Clouds, skies and nothingness
by Espen Hammer
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a moving sequence where Prince André, who lies wounded and dying on the battlefields of Austerlitz, looks up at the sky and is struck by how high it is. It is neither blue nor grey, but high, Tolstoy asserts. To me, Ingeborg Stana’s skies are also primarily high, or perhaps, more accurately, they are elevated. It is as if the painterly gaze has been raised towards the heavens, towards something ethereal, unachievable and absent. Something that is not merely out of reach in the vertical sense, but which also, thanks to the indefinable shape of the clouds, expresses the transient, which is both formless and untouchable.
With the motif of the sky, which she has explored in a series of paintings, Stana situates herself within a Romantic tradition, primarily within landscape painting. For an arch Romantic such as Caspar David Friedrich the role of art was to express transcendence (without this transcendence becoming any more concrete as a result) and to remind us of our limitations and our dependence on a concealed divinity. Friedrich wanted art that could stretch beyond itself and beyond a secular reality. A decisive difference between the two artists lies in the fact that Friedrich preferred to depict the confrontation between mankind and nature in a concrete way by showing humans on the brink of devastating natural forces (the open sea, the valley that stretches indefinitely ahead etc.), whereas Stana’s images are devoid of human presence. It is us, as viewers, who are invited to feel the dizziness of being confronted with the soaring vaults of the sky, but her motif – the clouds’ Brownian arbitrariness – are cold and devoid of anthropological reference. What remains is the human gaze, but without any anchoring element or embodiment. Despite its beauty, the sky is, after all, inhuman.
The combination of the transient and transcendence may evoke the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s notion of natural beauty. According to Adorno, natural beauty is inconceivably other in relation to human experience. Natural beauty manifests itself first and foremost through silence – note how still Stana’s images are, they do not say a word, they make no sound – and the fact that it escapes human touch or invocation. Therefore, it is perhaps exactly the most transient phenomena (like clouds), which Adorno also highlights, that are capable of eliciting an experience of transcendence. The transient is that which evades capture, which points to something other that we cannot define or comprehend.
Adorno contends that the role of art is to mimic, not naturally beautiful things, but natural beauty as such. Great art has the same indeterminate, sublime quality as natural beauty. If art attempts to mimic naturally beautiful objects it will descend into kitsch. I believe that Stana’s paintings have this quality: even if they can configure something sublime, they are not capable of articulating the sublime without ambiguity.
If a contemporary artist selects a blue sky with clouds as their motif, the work inevitably risks becoming banal. Clouds pierced by sunlight on a bright blue sky today belong to the realm of holiday snapshots and picture postcards, and Romantic landscape painting has long since lost its role as a serious art form.
Should Stana be worried? Hardly. Her work operates as an extension of photography. Her paintings do not revolve around a central perspective; they are flat like a photographic image. Stana is conscious of the fact that oil on canvas within a frame is no guarantee of authenticity, and if her paintings hark back to a time passed, they do so with a relaxed sense of irony as if they accept that no artistic world-making today can take place without implicit reference to the categories and conditions of photography. Like the contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter, Stana operates in the space between photography and painting, but without being described as a photo-realist. (Photo-realism cultivates photography’s pure, constitutive banality; Stana merely refers to this and uses it as a point of departure.)
I mentioned Adorno’s notion of natural beauty. For him, natural beauty is neither compelling nor pleasant; instead it is unsettling as it confronts us with an abyss, which we normally keep at bay. If Stana’s works border on kitsch, this is because she is so strongly drawn to the allure of beauty. For me, Stana’s light brushstrokes in her Azure on white, penetrated by light – seemingly idyllic – are juxtaposed with an underlying sense of danger, which these paintings also induce. In some of the evening motifs this is clearly manifest: the poison-yellow sky glows with an apocalyptic resonance, as if some terrible catastrophe is about to take place. But this sensation can also be found in the blue paintings. Like the sea or the mountain range, these images depict an uninhabited environment. The blue sky is by all accounts beautiful, but only when it is viewed from a stable position. The height in Stana’s paintings gives me a sense of falling, of losing my footing and tumbling down to a certain death. When the Twin Towers fell in New York, they did so against the backdrop of a perfect morning sky. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, a whole world had followed its journey into the blue for 43 seconds, from its launch to its destruction. Sunbathing is no longer associated with health and the expression of a personal choice. The beauty of the sky can never be truly idyllic. Only down here with us can idyll reign. The sky is too remote and too unknown - too distanced.
In the end, it is perhaps this inhuman distance that gives us the key to Stana’s imaginary world. One could be tempted to describe her paintings as permeated by a denial of reality, and so being distinctly melancholic. Everybody knows that blue is the colour of melancholy. The pale quality of Stana’s blue skies reflects a uniquely Scandinavian (and Protestant) form of bleakness, which has been prevalent since the Romantic period. According to psychoanalysts this melancholy manifests itself in a desire to erase oneself in an attempt to recapture a lost and undifferentiated communion, which existed before the establishment of the subject (and the object). The melancholic dreams of a form of eradicating ecstasy – jouissance as Jacques Lacan calls it – and is not satisfied until all practical meaning has been sucked out of the universe. As I see it, Stana’s works function like this form of unburdening. They are a form of spiritual exercise - artistic attempts to confront a breakdown of meaning, but through the language of painting. Stana’s figuration, therefore, touches the domain of abstract art. It is a form of art that seeks to elevate itself, to become light as a feather and as untouchable as the skies it depicts; art that aims at elevation.