Matrix of Painting

Where Pia Fries Paints

Dieter Schwarz

Over the past two decades, Pia Fries has created a body of work with a style so distinctive that it has prompted critics to reach for many and varied metaphors. Evidently, the conventional language of art criticism has proved unequal to the task of describing her paint-laden works on white-primed wooden panels. Indeed, this would appear to be affirmed by the bizarre titles themselves – safien, badus, aersnaus – strange, unfamiliar sounds that cannot be attributed to any discernable language, but which some have suggested might be obscure dialect names for remote and possibly even inaccessible places in Switzerland. Reading and hearing the titles makes you wonder whether you might be able to reach these places on foot, and puts you in mind of setting out, already attuned to contemplating the pictures. Whatever the truth of the matter – undecipherable yet seductive phrases borrowed from neighbouring dialects are an apt starting point from which to approach what we see, for Pia Fries’ paintings are also about what lies elsewhere; about formulations and markings, patterns and movements we think we know, and which seem to come to us through the work of the artist as though from somewhere close by, shifted into an adjacent field. And so the titles, as pointers, also contribute to the appealingly unfamiliar aspect of these works. On the other hand, the pictures themselves, like the titles, have a sensual charm that is bewilderingly difficult to grasp.

What is particularly striking about Pia Fries’ paintings is the oft-cited fact that the paint is applied in layers so dense and thick that it goes beyond what might normally be described as pastose. Rather, the paint is loaded onto the carrier as though the painting itself were a storage depot. While it may not be entirely appropriate here to put forward such a passive image of paint as material deposited on a surface, it does, nevertheless, indicate that the paint is not used merely as a medium or as the basis for an abstract composition, but that, by dint of its sheer mass, it takes on a hitherto unknown presence which, in turn, influences the visual effect. This active role has even been emphasised by describing the paint as a natural phenomenon, as though there could be such a thing as nature inherent in a painting and its technical requirements.

But if “depot” and “natural phenomenon” are the two opposite metaphorical poles between which this work is situated, we also have to consider whether these two poles can be described in more detail. Are the depot (the presentation of paint as static matter) and the natural phenomenon (colour as a dynamic element) timeless and essential visual manifestations of painting, or do they follow certain requirements that are applicable to the specific conditions of more recent painting? In order to answer this question, it is worth taking a look beyond the œuvre of Pia Fries in order to determine just what these conditions are. But first of all, let us consider the work of Pia Fries herself, to remind ourselves of its various phases and the logic behind them.

Her first abstract paintings were created in the late 1980s, following on from her student works, some of which were still figurative. The phrase “still figurative” is used with caution here, given that figures such as the brightly coloured birds provided such a fitting opportunity of exploring the possibilities of intense colour clashes within a confined space while at the same time promising a departure from a schematic approach to ornamental structures. In the first mature paintings created around 1990, we find a remarkably varied treatment of the surface, whose tactile appearance combined with the still muted colours of the individual parts immediately commands our attention. Though we can read the movements of the artist’s tools as they shape and mould the surface, there is no clear point of contact, for the paint has been applied from all sides to a carrier lying on the floor, polymorphously, riotously, with no obvious top or bottom. Nor are the “artist’s tools” in question simply paintbrush and palette knife. Over the years, Pia Fries has used a great many found and self-made instruments that serve no other purpose than to load the paint onto the carrier and deposit it there, not as pure matter, but with traces left in it. This marks a decisive moment in terms of abstract painting – something that differs from Braque’s technique of incorporating sand and grit into the paint. What Braque did meant that the surface of the painting was not scored and textured by the brushwork alone, but was rendered as a physically tangible surface alongside the surface of the wall and was opened up to the surrounding reality. This approach was soon adopted more widely, for instance by the Russian Constructivists, and by a long list of artists who have since made similar alterations to the paint. Early Modernism, by contrast, explored the possibility of regarding colour itself as a pure element to be applied to the carrier in isolation, independently of any figurative aim and even of any colour context – as in Delaunay’s prismatic colour spectrums, and perhaps most clearly of all in the repeated attempts to achieve the absolute monochrome in which colour is a sensual medium, or, in the more physical variation of this approach, a material residuum. In her work, Pia Fries distances herself from this tradition as well, for the way the paint is applied and shaped releases it from its role as either pure pigment or oozing matter, and transposes it into the realms of ambiguity, of effect, of painterly rhetoric.

