian translation by Stian Grøgaard)
3. See, e.g. "Art of the 20th Century: Minimalist and Conceptual Painting". (Taschen, 2000/248)
4. Research has shown that earlier modernist paintings that were considered without reference (referring only to themselves) often had references to "the real world". In the essay "Abstraksjonen enda en gang" (reproduced in the catalogue for an exhibition of works by Tomas Hestvold/ Jacob Smith/ Sverre Wyller at Oslo’s Kunstnernes Hus in 1990), Åsmund Thorkildsen wrote: A growing number realised that in the works of, for example, Mondrian, Newman and Frank Stella, there was a concealed – albeit visible – iconography. It had a liberating effect when even the more abstract works could have their iconography and subtle, formal nuances can have meaningful content.
Hennie Ann Isdahl concentrates on spatial language. She uses the grammar of the monochrome, extending it into accumulative sculptures. In Solidarisk (“united”) 1 and Samlet (“collected”), a group of monochromes of different sizes are stacked against the wall, and in Summa sumarum sammensurium (“all in all a hotchpotch”), they are laid in piles over the floor of the gallery. Isdahl’s treatment of the monochrome is the expression of an agenda that goes beyond that of the modernist, self-referential painting. She makes an obvious reference to Donald Judd’s idea of specific objects as an approach to the painting as a thing, rather than an aesthetic idea, but with a clearer rapprochement to daily life and the architectural surfaces we inhabit. The serialisation of Isdahl’s accumulated monochromes is not so much a minimalist statement as a demonstration of the surfaces of inhabited spaces and the presence of spatial abstraction.