Multiplicity Must be Made

The Paintings of Pia Fries

Paul Good

1 How are we to deal with the astonishing diversity of colour and form in the paintings of Pia Fries? There is so much going on in the paint. As though unfettered sensuality were running riot. As though there were no attempt at creating order by any rational means. Her painting does not bow to any theory, let alone to any metaphysical or mystical notion of colour. Here is an artist who seems to have abandoned herself to a fetishism of the material itself. She mixes the colours like a demon, leaping with consummate ease across all conventional intervals, gradations and striations of the paint.

You need only see one of her paintings in order to remember two things forever: the strange meld of lightness and brittleness and the unprecedented mass of material by which this is conveyed. It is not the kind of painting you can love at first sight, for its intensity, formal diversity and material density rob you of all previous perceptions of painting. Is it painting at all? Only a woman can paint like this; she does not seem to follow any of the rules of art. Hers is one of the most astounding œuvres to have been created in the genre in recent decades.

2 Philosophically, what interests me is the mindset that spawns such images. This does not imply that Pia Fries paints following a certain way of thinking. That, as I have already indicated, is not the case at all. Indeed, it is precisely the unprecedented extent to which she avoids subjecting her painting to any programme or concept that makes her work so distinctive. Inversely, this begs the question as to what kind of perception, emotion or thinking I can deduce from such an approach.

My philosophical reflections thus thrive on the unexpected theoretical arguments cast up by the works themselves. Both these aspects exist independently of one another. And yet, it suddenly becomes evident, on both counts, that new ways of painting and new ways of thinking are created along parallel lines.

The issue at stake here is how such multiplicity, heterogeneity, difference, can be expressed without being subdued (cognitively) by the unity of a specific form. It is a question of what role the intensity, aleatoriness or occurrence of a material actually plays in creating a sensory block of percept and affect in art or in formulating a concept in philosophy. In both respects, it is a question of whether it is possible to conceive of an image of the world that centres on the permanent becoming, constant transformation and endless rhizomatic interconnection of everything.

This has long been attempted in philosophy. French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari furnish us with much of the vocabulary for such a new philosophy. I refer in particular to their iconic book of nomadic thought, A Thousand Plateaus.1

3 Pia Fries practises a veritable “becoming-colour”. With that, I mean on the one hand that she takes her leave of all the significance of colours – their meanings, symbolic values and signifying regime of signs – and on the other hand that she even dispenses as far as possible with the subjectivity of expression. I cannot over-emphasise this radical step. For it is this that allows her to give material such utterly free rein.

The artist makes the transition to a specific “becoming-colour”. We may speak of the “becoming-yellow” in the œuvre of van Gogh and of the specific “becoming-blue” in the œuvre of Yves Klein. That evolution, in both cases, has much to do with form, expression and meaning. Not so with Pia Fries. Her specific “becoming-colour” does not give precedence to any one colour. She unleashes colour in all directions. Each colour is treated equally, juxtaposed in predominantly bright hues, or deployed in countless impromptu mixings wherever it happens to be needed, or wherever the painting demands it at any given moment. This in itself indicates an unusual degree of tolerance, even indifference, towards the material. This artist has no favourite colour. She does not misuse any colour in pursuit of subjective or symbolic expression. Such freedom of soul is a rare thing indeed.

Pia Fries is so very much a painter that she is quite clearly besotted with the colours and has nothing else in mind but to tease out the material of the paints to the ultimate. In art-philosophical terms, this means that she succeeds in making the transition from using paint as a material for reproducing forms, to being willing to succumb completely to the flow of the material. Using material to reproduce forms is “royal science”, whereas succumbing to the flow and energy of the material is nomadic behaviour. “It is not a question of imposing a form upon matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces.”2 Incidentally, this is said with a view to what might be termed a “modern age” of arts, if there is indeed such a thing at all. The old notion of the form of the image is replaced by the concept of the consistency of the material. With total disregard for any attempt, based on the logic of identity, to treat one colour as a uniform substance to be applied systematically, each colour is instead treated in endless different ways; the paint is subjected to breaks, ruptures, blows, accumulations, pressures. In this way, it takes on a multiplicity, becoming a “something” that constantly transforms into itself and differs within itself. It becomes heterogeneous. Seldom, in painting, has the material itself been allowed such diversity. So much energy, force and fragmentation can overwhelm the viewer.