Having now outlined the basic situation, Pia Fries’ œuvre might be described from this point onwards as circumventing these historic milestones and withdrawing colour again – not in a self-referential way, but by bringing it into ex-centric zones. It is not so much a case of the colour markings actually disappearing, but merely of subjecting them to a movement that shifts them from the centre into other areas – not only with the aim of creating an ex-centric composition, but also in order to draw greater attention to individual details that present themselves as having no lesser significance than the painting as a whole. This is aided by the subtle differences in the ways the mass of paint is applied to the carrier, for the shifts are not just in tone or position. Pia Fries actually creates a micro-level within the image that reveals as much to the eye as the appraising view from a distance otherwise assumes. The word “level” is not used here in the spatial sense, but in the sense that the paint, whether deep down or on the surface, is given an identity, with local complexities and formal correspondences that do not just act in parallel to the axial and interconnecting aspects of the composition.

Pia Fries’ next steps are to be understood with this in mind. In 1999, she painted a cycle of thirty small-format paintings called parsen und module, in which the movement within a single picture is transposed to the overall sequence of pictures. As though triggered by the alliterative titles – paramodi, partiner, parfanz, etc. – the relationships of colour and form and the painterly movements leap beyond the edges, where they are bound to hesitate, into the other pictures. Pia Fries also addresses this question of the containment of abstract composition in her two-part works of 2001, albeit in more condensed form. Instead of the white ground that had previously become increasingly empty and acted as a launchpad for the juxtaposition of colours, here we find, for a brief moment, the void – the space between the two panels. Pia Fries risks interrupting the painting, only to let it recommence, as though seeking to point out the shortcomings inherent in the decision that is involved in any choice of colour as an abandonment of the void. This possibility was already evident in the cuts that occasionally ripped through the flow of paint in her earlier works, gouging it to the ground. In subsequent works, the images of ear and conch, and of magnified clumps of paint, that Pia Fries silkscreens onto the white ground before she actually starts painting, follow the same logic. Although they do not have the same tactile quality as the paint itself, this flat screen-print is a highly effective way of introducing an illusory aspect into the image that previously pitted perceived reality against the gaze of the observer. Most importantly, Pia Fries does not work at separating indirect portrayal from direct presence, but at linking them in a way that makes the painted image – the juxtaposition of colours – strike back at painting itself. Unlike montage, which derives its shock effect from the clash of different elements, the combinatory approach of Pia Fries creates homogeneity out of diversity. For the image shows nothing – nothing but colour and paint. It heightens the spectacular effect of the markings to an unprecedented degree, insinuating that they signify only the gesture of painting and the effects it generates – never themselves. This was already signalled in the picture details that Pia Fries and Hans Brändli had occasionally designed for invitation cards. They combined macro-images of picture details with knots, squid tentacles and other structured fragments that were devoid of meaning and function and yet as visually alluring as a tranche of colour. The picture detail and the additional elements were re-photographed to create new images that existed only in photographic form, but whose enlargement and precision made them appear ultrasharp, lending them a more direct impact than any painting. A picture can conceal itself only behind a picture; there is neither a more effective camouflage nor a different context.

But to return to the beginning and to the question of the situation of painting at the time when Pia Fries came onto the scene. The infinite variety of painterly production can be regarded as a field structured by the distinctive positions that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. It is not the individual positions themselves that have shaped the field of painting, but the alternating analogous and contrary relationships that can be formed between them, as well as the many derivations to be found within the genre, for a structure, rather than focusing on a centre, is made up of interrelated elements. It is no coincidence that the positions mentioned below can only be understood by taking note of how their defining characteristics relate to one another and by forming paradigms, while other characteristics have to be treated as secondary.

