Art. History. Looking. Dr. phil. Peter Kohlhaas, Marie Irmgard Birkedal, Savage Glitter © Text (2018): Galerie1214, 2018

Marie Irmgard Birkedal grew up in Copenhagen, studied English, art history, and art, traveled extensively in the USA, has been invited to numerous solo and group exhibitions in Scandinavia since 2003, and has lived in Berlin since 2013. Marie Birkedal encompasses genres from conceptual approaches to photography to painting, she works in an artistic and historical continuum and refers to a coordinate system that is broad enough to incorporate the search and work results of exponents such as Cy Twombly, Diego Velasquez, or Yoko Ono into her artistic work.

In her latest works on canvas and paper, Birkedal takes a new, specifically painterly approach to the creation of the picture. In addition to the impasto application of paint, a painting style that is often heavily diluted with linseed oil, large formats take precedence, especially, but not only. The genesis of the image is delayed, slowed down. The content, the surfaces, the color come to the test of time.

Literary criticism knows the expression "god’s eye view" for a narrative perspective from which figures and events appear to be completely transparent and - in the context of the narrative - as facts: everything is always known and weighted. The closest thing to this in visual art is the medieval picture stories, which create a comprehensive simultaneity in the juxtaposition of spaces and narratives: the painter is its omniscient chronicler. Cubism also condensed this as a claim: its nesting of perspectives wanted to be understood as access to making these conditions visible under the conditions of “modern life”. Or as Guillaume Apollinaire put it succinctly: Cubism is a realism. In her art, Marie Irmgard Birkedal pursues a different approach to the claims of a totalizing world representation.
The origin of this path - because being on the move is a movement, not a thesis or a polemical point of view that is “related”, inhabited and defended, this origin lies in the fact that Birkedal takes a paradoxical position outside the polarity of Assertion and counter-assertion (A vs. non-A), in an original aesthetic of amazement. In an interview published in 2016, in which she discusses the motives behind her artistic work method, she says: "To me, passive astonishment is a transcendentalist's outlook. (...) I look a lot at nature's “visual design” - the outlines of dog paws, horses ’canon bones, cat skulls, and bird feathers never lose their fascination to me. The same goes for some foods - a broken egg, a mango cut in half, and an eggplant - to me there's everything in that. I can look and look and I still don’t quite get it - but I don’t mind that I don’t get it - as long as I can keep looking, there is no frustration in that look. It's very much about being in a state where not understanding, or ever expecting to understand but just observing and admiring, is okay.

One might be tempted to speak of 'subjectivity' or 'subjectification' here, but that is not Birkedal's point. Her original insight (which may have something to do with her feminism and the subtle reflection on her life history) is basically that subjectivism in painting is - not radical (enough). Beyond the assertive gesture, in the practice of art, often enough remains centrifugal, distracting, ultimately consumerist, unable to dispel fundamental doubts about the enlightenment power assumed to be stereotyped. This is why less posh nicknames would simply be curiosity and variety. Subjectivism in art does not lead down to the roots of simple human needs, at most - if at least well done - to their parody. To that extent, it remains centrifugal. On the other hand, astonishment as a rooted attitude has a different orientation, it opens and bundles at the same time, it is centripetal and exposes itself to the gravity of the real fields of experience, comes what may. To be astonished means to observe and wait.

Wait, Compress

Painting from the attitude of amazement is not indifferent to the painting process. In many of her current works, Birkedal uses linseed oil as a painting medium, the long drying time of which delays the process of elaboration, sometimes considerably. As a result, certain form-creating projects, as well as the achievement of precisely intended color values, can neither be arbitrarily accelerated nor simply broken off. The wet texture of the diluted paint facilitates the painterly gesture, the quick stroke, and is at the same time a precaution not to accept the first gestural impulse as a result, like that. Changing the gesture of the painting hand repeatedly to check how it ultimately fits into a whole.
If you ask Marie Birkedal in a personal encounter with the phrase whether she has time, then she often affirms this by saying that she has to wait anyway: a picture is drying at a work level before she can take the next step. This is a kind of suspended courtesy that characterizes the person as well as the painter's technique. Respect is not as an empty phrase, but as a concentration on the open process that the intention and hand have set in motion. In her case, astonishment and observation require waiting as the basis of the artistic way of working. For the normal Western view, waiting appears to be an imposition: “Waiting, according to the standard perception, is empty, lost, pointlessly elapsing time” (Ralf Konersmann, waiting is a disappointment, a humiliation, an art. NZZ of March 12, 2017). Birkedal, on the other hand, integrates waiting as a prerequisite and a kind of substance that the work of art assimilates into her artistic practice. Atelier practice instrumented the waiting in a painting technique: by delaying the drying of the colors, Birkedal slows down the material and deepens the intellectual production process. This enables parallelism of the inquiring view: there are always several pictures in the making so that the development is controlled on the one hand by the picture-specific situation, but on the other hand by the painterly recognition of constellations. Observation can get lost in the details, it can (in Schiller's expression) be naive, at the same time it reaches beyond the individual work the level of reflection of dialogue, where Birkedal's perception of the whole (Schiller's sentimentality) comes close to the historical and contemporary roots of her artistic impulse.