4 In the beginning, there is only a vague inkling of the direction in which a new flow of colour might move. After the first deliberate application of paint, the continuity naturally becomes increasingly restricted. Pia Fries does not call all the colours into the limelight at one and the same time. Nor does she paint blindly or wildly. Instead, there is a thoroughly sensual call-and-response going on between the colours and the forms that eventually produces a picture. In the Swiss-German dialect spoken by the artist, the word folgen [“to follow”] is commonly used in the sense of gehorchen, which means “to obey”. And, just as the English word “obey” [oboedire] is etymologically rooted in “to listen” [audire], so too does the German word gehorchen mean both “to listen” and “to obey” . Looking at many of her works, one has the impression that this is an artist who not only paints quite literally by hand, but who seems to touch and feel the material itself: all the senses, including smell, taste and hearing are fully alert. Each and every colour can seem either quiet or loud. It is by no means the visual alone that governs the flow of the material here.

Rather than resorting to any industrial technical processes, Pia Fries employs only traditional means and methods of painting, using brushes, knives, spatulas and metal tools. In this respect, her approach is deeply conservative. That has much to do with her conviction that she is part of a painterly tradition going back more than two thousand years. The whole point of the exercise is to prove that painting, in the conventional sense of a panel painting for a wall, is still possible. Pia Fries delivers that proof with a gentle power that is forceful enough to silence, for a moment at least, those who would mock the visual arts. Her choice of materials and tools is consciously based on economy, constraint and limitation by which she plays a strictly defined field to the utmost. That brings to mind Paul Celan’s assertion that the practice of any art involved driving oneself into the “narrowest place” before setting oneself free. For Pia Fries, this “narrowest place” is undoubtedly not only about the restrictions of her limited materials, but also the sheer pleasure that a playing child takes in constructing and destroying with equanimity.

5 And so there is also a lot going on in terms of the typical handling of material3 and its infinite formations and deformations. Here, she brings on a mass of material which, in the extreme, even goes beyond the relief-like, and is more akin to alluvial deposits, accumulations and blocks of colour. In her paintings, these play the role of creating a tranquil zone, a steady anchor, a firm hold, a centre of gravity for everything else that the paints are doing. There, we find an adjacent field with a subtle, sparse application of paint in filigree patterns. Elsewhere, areas of primed ground or unpainted empty spaces spread out – creating an emptiness that forms a counterpoint to the solid masses, conveying a sense of openness and breadth, transparency and lightness. In-between, the colours flow, meander and snake over one another, intertwining, turning and shifting on the carrier like expanding centrifugal forces.

In other words, the whole is underpinned by something akin to a notion of how colours are perceived and handled, which I would sum up as multiplicity must be made. It is not as though the multiplicity of colour is simply something that can be taken for granted or exploited within the scope of its own capabilities. Since we generally tend to use colour as a vehicle for forms, programmes and motifs, its full impact is often limited. Gerhard Richter still paints thematically. He uses painting, for instance, as a way of expressing a certain irony in a theme. Pia Fries, by contrast, does not illustrate anything, nor is she being ironical. Instead, she allows rhizomatic colour connections to indulge in an insatiable game of love, which also includes conflict. Colours approach each other, withdraw from one another, embrace and part. A potent painterly eroticism constantly teases other positions. Desire is not enslaved to any god or ideal. This is an artist who brooks no commander in her heart of hearts.

Multiplicity must be made. So in thrall are we to the notion of what constitutes a “good” picture – models of unity, essence and form – that we are barely capable of grasping the concept that the colours are in constant transformation, flux, becoming. Becoming-multiple belongs to a nomadic way of thinking and creating. Nomads are not defined by constant motion, but by the fact that they always leave their lines of flight open, never binding themselves to any fixed territory, nor building themselves houses or cities. They never become sedentary, nor do they create their own striated territory of orders and numbers and forms.

Instead, they obey rhythms, flows and forces, never losing their sense of wonder as they journey forth – though their wandering or travels can occur on the spot, in one place. Today’s urban nomads are not just gangs; they might just as easily be the unemployed, intellectuals, artists, drop-outs of all kinds. Pia Fries is an artist whose images are in-situ journeys.

6 At what point does paint, released and uninhibited, constitute a picture? When is a picture “finished”, as it were? It remains strangely openended. Of course, for all the construction and destruction, the end result is a remarkably beautiful picture. The viewer becomes multiple, lost in the details. And yet, what the viewer sees is not an accumulation of daubs and dimples, solidity and fluidity – but a picture. What makes a work of art a finished work of art?

