Painting Places Painting: Dagmar Dahle and Chris Kline
“The feeling of past time is a present feeling.” –William James, 1890
Painting is a field, a breathing space before it is anything visual. Painting is also a site of labour, or arbeit as Freud had it, a site for the working through of experience. The painter’s search for the materiality of painting is one that opens a space of anamnesis or lived memory. Historically speaking, of course, the field is a principal image for workspace, a place of labouring, the name of one’s call, to which the painter practises listening.
The Montreal based painter, Chris Kline, has mentioned his attraction, his listening to the Jacob van Ruisdael painting The Linen Bleaching Grounds Near Haarlem, 1670. In this landscape painting, the rectangular fields or grounds are shown from a distant viewpoint, with their hundreds of rectangles of whitening fabric spread out on the earth in grids, under tumultuous cloudy skies. This concern with fabric and textiles is a theme we see unfolding in the works of the painters Chris Kline and Dagmar Dahle. With the exception of certain important projects, Dagmar Dahle’s practice has for some decades maintained a consistent passion for her relationship with ancestral memory, that place called Berlin, which resides for her historically and mythically.
Concerned with place, these two artists practise in an artistic here and now, one that is always simultaneously an elsewhere fissured by memory, history and experience. In Kline’s case this elsewhere is the hidden, kept back or deferred, folded within the creases that pass through memory or nature. For Dahle, it is a place more revealed, in the terrain we call historical, some place written, political even, perhaps what could be identified as national culture—that of Germany, and the city of Berlin.
If current contemporary art has gone over to the field of screens and the electronic media, painting remains visible in the present, a continuation of the realm of the handmade. In spite of or perhaps because of this, painting retains its audience. This would suggest that it continues to have something significant to offer. My sense of painting’s continuing value has been inspired by the remarkable works of these two mid-career painters, one in western Canada, Dagmar Dahle, and one in Quebec, Chris Kline. There may, of course, be others but Dahle and Kline, in their mutually divergent practices, open a way for what Dahle described as “taking painting back to its essential core,” which would be to say—always beginning again. If such a core exists, perhaps it could best be described as that “labour of care in aesthetic experience.” I’m thinking of course of the role played by care in Donald Winnicott’s remarkable explication of creativity and psychoanalysis, as well as his emphasis on play in place of the more Calvanistic labour, from Playing and Reality (Routledge, 1971). With this in mind we could also speak about the play of care in aesthetic experience. For me, this is actually more accurate, bearing in mind the several meanings of the word play.
By way of introduction I will mention one of the more interesting recent texts on painting, that of Isabelle Graw, a critic working in Germany. Her essay, “The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi-Persons” from Thinking Through Painting: Reflexivity and Agency Beyond the Canvas (Sternberg Press, 2012), roots the considerable value of a painting in its connection, its continuity with its maker. Graw suggests, following the anthropological notion, that artworks are equivalents of people. The mode of this connection between painter and the painting, Graw states, is that of indexicality. She proposes that “painting’s signs can be read as traces of the producing person.” There is some resonance of Barthes’s descriptions of photography in her statements, but more importantly she sends us in the direction of painting’s baggage. This is aura, presence and immediacy, all of which belong to the fundamental question of painting’s materiality, in other words, labour and the lived body. My proposal here is that all belong to the project of apprehending painting’s materiality. A painting is worked in time. Its material being is intertwined with its temporality, its making process, and its mode of connection with the viewer by way of its intertwining vision and touch.
From the perspective given by painting, and what Lyotard called “anamnesis of the visible,” there is little getting around the persistence of aura. This can be inferred from Graw’s mention of Charles Peirce’s “indexicality.” Peirce called indexicality a “firstness, a contact with the world unmediated by sedimented linguistic constructs.” Such is the basis of Graw’s interest in the painter’s mark being continuous with the person rather than a substitute. There is the possibility of a claim for site-specificity here long after any interest in medium-specificity has been lost. In fact, site-specificity, the touch of the painter, is a source point of aura, the “thisness” of the thing, its flesh, that sensuous materiality of the aesthetic event. In the aesthetic event, as constructed by Adorno, aura and autonomy were pretty much synonymous. Perhaps this could all be simplified by saying that painting tends to be the practice that works with that sense of place described as the “here and now.” And Graw’s privileging of indexicality reinforces an understanding of the role of touch in painting and it’s argument for the place of the handmade. Dagmar Dahle and Chris Kline have each, in their separate ways, taken these terms as a path by which to pursue depth, projects that express painting as a way of working out artistic identities amid the labour of “taking painting back.” Such a provocative statement is made more complex as Dahle elaborated: “What I’ve been thinking about has to do with gender in a sense, and hierarchies of painting…”
To read more from Stephen Horne’s article, order Issue 131.