Surface: I can look and look ...

To wait means to draw time under these auspices; just as one can draw breath, or draw hope, from a constantly renewing source. Empty time, the metric time of clocks, of measuring, by definition does not renew itself. Waiting is charged with energy thanks to observation, which is the prerequisite for the subsequent step-by-step process of condensation. For this, Birkedal uses the synonym pair observing/admiring herself and thus delimits an open observation before making any judgment against an analytical approach, on the one hand, and a preliminary judgment on the other. Birkedal brings a term notorious to Andy Warhol into play, but she steals it cunningly, so to speak, and extends it to include the sphere of social interaction, mirroring - a broken egg, an eggplant, or a still life are unquestionably worth considering. As a realization, Warhol’s gesture is unrepeatable - it could at best still be copied, but that is not an issue for Birkedal. However, there is a force in it that she wants to preserve or reactivate for the topicality of painting.
With the creation of time, the space for action is created in which the interplay of content, form and painterly elements can be explored. This also shows the conscious work in series, in which the painting is allowed to watch itself, as it were. A dialogue develops between the intentional impulses of the painter and historical foils and models (Velasquez is an important one, the Baroque still lifes would be another) on the one hand and the current, material process. Through her approach, Birkedal allows polarity to become visible between the ductus of the hand, in the visible traces of the design, and the obstinacy of a surface event that is prepared and supported, but at the same time takes place " by itself " due to physical and chemical principles: in the mixing and penetration of colors, the formation of microstructures of the background, which give the newer works their special character, with running drops ('runners'), cracks, ruffles, or rhizomatic effects that project fine linework that promises order. They have to be seen and understood together with the broad brushstrokes that build up the pictorial space with large sweeps on formats of more than two arm lengths.
In her painting, Birkedal avoids articulating the surfaces as statements. Rather, the surface itself initially only wants to be visible, not discursive in the sense of meaningful statements or content that we always refer to when we want to claim to be binding for assessments. When viewed, the surfaces offer themselves like contributions from an ongoing dialogue between the painter and the world, from inanimate nature to history and art history, that avoids a narrative program or is so extensive that the space in between for the individual résumé is retained.


Birkedal's current works (from 2017/18) live from a coloration that gains its energy and intellectual tension not least from the fact that the painter first distills the color in the artistic process. It is not the color that determines the picture, the process of the picture decides the color, it demands certain values. The constructive order, which can be reconstructed, oscillates around a preliminary drawing, which it soon leaves again. She exchanges the definition that promises security for the design that promises openness, modeling in the sense of the scientific model term as a “model for ...”, for a view that has yet to be gained. The astonished person does not yet know what it is: a flower, a house, a bouquet, venison, a room - modeling is the way to a view since the visual and conceptual lexicon of things has been used up, or vice versa with the digital explosion of the semantic, "overdetermined". The observer, the waiting person, is the really radical one in this situation: she does not contradict the ubiquitous meanings, but delves into the open questions of the process: Why is this something and this and not something else? The modeling does not direct the search to something hidden behind the curtain or just below the surface, rather it lets us feel the weight of the design, it presses the color into our eyes, it irritates us with the movement into which it transfers the static. The color is the meaning of the surface. Adding, removing, intersecting, superimposing levels, layers ... The picture shows a color shape, the (often) numerous individual steps of which can still be read and which can also be read. Two different strategies emerge here.
For a group of pictures, Birkedal lays a framework of strong dark tones over the primer, which she repeatedly checks with their effect on one another, in neighborly contrasts, and with a view of the picture as a whole. Even in this first phase, she often uses colors very diluted. This often happens on the flat canvas (on the studio floor). If Birkedal then erects this, the typical 'runners' emerge, which run off as excess color in the direction of the intended image inclination with gravity. The fact that these tears of color often run in different directions shows that Birkedal keeps the picture structure open; she uses the developments in the picture surface as a starting point for new points of contact. In the self-description “I look and look ...” there is a maxim and instruction at the same time: the enjoyment of the picture comes above all who can solve the condensed time again.

In addition to changing the basic color structure, the technique of glazing plays an important role, especially with uneven surfaces of titanium white in different densities and consistencies. They can appear as translucent clouds, as wiped broad brushstrokes, or in more or less dense veils or overlays that partly follow an earlier shape, but then reinterpret it through a semi-transparent application of paint. One could find that Birkedal goes the opposite way with the light colors as Mattisse does with the dark ones: if he also used black to re-stage the light, Birkedal does it with light glazes and alabaster-like translucent bodies (such as in “Ersatz Primitiv”) conversely, to give the darker values a new meaning; like a map directs, but also first reveals a terrain, the colors are re-orchestrated by the specific colorism, to work their way through different works: as if they wanted to explore their possibilities in variations and in different contexts in the stubbornness that can only be defined painterly.