It is when there is a sense that the colours have flowed enough and yet still work together, a realisation that they now take up enough space and leave enough emptiness, constructing and destroying. It is when, in spite of their multiplicity, they have achieved the harmony of a certain balance. Heraclitus’ definition of harmony springs to mind here – a harmony in which there is a counteractive fluidity or tension. “What opposes unites, and the finest attunement stems from things bearing in opposite directions, and all things come about by strife.” Heraclitus is a philosopher of becoming, par excellence. Together with the breaks, ruptures and cuts, the variations, offshoots and rhizomes form plateaus. Each picture forms a plateau. A plateau is “a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensity”. That in itself could be taken as the definition of this artist’s pictures. These regions of intensity are generated more by the rhythms of the material than by any forms. Rhythm is the nomos of a nomadic surface, of a “smooth space”, as opposed to the forms, orders and numbers that are the logos of the sedentary “striated space”.

But the question still remains: by what criterion is the flow of paint generated in an intensive picture? It is not the chaos of the arbitrary where there is no unified will-to-form. So there must be an instrumental criterion derived from within the multiplicity itself, which has something to do with “force”. The artist herself speaks of Aufrichtekraft [upright force]. A picture is finished when it has this Aufrichtekraft.

The notion of an “upright force” recalls the importance of the vertical in the œuvre of Alberto Giacometti. But for Pia Fries this has nothing to do with a formal “uprightness” or vertical alignment of colours, nor with subjecting these to any strictly defined goal. The upright force becomes apparent where, as painters would put it, the interaction between heterogeneous parts is “cohesive” and “right”, where they achieve a certain balance. It is about the vibrating intensity of colour that betrays both fortitude and lassitude, a certain “bite” and lightness. Painting that is both uplifting and depressing. Colours that are both radiant and faded.

Hence, the criterion we seek must come from the multiplicity itself.

Children are capable of creating colour combinations without inhibition: a little yellow here, a little red there. And in the end something like a picture emerges. Colours can be incredibly tolerant of other colours, resulting in a picture instead of chaos. Such liberated colour can make many a successful painting look jaded.

The criterion that defines what the assemblage [agencement] of a picture can be does not come, in this case, from without – that is to say, from any aesthetics or metaphysics of art – but has to be distilled from within, emerging anew with each individual picture. It is a question of the empirical compatibility of multiplicity. There is no notion of a picture hovering aloft like some omnipotent, watchful eye. The real aesthetic task, for Pia Fries, takes the form of working with the senses, and thus with the sensory block, controlling a power that excludes nothing.

Painting has to be charged with tension, uniting multiple, counteractive forces. A heterogeneous assemblage has to be created. “Assemblage” here means the consistency of the heterogeneous.
This prompts me to posit that it is precisely this internal criterion, this empirical compatibility of multiplicity, that forges the link between the paintings of Pia Fries and the globally diverse world of today. In these times of unprecedented global uniformity, it is multiplicity, heterogeneity and difference that stand out most clearly, and often painfully, and which refuse to be subjugated to a single identity. Art does not portray an image of this multiplicity, but achieves, within the material of the paint, its own heterogeneous assemblages capable of relating to this colourfully diverse world. Nietzsche once spoke of a city he called the Town of Motley Cow.

Colours that differ in themselves. Could there be any higher goal for them than to be set free in all directions, assertively? Is that not the most important step that painting could take towards itself? Without being subjected to any programme, to any transcendence or any expression of the absolute, but to be allowed to be itself completely and immanently? In the work of Pia Fries, colour’s infinite plane of immanence has been opened wide. This is not the transitive painting of “something”, or of a theme, but the intransitive teasing out of colour in all its multiplicity: letting it all hang out.

7 Let us take a closer look at this joyous science of painting, in terms of the process involved. Words still fail me in my bid to express the unprecedented multiplicity of these intensive plateaus brought to light by such whimsical, dreamy, youthful, healthy, robust, feisty, erotic teasing and
balancing of colour. Colour-event upon colour-event, surprise upon surprise. Details living a life of their own in some corner of the picture, as though they were an entire picture unto themselves, yet all the while vibrating along with the other details, like the individual instruments and voices of an orchestra coming together to create an assemblage that is open to all sides.

These images inexorably demand a nomadic way of seeing. The viewer’s gaze rests on certain fragments, splashes, accumulations and courses of colour, then switches over to other islands, striations, flows and empty spaces, only to note with utter bewilderment that such heterogeneous entities do indeed form a picture. Inversely, we perceive this tensionladen assemblage immediately and it is only then that we begin wandering through the details. But whatever approach we take, things seem to fragment and then come together again.

The reason for this must surely be that what we find here is painting that is thoroughly tactile, rather than visual. The paint is often applied thickly, and is pressed or slapped directly onto the carrier, but only rarely splashed or sprayed. Wherever flowing channels of paint occur, it is where the carrier has hit the floor, setting the loosely applied mass of paint in motion and distributing it in this way. This largely tactile handling of paint results in an effect not dissimilar to that of a handwritten letter, creating rhythmic and even structural movements where, for instance, a squeegee has been used.

