A place to locate art

By Øivind Storm Bjerke

Confronting  a work by Mark Harrington does not evoke a creeping feeling of looking  at some­thing we mistook by chance for a painting; we are not even in  doubt that we are facing a work of art. The challenge posed by  Harrington is not to decide if the object in question is art or a  nervous breakdown, a dustbin or a radiator smeared with paint.  Recognized as art the work adheres to the practices of a particular kind  of art; painting as an art, an artform based on the distinction between  art and everything else. Looked upon in such a manner, this is a kind  of art: an art which confirms conceptions of what painting as art can  be. One such conception is that a work of art is not an ar­bitrary  artifact, but the materialization of an am­bition to be revealed,  through the test of time, as a masterpiece.
In the aftermath of post  modernism, the in­tention of making a masterpiece is a radical deci­sion  on behalf of painting as an art, connecting the actual work of art to  concepts of, and ideas about art that most members of the art community  are turning away from. This is an art that declares it­self to belong to  the family of classic painting and high modernism - not considered as  oppositions- ­ but as branches of the same family tree.

The  first distinction we are confronted with is the surface of the painting  as an object versus the surroundings. The way Harrington is handling  this surface is to mark the picture plane as a place of aesthetic  choices. The individual painting pre­sents a place for locating art. The  painting becomes a statement about art: art is not the white wall, but  the marked surface of a particular type of ob­ject on the wall.
But  Harrington goes further, stating that what makes this marked surface art  is not the de­cision to baptize it as art, but the way the marks have  been brought into place. The individual paint­ing becomes meaningful as  art, as a marked loca­tion inside the total field that sums up the  history of painting as art.
Inside this total field of painting as  art, the position of Harrington grows out of an idea of high modernism,  having its high tide from the early 19th Century until the end of the  1960's and under­stood as the continuation of a classic tradition in  European painting, distinguished by an investigat­ing mood, where the  object of investigation is the field of painting as art.

Harrington's art represents not a particular trend or movement, but a  method. The method consists of commenting upon and questioning the  artistic heritage of painting as art, not in words but in new paintings.  The marks of Harrington are to be understood as remarks upon the  history of painting. These are remarks saturated with know­ledge of  particular paintings; artists; ways of han­dling the medium - as a  physical substance and as color. It also includes knowledge of how to  forward knowledge and information through symbols. The actual painting  stands out as a refraction of com­mon and individual experiences,  insights, com­ments, questions and adds up to a point of depar­ture into  unknown land.
The historical orientation in question should not be  understood as a glance backwards, but as the basis for an overview that  makes possible a colonization of til now unmarked territory. In a  supplementary way, this orientation gives the op­portunity to recognize  and pass judgement upon the claim of making new territory.

The art of Harrington is probably not blind to the ideological,  economical, sociological or ethical dimensions of art, or even the idea  of 'art as... 'art as economic'; 'art as sociology'; 'art as  philoso­phy'; 'art as therapy'; 'art as politics'; 'art as fash­ion', or  even of art as an instrument for gaining status, power and money. But  these aspects of art and games of art are certainly subordinated to the  challenges posed by the idea that art has its histo­ry, and the need for  coming to terms with the aes­thetic parameters involved in judging art  within the dependency upon a certain kind of installation aesthetic.
The  paintings of Harrington address an open discussion of the work of art  where a knowledge of the history of art provides a common ground that  enables all those who may make the effort, to offer his or her own  interpretations, comments and judgements. His proceedings are not a sign  of haughtiness, rather they are an invitation to a dis­cussion on  painting independent of any esoteric knowledge of the currents or  politically correct attitudes of the moment, avoiding ritual member­  ship of one or another artistic tribe.

The individual painting does not present us with a riddle to be solved,  but is an invitation to a discussion on the discourse and history of  painting as an art form. A pleasant side effect of this is that the  person Mark Harrington recedes into the background. We do not need to  involve knowledge of his life and whereabouts to admire his paintings -  or even in the event that we find the painting ridiculous, bor­ing or  simply bad.
As onlookers we can be blinded by the sur­face of these  paintings and overlook the many lay­ers contained in what meets the  eye. But it is per­ fectly legitimate to reduce the layers of meaning of  the paintings to the impression we get from this level of sensual  beauty. Before these beautifully crafted works one is tempted to forget  the abun­dance of aesthetic choices that are implied in the final  result. The artist's thick layer of culture that expresses itself  through a demonstration of his familiarity with artistic conventions and  control of the materials involved in the process of painting, can be  confused with an academic art where aesthetic choices are substituted by  formulas.

Besides being a type of painting where the depth of content is connected  to the surface qual­ities, those elements of format, the extent of the  painted area, measure, scale, relation to the picto­rial space, the  border between the painting and its surroundings, the illumination and  the installation of the painting must all be registered as elements of  great importance to the interpretation of each painting as a work of  art. It is a type of painting where decisive borderlines form important  aspects of the work. It is not an art where life has wormed its way into  the work of art and disintegrated the art object into one more piece of  reality - art. The distinction between art and life is still valid in  this kind of art. The actual work of art becomes a prism revealing  influences from a tradition of painting where the meaning of the work is  to be extracted from intrinsic qualities and content is inseparable  from the way each work formulates, reflects, con­ firms, distinguishes  and refracts impulses.
The marks on the picture plane can function  as a reference to something on the outside of the rectangle of the  painting, as well as being marks within the borders of the picture  plane. 

The singu­lar mark or particular formal entity, is not read­ able as  something definite and unambiguous - in this way the paintings of  Harrington are much less minimalist and conceptual than expressive in a  discreet manner. Central to the references con­nected to the markings of  the picture plane are associations to pictorial art in general. The  paint­ings can be understood as comments on aspects of art we connect  with the names of Klee, Toby, Rothko, Twombly, Tapies, Hantai, Dahmen,  Pijuan, Green, the late work of Richter, Marden, Ryman, Scully not to  mention those younger artists in dialogue with this genealogical line of  artists.
The family of painters Harrington belongs to treat the  surface of the painting as a hybrid be­tween a blackboard, on which you  may draw, write and erase before starting anew, and a picture­ plane  where you work-up the painting from the ground in layers - rather than a  mirror bearing the reflection of an image or an idea. In this type of  painting nothing is a reflection of something, but a reflection upon  something.

Narration in such paint­ing is often a by-product of the construction of  the painting as an actual object having its specific materials and  structure. When a painting is divided in two parts, this is not to be  looked upon as a purely practical matter It is a way to create a certain  kind of formal order, where the two parts are either in dialogue or  discussion; where di­chotomies like left and right, up and down invite  interpretations on genetic, historical and psycho­ logical levels.
The type of painting indicated by the afore­ mentioned canonical artists  and family of painters constitutes a common ground of references for  all those who still cherish a serious interest in art that is motivated  by an idea of art as a meaning­ful and distinct subject, with its own  varied history and praxis, symbols and institutions.

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