ARE YOU STILL PAINTING SQUARES?

During the time I worked with pictures, my father often asked me: “Are you still painting squares?” He enjoyed those of my paintings that were fairly figurative, but when it comes to my quadrangle pictures, his feelings are mixed.

Per Formo has painted quadrangles far longer than I. I remember some of his large collages, made of plywood and painted hardboard from exhibitions as far back as the mid 1980’s. A “double F” was a recurrent element, as a kind of figure or motif. At the time, painting like that seemed fairly obvious; painting was in fashion, and geometry had an up-swing in connection with a neo-geo trend. What makes Formo special is that he still explores new aspects of a geometrical, non-figurative visual language.

In 2005 it is no longer obvious that this is the way paintings should look. The trends in contemporary art are constantly moving. Painting, and moreover, painting squares or other geometrical figures, is no longer a self-evident activity. Today, in a time with much politically explicit and narrative art, the question “Are you still painting squares?” seems more importunate than it was in the 80’s.

A Brief Historical Overview and Description

For more than 20 years Per Formo has worked with a geometrical visual language which has its roots in modernism.

Earlier on, he improvised fairly freely, using a repertoire of form consisting of geometrical shapes. It is not possible to trace any particular rules dictating the construction of the images: aesthetical decisions have been made continuously in every single image, apparently following no other logic than a visual aesthetic need. The same figures and motifs may appear in several images, but they do not form series. Formal themes that recur are the interplay of positive and negative forms, figure against a background, paradoxical and self-contradictory perspective effects, movement and rhythm on a surface. The colours are often broken earth colours and the application of the paint plays on the tactile.

In the early 1990’s the working method started to change. Formo introduced strict rules determining the composition and shaping of the surface. These rules define what it is possible to do within a series and are often presented as a short text in connection with the paintings. Improvisation is still present, both when it comes to formulating the rules and aesthetical choices. We are not here speaking of a slavish adherence to rules, but rather of a “soft” application of rules.

The underlying structure dominates each image, causing the serial to become conspicuous. In some of the games the construction is dictated by the rules to a large extent, making each image appear as a step in an animation series. Other games open up for different aesthetical interpretations of a basic construction, using the same geometrical structure as a point of departure. The images in the series appear as unique interpretations of a given situation.

The formal themes will vary from one series to another. The use of colour is straightforward: pure, unbroken colours that give the images a vivid visual expression.

Meaning

This description of Formo’s paintings speaks of an artist’s development within a certain visual language and indicates the art-historical context of his work. But what is the reason he works in this way? Why does he want to make these images? What is their meaning – for him, for us? What do they tell us?

In the later works, the rules in a way satisfy the need for a meaning: the rules explain the way the paintings look. At the same time, this is only an apparent explanation. What does really explain a rule, for instance the rule “black and white rectangles made by the connecting lines between the end points of red diameters rotating anti-clockwise in steps of 45 degrees in a grid of invisible circles on a green background” (the rules of the game for 6x9x30x30)? This describes the coming into being of the painting, but the idea behind the rules and what happens when the painting has been made – its effect on the spectator – is not picked up.

Formo says that the purpose of the rules is to free himself of deep-rooted habits and ways of doing things. If one is thrown upon one’s own imagination, one will repeat an acquired repertoire of clichés and empty phrases. “By means of a rigid set of regulations I find things that I would never have found otherwise”, he says. Another point to which he draws attention, is the fact that through the system-based work language becomes visible as a structure.

He is also sceptical of language as a communication channel. The linear thought of language is limiting in a coercive manner – it is an important tool as far as it goes, but it does not “see” everything, he claims. Images and sound, on the other hand, provide a vagueness, an indefiniteness, where the possibilities for meaning are open. This he finds attractive. The choice of a geometrical, abstract, visual language is also a consequence of his preferring an indefinite meaning rather than a linguistically more precise, well-defined one.

Indefiniteness

When it comes to attitudes to language (text or images) and meaning, Formo has a kindred spirit in one of the great classics of modernism, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Stein too liked to work towards a language that escapes unambiguous interpretations. In many of Stein’s texts the well-known meanings of words and the habitual ways of reading are radically challenged by linguistic sound effects, unusual combinations of words and their inherent meaning and a conspicuous rhythm. Her texts are based on the conventions of how meaning is articulated while at the same time these conventions are broken.

The purpose of this is disputable. The most common way of explaining the modernists’ method is to say that language is denaturalized; the reader is shaken out of his or her habits; one gets to say something in a new way; one is aware that language too is a material with rules of its own and not a direct imprint of reality.

Texts with ambivalent or indefinite meaning do not occur by chance, and Stein is consciously aware of which parts of the language that are suitable for the task. According to her, nouns are least suitable to achieve what she wants. Nouns are handy when you want to ask for a roll, but what else are they good for, she asks. As soon as something is named, the name ceases to influence that which is named. Nouns do not make new what they name. So why write in nouns, she asks.

On the other hand, she greatly cherishes verbs and adverbs, propositions, articles, conjunctions and pronouns. The positive qualities of these that Stein points out, are that they may be misunderstood and make mistakes, they may look like something else, they are on the go, they work and are “alive”. The components of language, the very material a writer works with, are in focus.

Methods

As I see it, Formo’s pictorial work has something in common with Stein’s linguistic efforts. In the same way that Stein complicates a substantival, content-centred reading, Formo cuts off references to reality. It is not possible to say exactly what Formo’s pictures are all about or what they resemble. When visual elements are liberated from the function of referring, they emerge as distinct by virtue of themselves.

Whereas Stein lets propositions, conjunctions and verbs work actively on the task of extending the territories of possible interpretations, Formo plays with visual elements in a pictorial space with rules all its own. The elements catch our attention and constitute an active pictorial world on the premises of visual perception.

Whereas Stein has chosen the verbal language as her building material, Formo has defined the components of the visual language as his. The visual elements he chooses to work with constitute a visual alphabet consisting of basic perceptual categories: large – small, light – shadow, depth – surface, space created by means of various kinds of perspective (in front of – behind), colours, diagonals, repetitions, rhythm and so on. In addition to this, he introduces rules for the individual series in order to break down the conventional grammar of visual language. A constructed structure helps him find surprising visual solutions.

The effects are partly harsh; however, one cannot speak of a definite meaning. The images are clearly about “something”, but this “something” is evasive, it changes and moves and is closely linked to the visual experience that is triggered by seeing the work. The meaning is expressed visually, and it is experienced and interpreted in close connection with the visual.

In the Visual

As I experience Formo’s pictures, they address both the rational, analytical, faculties of the viewer, as well as the emotions. It is possible to describe and analyze his pictures, but which emotional chords they touch in each individual, is an open question.

Formo’s pictures ask us to live in the visual for a while. The rational part of the brain may concentrate on the rules of the game and the different pictorial arrangements of the material. In the background the unconscious works with hitherto unseen depictions of space and figures: they may remind us of much but remain themselves.

Continuing to paint geometry today, as Formo does, is to insist that the visual language offers something that cannot be expressed otherwise. Maybe it is a political activity to go on painting quadrangles and to trust that the visual language is the bearer of a particular kind of meaning. The pictures evade interpretation, but have a strong presence. “I am passionately and genuinely preoccupied with seeing – with the phenomenal fact that something is visible and that we have visual experiences”, says Per Formo. His pictures invite us to share this enthusiasm.

Ingvill Henmo, April 2005
Translated by Birgit Kvamme Lundheim