The constant debate about form in the fine arts is part and parcel of the primacy of the visual. Where that primacy fails, it is the rhythm of the hand that has the task of creating cohesion, generating a rhizomatic structure in the manner of a ritornel. This does not completely invalidate the visual. Visual desire, in turn, takes on the orchestration of colour: a touch of blue is needed here, an empty white space there. Colours desire each other the way birds chirp in the ritornel of desire. The same applies to weights and speeds. A sparse area responds to a dense one, an empty space to a full one, the quiet to the loud, the angular to the curved, an open space to a closed space. The material is completely malleable and fits in perfectly in a thousand intensive variations on a single plateau.

The fact that movement and speed enter into the colours, and the fact that deceleration and acceleration take place, constitutes a crucial element of these often uncomfortably unexpected flows of colour in the smooth nomadic space of the paint.4

A further aspect that allows a pictorial assemblage to arise out of multiplicity lies in the frequently unchallenged hint of a figurative compositional organisation. Often, something extends towards something else and penetrates another; there is a stretching and a hollowing; encounters that seem at times to determine the choice and rhythm of the colours. I have already spoken in geological terms of erosions and accumulations.

The sculptural application of the paint gives an impression of sedimentation, of landscapes, places, caves, orchards, organs and all manner of botanical and zoological cross sections and longitudinal sections, fissures and fragments. The thick, raw paint provides an anchorpoint for the wandering gaze of the viewer, bringing something to the fore, creating volume, encouraging a spatial way of seeing. The flat areas, too, contribute to this.

In spite of her commitment to “abstract painting”, Pia Fries does not eschew the figurative illusion created by the paint. In this sense, too, she creates multiplicity. Nor does this figurative illusion prevent her from teasing out the flows and energies of the colours. She has no need to withhold them. On the contrary, nature provides her with infinite incitements to use the paint in ways that bear distant affinities to these energies and formations. Nevertheless, the painting remains non-figurative, illustrating nothing, but exploring the effectiveness of the material in multiple combinations. Figurative allusions lend themselves perfectly to the creation of new modes of consistency.

The opulence of her painting is vigorous without being expressionistic.

It fragments without disturbing. It violates without being violent. It is raw but never rough. In terms of “technical composition” in the sense of working with the material, the sensory block (affect) results in something that I would describe as decorative in much the same way that this has been hailed positively in the painting of Matisse.5 Colours are, in themselves, decorative. Pia Fries has shown herself to be a veritable juggler, inviting so many decorative elements to dance at one and the same time.

Given the variations involved (Pia Fries explores certain groups of processes, albeit as variations rather than repetitions) there may be a certain risk of seeming mannerist. Dave Hickey describes Pia Fries’ style as ”visceral rococo”.6 And why not? We need only look a little closer and go through the individually vibrating intensities in order to banish the danger of mannerism quite quickly. (For me, the raking movements in some of her works do take on a mannered quality). The overall impression of the pictures appears to be immanently aesthetic in the best possible sense of a decorative surface material.
This positive approach to the decorative is rooted in the realisation that, in the nomadic production of art, everything is permissible that emerges, or is washed up, on the endless surface of the coloured material. The meaning of radically material-oriented painting does not lie in the depth of the coloured elements (in the so-called laws of colour) any more than it lies in the heights of formal ideas (in eternal forms or symbols) that are, as it were, waiting to be imaged. Instead, the meaning circulates on the surface of the events and effects of this material which have no meaning beyond their own intensity. Following these flows, teasing them out vibrantly, is what results, in this case, in art.

8 There has long been talk of a painting of worldly joy that cannot deny its “origins in the shapeless mass of the amorphous”.7 This notion of a shapeless mass of the amorphous derives from the metaphysical formmatter distinction, according to which matter takes shape only through form. It does not apply to the rhizomatic notion of the flows and energies of matter in which this painting of multiplicity is rooted, and which determine its course. A certain worldly joy does, however, spring from such autonomy of matter. This painting is not subject to transcendence. And so it cannot fall from grace. It does not put itself at the service of form and representation, of reference and reproduction. Instead, it produces maps – a cartography of energies. These maps differ from the copy of the world in that they are “entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real.”8 This is precisely what Pia Fries does with colour. What, we may now ask, does such painting have to do with the controversial globalised world of today? I have already suggested that it creates an assemblage of difference and heterogeneity with paint alone, just as the economic, political, social and religious flows represent an assemblage whose conflicts are being acted out in our present-day world.