Yves Klein could be taken as representing one initial position, for he reduced painting to a body of colour. When the colour is presented on a carrier, it soon becomes evident that this is not enough, because this can trigger contrary movements. On the one hand, the colour itself becomes the object and the carrier becomes superfluous; the pigment that Yves Klein branded IKB (International Klein Blue) is the currency that is to appear in pure form. On the other hand, the choice of colour becomes a conceptual gesture which, although it still relates to the body of colour, nevertheless wants to make it disappear as something that is no longer necessary, since the immaterial idea itself is enough.
The many attempts made in the 1960s to create a new monochrome painting all take a stance that is either close to or distinct from Klein’s blue paintings. Brice Marden, for instance, is one painter whose strictly monochrome painting seems to be a means, rather than an end. The flat surface of the picture plane, sealed with encaustic, seems to have swallowed up the brushwork, silently encasing within it the sum of all painterly possibilities, which Marden was to unleash again in the 1970s and 1980s in the course of a long and complex process, often involving a nod towards the figurative. The fact that the line played a central role in this suggests that the monochrome picture plane was never compact, but had been created by lines of hatching, as early drawings and prints by Marden indicate.

In contrast to Klein’s hypostasis of colour, Robert Ryman treats colour, as he does all the other elements of painting, not as the essence, but as the material components that are constantly fanning out and expanding in the course of the working process. The colour white, which might appear as the epitome of purity, is presented as a possible means of emphasising rather than eliminating differences. Even in Ryman’s early work, white appears as the topmost layer on an unevenly painted ground. Yet both the painterly technique and the layering, or non-layering, of colours are brusquely confronted with one another to show that no self-evident, natural order of colour and painting exists, but that – irrespective of the conditions that the history, the setting or the light, etc., may impose on it – painting is subject right from the start to a continual process of differentiation from which there can be no escape.

A fourth position is that of Gerhard Richter’s painting. Although it may be the furthest removed from Klein’s body of colour, Richter’s notion of presenting painting as an illusory drama does correspond on another level with Klein’s theatrically staged works. In contrast to Ryman’s completely anti-illusionist approach to painting, anchored in its materiality, Richter alludes to painting as a mirror, and with that to its evocative capacity to conjure up images and trigger associations, while at the same time refusing to offer any meaningful resolution. The painterly gesture itself, in particular, becomes the object of analysis in Richter’s work, for it is emptied of all subjective presence and presented as a rhetorical device – for instance by replacing the brushstroke with the mechanical sweep of a broad squeegee. In this way, both illusionism and materiality are retained, without them being able to shift sideways, as they do in Ryman’s work, from the picture to the wall by way of the fixing, or, as they do in Marden’s work, within the picture itself as a movement from plane to line.

In order to understand the point at which Pia Fries enters the painting scene, it is not enough to speak of a field and its differentiation. Instead, that point is characterised by the fact that this field cannot necessarily be described in isolation, for a second level has now been superimposed – that of the image as object. Painting has become a thing in itself. This could be elucidated, on the one hand, by way of example of the four positions outlined above, and by emphasising the transition that can be observed in each one of them: from the picture as a transparent foil that reveals something to the gaze, to the picture as an opaque object. At the same time, sculpture began adopting painterly techniques, and the inclusion of painterly effects in the sculptural object, in turn, infused painting with a new impetus. Thus, the painterly positions described here would be overlaid by four further positions not congruent with them, opening up the possibility of new interrelationships.

Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, in his Combines, replaced the colour markings used in Abstract Expressionist painting with objects whose own colours are presented on an equal footing with the painted elements. The colour values run alongside the narrative traits of the objects in a way that might be described as a conjunction of countless heterogeneous elements that can ultimately be subjected to refererentiality, and, with that, to a loosely based composition of some kind. A similar approach is taken by such artists as John Chamberlain, whose agglomerations of metal parts from the crushed automobiles that were his raw material, eschews all narrative in pursuit of formal appeal, particularly that of colour. It becomes impossible to distinguish between sculptural appearance and colour, in the same way that Chamberlain’s decisions during the working process invariably take both into account.

While Rauschenberg’s work involves combining elements and colours, Donald Judd’s involves disjunction. This means that elements are juxtaposed without any overriding compositional structure and therefore remain individual. The same applies to his handling of colour, which does not aim for uniformity, but which upholds the direct juxtaposition of colours as a quality. Judd was quick to recognise the colourist qualities of Chamberlain’s work. His own work, too, was aimed at breaking down boundaries between the disciplines and treating the characteristics of material, surface and painting on equal terms. This meant that there could be no distinction between plane and colour; each object had to be approached in a way that captured its specific appearance, not only in itself, but also in relation to its surroundings, which are affected by the surface of the work and affect it in turn. Similarly, for Lawrence Weiner, colour is coincidental rather than essential, and yet it appears in his work as something general that can be manifested in different ways, as a distinct and separate quality that does not necessarily correspond to the other materials named in his works, nor is even necessarily linked to them.

For those who choose to enter the field of painting, there is no escape. Those whose work identifies them as painters operate within a field in which they are confronted with the positions that are ineluctable at any given time. Originality means creating a configuration out of the given possibilities and between the given points of reference which has not been created before in this form. For this reason, the positions described here are not intended as a means of determining dependencies, but of ascertaining differences, in order to gain a better understanding of the specific quality of Pia Fries’ work. As a student of Gerhard Richter, she might be expected to have a certain affinity with the position that is characterised by a melancholy dissolution of the painterly gesture. Whether she has been immune to the analytical movement precisely because of or in spite of this affinity remains a moot point. What can be said, however, is that Pia Fries’ abstract painting synthesises more than it analyses, for she does not take a critical approach to gesture and medium, but instead shows an interest in expanding the spectrum of gestures and media. In her work, celebration takes the place of analysis, but what is being celebrated if not the fact that painting exists as an extensive practice? “Diess Alles bin ich, will ich sein, Taube zugleich, Schlange und Schwein!” [All this I am and wish to mean, dove as well as snake and swine!]— with this quote from Nietzsche, Pia Fries introduced her 1992 contribution to the exhibition Der Teppich des Lebens. In embracing and celebrating opposites, Pia Fries distances herself from Klein’s idealised body of colour, by moving away from the closed selfcontainment of a plane of colour where she never would have stayed.

Nor does she really come close to the lyrical dissolution invented by Marden, for she has no interest in maintaining the subtle balance between figure and plane. Pia Fries eschews all figurative associations and has no allegiance to the plane: her markings deliberately encroach upon the viewer’s space. And so the second matrix proves more fruitful. It provides some models that could be aptly applied to Pia Fries’ work. For instance, Rauschenberg’s liberal approach to colour as an object, his casual transition between reproduced images and painting, gives us an anchorpoint, as does his synthesising energy. Pia Fries may shy away from radical disjunction, but her interest in a surface which, by so visibly demonstrating its production, is in itself object enough, places her work in proximity to those positions that abjure all narrative. In Pia Fries’ painting, after all, it is not necessity but contingency and continuity that compel her to work on several paintings at the same time so that multiple possibilities are not excluded from the first.

Could it be, on the other hand, that these excursions into the field of painting merely feign phenomena that we have read into them and that Pia Fries has simply passed through? Does she perhaps paint more from her memory of the images she grew up with? Where does Pia Fries paint? She paints under the Late Baroque ceiling frescos of the collegiate church of Beromünster, where brightly coloured little birds flutter from point to point against the whitewashed background, unforgettably magnificent, impossible to overlook.