Materials Seeking Form

Ragna Bley’s Zooid at Munchmuseet on the Move – Kunsthall Oslo dresses in the conceptual garb of science, but her paintings also reveal a kinship with ethereal New Age colour schemes.

Ragna Bley, Zooid, detail, 2017. Photo: Ove Kvavik.

In biology, the term zooid is used to describe single creatures that form part of larger colonial animals or compound organisms; examples include the underwater moss animals. In Ragna Bley’s show Zooid at Munchmuseet on the Move – Kunsthall Oslo’s venue in Bjørvika we find a “colony” of thirty-four small, clay-like bronze figures on the floor; they are somewhat reminiscent of ocean-floor organisms. However, the exhibition title is primarily a metaphor that accentuates the fluid, contour-less nature of the works. In the list of exhibits the bronze figures are listed under titles that can be combined to form a long and partially comprehensible sentence: Ok cool let’s try is followed by to make sure, that you are ok and with this one, and so on. The point is obviously that each individual element only makes sense as part of a syntactic, organic or installatory whole.

Ragna Bley, Zooid, installation view, 2017. Photo: Kunsthall Oslo.

The main highlight of the show comprises nine abstract paintings that extend all the way from the floor to the three-metre-high ceiling of the gallery space. The paintings were created using highly diluted acrylics on ungrounded white sailcloth, causing the pigments to alternately splash out across or seep into the material – and making it difficult to distinguish between the painted surface and its support. It may be more accurate to say that the canvas has been dyed – like textiles – rather than painted. Nor is the binary opposition of figure and ground particularly useful when describing Bley’s abstractions. The various fields of colour seep into one another, dissolve and are watered down. In some places, though, we find greater variation in the texture and saturation of the paint, such as in Flatter runoff, where we see clear traces left behind by brush and spatula, or in Plastic sluice, which alternates between almost entirely blurred forms in the most watery fields and areas of dense, viscous, oil-like marbling.

The exhibition underscores the artist’s limited control over the chemical interactions of her chosen materials. In an interview published in the newspaper Klassekampen Bley relates that she never knows what she will come back to when she returns to her paintings the day after a work session. The works that Bley presented in the group show Roaming at Unge Kunstneres Samfund last autumn had sachets filled with pigments sown onto the canvases. The canvases were placed in an underground shaft located between the pavement and the cellar windows, causing the paintings to gradually change their appearance – a change determined by the amount of rain falling throughout the exhibition period. Zooid shifts the focus away from the process to the finished pictures, but here too the artistic gesture primarily consists in the orchestration of calculated chance occurrences.

Naturally, the colours and their effects are also shaped by chance, ranging from light, watery hues to deep and densely saturated tones. I do, however, note that greenish blues and reddish violets are among the dominant colours in Bley’s paintings. This palette has become quite notably widespread in contemporary art in recent years, often applied by means of airbrush, or digital graduation effects, or diluted, water-based paints as is the case in Bley. It is hard to say why these colours feature so prominently now, but perhaps Bley’s pictures can give us an answer.

Ragna Bley, Zooid, installation view, 2017. Photo: Kunsthall Oslo.

When I use Bley’s paintings to search for “visually similar” images in Google’s “search by image” function, the search throws up wave formations and underwater scenes, but also crystals and ethereal, kitschy New Age motifs. A surprising, but also obvious discovery: the colours of the New Age aesthetic are violet and bluish-greens, and its iconography is characterised by shapes and beings that are fluid and transparent. The holism of New Age religion is a spiritual counterpart to Bley’s scientific metaphors. But it also has parallels to the interconnected circuits of digital technologies, and to the utopian visions of developing a collective cyber consciousness.

Of course, Bley’s paintings are not abstract illustrations of the cosmology of an alternative movement anymore than they represent marine organisms or futuristic fantasies. But it is a compelling thought that abstract paintings are not just introverted exercises in materials, but reflections on widespread contemporary ideas, even if only indirectly. If we take this as our starting point, Bley’s pictures appear – in spite of their diffuse and liquid qualities – quite cogent. 

Ragna Bley, Zooid, installation view, 2017. Photo: Kunsthall Oslo.