Mapping the contours of matter

on Geske Slater Johannsen’s recent drawings and paintings


by Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

When I first saw the charcoal and oil paintings  on canvas by Geske Slater Johannsen in Soenderjyllands Kunstmuseum in Toender in 2000 I was struck by their boldness: they simply explored the surface oft he canvas as some kind of materiality with a vibratory depth of ist own. My first impression was the perceivable body of sketched coal or oil matter that immmediatly led to the search into the many layers of pigment or carbon scattered meticulously on the surface. Changes in the density oft he grid pattern, which was her favored way of mapping the surface at the time, defined wether the surface was perceived as being flat or spatial. If the grid structure was intensified in some areas of a painting the impression of spatial depth was formed. The impression of movement, of space conceived of in ist flux was also very strong due to  the grid –structure that seemed to belong to an infinite structure with a scale much larger than the picture frame.


This bold insistance of a mapping of textures and contours onto the canvas has remained a distinctive feature of Geske Slater Johannsen’s artworks. Her drawings (from around 2005) unmistakably depict trees, but if they are just being considered as representations of trees, the guest in the gallery misses the point. They are sketches for the study of what actually shapes the image of a tree, when adding tiny lines - one after another – with a pencil in hand. They explore how the relationship between sprigs and branches can create space, density and maybe even viscosity on a 2D surface. Her recent oil paintings are somewhat related to these experiments. They are held in one dominating, often very bright color with the white ground of the painting shaping interference between strokes of some significance as well as minor lines and dots. Sometimes this shaping of a texture that is experienced as limitless is accompanied by other colors mingling within the same pattern, but the values of color are never blended into new blended tones or shades. Their relationship could be compared to the way two or more chemical or biological cell-forms seen through a microscope could exist in the same liquid without mixing. Or, perhaps more appropriate: the impression of strokes of various colors of the whitness of the canvas forming zones of non-color could be compared to the sensation given, if you close your eyes after having exposed them to a sudden stroke of light. The impression of a simultaneous inner-and-outer sensation is what you get from an encounter with especially the oil paintings of Geske Slater Johannsen.


Both her drawings and her paintings are connected to the study of natural matter, as she explained to me recently: every morning she spends sitting drawing and every afternoon she stands painting in her studio. When she draws she is „searching for possible forms and connections in the textural matterial“ and she is very „determined not to cheat“ but to draw what she actually sees- and thus open up for matter „to act as a corrective“ in the process of painting. She compares the procedure of sketching first and painting afterwards with the training exercises of a pianist before playing. In the paintings it is evident that her hand works much more freely. But the exploration ist he same: the search for visual forms an relations created between different kinds of texture and layers in order to explore, what I with a reference to Erin Manning will term the „relationscapes“ of matter.


In her book Relationscapes (2009) Manning comments on artworks that move beyond the representational map of painting (3D illusions in depth) in ordert o create encounters with viewers. Such encounters at the surface of the painting, where the optic lines of distance , perspective and representation in depth have given way for haptic sensory perseptions, opens upfor visual explorations of touch and matter. Manning writes: „ The movement is squared with a difference, a differential becoming-elastic moving across the formation, a becoming-form barely visible yet felt. If this is a map, it is not a topography“ (Manning, 157). This qoutation is very appropriate in relation to the artworks of Johannsen, since it seems very much to be her ambition to make us aware oft he material aspect of visible perception.

The outcome of her practice that is well described by Erin Manning also bring to mind the philosophical writings of Henri Bergson, who did a great job of making us (in the western world) understand, that our interpretation of inner and outer, of space and time is bound to rely on the body as the place of a passage in which perception of physical as well as memory oft he virtual (conceived as past and present) are vital. In his book, Creative Evolution, that first appeared in French in 1907 and in Englisch in 1911, Bergson states that from the point of view of intuition the sensation of life is creative since it gives us „more power to act and to live. For, with it, we feel ourselves no longer isolated in humanity, humanity no longer seems isolated in the nature that it dominates“. He also considers individual life to be „nothing else than little rills into which the great river of life divides itself, flowing through the body of humanity“ (Bergson, 270). These sentences underline the interrelatedness of everything in the qualitative aspect of life forces (named duree by Bergson): „the smallest grain of dust is bound up with our entire solar system, drawn along with it in that undividedmovement of decent which is materiality itself“ (ibid: 217). Bergson did not detach the consciousness oft he brain from matter and things in the world, but he thought that intuition established from bodily orintations as well as from memory and perception all should contribute to our creative interventions with the world. What followed from this insight – that the brain is part of the material world and so cannot produce this world as its representation – is that the brain as well as the body is conceived of as just one image among others.

This line of thought is highly relevant in the context of Geske Slater Johannsen, since she has left the topography of the centralized body and brain altogether. Perceptions should be relied on but only insofar as  the shifts of perspective are included. All kinds of easy, identifiable tooling or even worse, design, are avoided in Geske Slater Johannsen’s work. She wants to explore the images of  the world insofar as this also includes how the eyes oft he beholder encounters its impressions in movement, and how the relations of materiality actually shapes new relations and images in endless configuration.


Works cited:

Erin Manning „Relationscapes. Movement, Art, Philosophy“.

The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England 2009. 

Henri Bergson „Creative Evolution“. New York: Dover Publications 1998.