This demands from the painter the patience not only to bring a color value into play once, or, conversely, to always occupy it with the same valence, but to get involved with the respective picture as a special situation and the formal and color vocabulary each time with its validity and suitability to question. In the larger formats, for example, one notices the recurring shades of brown or green, prominently in the dedication image for Charlotte Salomon, "L'ermitage was not the sanctuary it promised to be", where they appear like an ostinato, in dialogue with bright, striking colors that create staggering views in terms of content and space - but not in perspective.

Another group of works is represented in particular by the Berlin Flower Series (2014-2018), in which delicately takes on the imagery of the Spanish and Dutch for instance Sieclo d’oro or the Baroque to still lifes and interiors. Through the described color strategies and decisive access to abstraction, they execute a double movement that takes up the interior and with it living (building ... thinking ...) as it were tangentially. The arrangements are 'bound' and dissolved again, placed and bundled for themselves, infected with moods (in the best manner of historical models), and cooled to zero degrees Kelvin in the next manifestation of the cycle. It is fascinating to see how Birkedal, to a certain extent, develops a vocabulary for the well-being of living, which is also further processed in large formats. Not living and the precariousness of living are existential. The nomadic is longing and at the same time triggers fear; to the emotional inevitability of settling down - under often difficult and questionable economic and social "framework conditions" - the answer is the dissolution of the order, which is then reorganized under a new shape.

In the cycle of the Berlin Flower Series, the more impasto application of paint - known from earlier work phases - is again more widespread. Brushes and sometimes spatulas are decidedly used for a thick application of strong colors, some of which are guided by the painting movements in parallel lines, strings, or streaks, while others blend more intimately. The thicker application of paint, the impasto, often gives the picture surface an almost relief-like character and enables special intensity in more intimate formats. They are chamber plays of variation in the serial, which at the same time can question subtle moods. Birkedal partly uses the primed canvas directly as a background, partly she places the flower piece in a fictional space by choosing a different background color and a pedestal-like surface for the draped arrangement (as in “Gawkey”). In doing so, she also resorted to eye-irritating reversals, for example when in “Palpable Poignancy” she made the vase body (also visibly placed) in a dark brown, but transparent, while the densely staggering bouquet, is again designed as impasto.

Savage Glitter

Birkedal took the title phrase of the Berlin exhibition in April 2018: Savage Glitter from the novel “The Quick and the Dead” by Joy Williams, it alludes to the tension between the romantic (wilderness) and society (trinkets/tinsel) to which we feel drawn as if contradicting two polarities. The stories that explain everything are at some point - or suddenly - no longer believable. Images about stories, images that believed they could (or had to) tell something, keep losing ground in modern times; or have to conquer new territory. A "picture over" that seems like program music ...
Birkedal has dealt intensively with the question of representability. She has reflected on Agnes Martin's apodictic appreciation of composition at the expense of color and pure beauty at the expense of nature, but she does not see representationalism as a taboo but as a dimension of interest and anthropology. Her flection of the photographic image in the diptychs of photographs and abstract acrylic works in the cycle New Mexico 17 Years After (2010) or in the Booth series (2011) can already be seen as an answer (and solution) to the doubts about purely compositional strategies are seen. One conclusion seems to be that the form reflex can be ignored, but the contents of human existence, the scenes from everyday life, are revenants, even if they are not turned into narrative. Birkedal pushes these existential, which we develop every day in our stories, as questions through the open curtain onto the stage, where the audience has to deal with them, whether wanted or not: flower arrangements, interior scenes from the intimacy of living, or the compositions mentioned above, which reflect the still life of Spanish-Dutch style, reflect rituals and residues of everyday life and set the old dialectic of public vs. private disturbingly in vibration: what will become of our festivals of encounter, of regular or civil occasions? Does the private, the interior, also belong in the future in the sphere of masculinity, or, on the contrary, does the impulse for design break up the once gender-typical attributes? Is the flower arrangement “residual nature” (wilderness) or a visual echo of the “reactionary nuclear family” or something third, for example, the - quite Marxian - liberated processing of the vanitas motif as part of a free game of its new interpretation, which also dresses provocatively maybe in glitter?

Marie Birkedal understands it skillfully, to work on objects of this kind, in a painterly way without giving their addressees a script. Colors cannot be metaphorical, but white as a moderator of colors can - as with Birkedal - put the literal nature of colors to the test and it can cancel out the uniqueness of things - which means what - behind the veil of ignorance. The phrase, taboo was ethnologically and later psychoanalytically the message that could not be touched. Birkedal shows by hiding (glazing, wiping, deconstructing), and only then do we know that there: something is there.

© Text (2018): Galerie1214 | 2018, (eng FM, 19)

Dr. phil. Peter Kohlhaas

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