Paintings for a Dying Europe

The geometric paintings in Sveinung Unneland’s Neokompresjoner at Kristiansand Kunsthall take a more pessimistic outlook than their modernist predecessors.

Sveinung Unneland,  Diagonal III, 2016. Stål. Foto: Tor Simen Ulstein.
Sveinung Rudfjord Unneland, Diagonal III, 2016. Steel. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.

In his exhibition Neokompresjoner på Kristiansand Kunsthall, Sveinung Rudfjord Unneland relates to two of the fundamental tropes from the initial stage of high modernism: the square and the sun. The exhibition comprises five quite large framed paintings executed in acrylics on canvas (each 202 x 168 cm, 2016), a series of steel sculptures (Diagonal I–IV, 2016), a light sculpture made out of neon (Mørkningen [Dusk], 2016), and a sound work (U.T. (Syntagma), 2016), where the loudspeakers have been mounted inside a stage-like stair structure cast from concrete. The video Elipse (2016) is shown in an adjacent room.

In the press text the background for the exhibition is presented in brief as “a slightly comic and absurd idea about the sun […] as a square.” One of the immediate references that this brings to mind would be the Futurist “opera” Victory Over the Sun (St. Petersburg, 1913), a key work within early modernism, typifying its fixation with technology. The stage designer for Victory Over the Sun was the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich; famously, this was where he created his first painting based on a black square. The relationship between nature and art as a kind of abstracted depiction of reality constituted the very core of this geometrically oriented variant of modernism. Its proponents often evinced a positivistic attitude towards the nature of art, the evolution of history and, eschewing all modesty, the overall nature of the world.

Sveinung Unneland, U.T. 2016. Akryl på lerret. Foto: Tor Simen Ulstein.
Sveinung Rudfjord Unneland, U.T., 2016. Acrylics on canvas. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.

The modernists’ notion about humanity’s evolution as a continuous victory over nature forms a thematic backdrop for Unneland’s large, schematic paintings. The bright green and verdigris colours that dominate most of the works appear somewhat like an attempt at recruiting non-figurative painting in the service of the depiction of nature. Small variations in composition and the treatment of surfaces ensure that these works are objects that can be appreciated for traditional painterly properties such as brushstrokes, use of lines and intensity of colour, but they also function as visual riddles that engage the spectator in a process of guesswork and interpretation, searching for some underlying system.

The seemingly arbitrary or purely visually motivated, forms have a lightness that balance out what may be perceived as a certain severity of composition, indicating that Unneland does not compose his painting on the basis of any system. Unlike the high modernist precursors of geometric painting, he does not use material effects and devices to make any claims to truth; he has a different agenda. Quite paradoxically, Unneland’s paintings can often seem somewhat impressionist; not in the sense that they are sketch-like, but by appearing to operate on a different mimetic level. The fundamental structure of nature is not what Unneland is interested in; rather, he pits our access to nature up against a wider social and political reality. The video Elipse, a short looped sequence showing a hand fiddling with a Euro coin, holds a central position in this regard, particularly if considered in light of the publication Mørkningen (Dusk) published in tandem with the exhibition. In this book, subtitled Hellas 5. – 11. januar 2016, grainy black-and-white photographs of ruins and desolate urban landscapes are juxtaposed with texts by the danish poet Andreas Vermehren Holm, where he has retouched gloomy quotes from a range of sources, including the Bible, Paul Celan and Heidegger. With Greece as their backdrop, deterministic phrases such as “they will cease to believe in the future, they will no longer live for anything, they will realise that it is never enough” take on a distinctively European aspect. 

Sveinung Unneland, Eclipse, 2016. Installasjonsbilde fra Kristiansand Kunsthall. Foto: Tor Simen Ulstein.
Sveinung Rudfjord Unneland, Eclipse, 2016. Video installation. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.

It would seem that as a utopian vision, Europe is weaker today than it has been for many decades, not because “we” are “under attack”, but because so many Europeans seem willing to abandon the ideals on which the European community is based. This is partly caused by fear of external threats, and by the racist populism nurtured by such fear, but also by the ideologically fuelled accelerated development of the financial sector, whose system makes up an incomprehensible abstraction for most people. This has contributed to shaking the European sense of community. In a sense, the hand fiddling with a Euro coin can be said to represent the everyday carelessness that ignores the importance of economy for social welfare, and the consequences are becoming increasingly apparent today.

One of the inherent traits of historicised modernist art is the idea of “breaks”, which is highly pertinent in this context. Perhaps this is what gives modernism its wide and persistent appeal: the fact that it is symptomatic for any period of social, economic and technological change. For while essentialism is an unpopular philosophy in 2016, the notion of “breaks” and the sense of being in the midst of a historic process of transition feels considerably more pertinent.

Unneland’s project can be seen as a comment on the neo-modernism of our present day. He borrows the historical iconography of geometric non-figurative art, but at the same time he replaces the general sense of optimism and faith in the future that originally accompanied such imagery, substituting a rather less enthusiastic image of our civilisation’s future. To present-day eyes, the early modernists’ notions about how humanity’s fate and objective is to conquer nature appears rather like a naïve precursor of the now-popular anthropocene theory that posits mankind as an epoch-defining geological factor – but with resoundingly negative implications. Now that it is gradually becoming clear that we have in fact won a victory over the sun – we can heat our own planet, thank you very much! – the desire to vanquish nature takes on a rather more sinister aspect. In hindsight, then, modernism’s core mythology about a logical historical progression has turned out to be the wellspring of a dystopia. With Neokompresjoner Sveinung Unneland helps activate modernist painting by calling forth these darker layers of meaning.

Sveinung Unneland, Neokompresjoner, installasjonsbilde fra Kristiansand Kunsthall, 2016. Foto: Tor Simen Ulstein.
Sveinung Rudfjord Unneland, Neokompresjoner, installation view, Kristiansand Kunsthall, 2016. Photo: Tor Simen Ulstein.