These paintings neither illustrate nor address such conflicts. They do not provide us with a copy created through the medium and materials of painting, but produce a map of how energies can interact.

For this reason, I would not go as far as the American author Dave Hickey, cited above, who sees in these pictures “an un-sentimental memento of the ruined planet” and “the most European “American-style” painting(s)”. As I see it, the American aspect lies in the abandonment of multiplicity, in the disintegration of forms, in the overstepping of boundaries, as practised in great Anglo-American literature from Melville to Fitzgerald. There is, admittedly, a certain stylistic affinity to American art, such as Rauschenberg’s Combines. But we need not adhere to the interpretation that they symbolise a memento of the beauty of a world that has been completely destroyed, exploited, broken and abandoned, or that they are an image of the world after the demise of human civilisation. If only for the very simple reason that they need not be read symbolically at all. Instead, what I see in the unprecedented tolerance of opposites is a world in which each and every participant has dignity and empowerment.

9 Pia Fries plays the part of the feisty little girl in painting – unbowed and unconstrained by anything the eminences grises of art might have established in terms of ideals and limitations in the here and now. It is easy to dismiss her painting as lacking in self-critical visual reflection, or as a naive experiment in opening and running through a smooth space of colour only to present it, with neither irony nor shame, as if it were the most self-evident thing in art. But this feisty child couldn’t care less about the rules that govern the striated space of modern and postmodern painting and its mannerisms. In that sense, at least, the child is quite literally ill-mannered. Pia Fries processes the material in a way that allows her to capture ever more intensive powers. And, as I have already clearly stated, her approach is far from naive, but wrests the flows and events from the material with careful consideration.

There is, however, one aspect of this artist’s œuvre that deals more strongly than usual with self-critical visual reflection. I have to mention this specifically, not only because it addresses form so consciously, but also because it emphasises the image as surface and the decorative element of painting. The works in question are those paintings in which prints and silkscreens have been transferred to the carrier and where the bare grain of the wood is also visible as a pictorial element. This inclusion of prints and of the colour black has changed both the mood and the style of painting. On both counts, I am occasionally reminded of the cubist approach of, say, Juan Gris, but for the fact that the works of Pia Fries seem much more open, lively and light.

Take, for example, the Leningrad Watercolours. The title comes from the Leningrad colour prints of flora and fauna so painstakingly painted from nature by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) in the early eighteenth century. Pia Fries respectlessly rips up the facsimiles of her famous colleague’s works and pastes fragments of them directly onto the wooden panel. The very fact that she tears them indicates her detached view of the originals. Today’s visual awareness is not the same as that of three centuries ago. The deliberate inclusion of another element mounted on the carrier as an arbitrarily positioned fragment is thus used only as a means of responding with paint to this other, existing, image. Some of the resulting images are distinctly graphic, thus making a specific reference to the original. Here, too, we find both rejection and respect.

However, it is the group of paintings based on, and countering, Merian’s sample book Flowers, Butterflies and Insects, published in Amsterdam in 1713 – 1717, that runs most strongly against the grain of rigorous form. A flower swaying in the wind affects us emotionally. None of this is conveyed in Merian’s painstakingly detailed engravings. The butterfly lays eggs, from which caterpillars and, in turn, butterflies emerge. Merian wanted to demonstrate this cycle of life in her detailed images, but she captured them in dead forms. Reproductive imagery does not lend itself to embodying this metamorphosis. For Pia Fries, the picture itself is the metamorphosis.

Accordingly, in her musselin paintings, she lets colours flow and course against the geometric pattern imprinted on the bare wood by the silkscreen of the muslin. And so, in the painting, what occurs is a reflection on the space striated by forms and grids, and on the space of painting energetically smoothed by flows of energy and speed. Where photos of stacks of her own paintings have recently been used for screenprints, and have entered her paintings as distinctive spatial elements, the visual reflection is expanded by yet another degree, in much the same way that earlier artists used to quote their own studios or paintings.

Yet this example also indicates that Pia Fries has no need to exclude linear and geometric elements of form. Where they do occur, however, they mobilize counterforces. Territorializing elements challenge deterritorializing forces. The prints serve as a hurdle to be overcome. A resistance is built up, out of which the new can develop. The picturewithin-a-picture as a process can readily be found in every group of multiplicities on any given painting. The old division of the whole and its parts becomes obsolete.

Pia Fries expands the vocabulary of painting to the utmost. She wants to use it to speak different languages. She wants to be able to change the terrain. Flat, graphic elements are sculpturally developed using protrusions of paint. A thick mass of paint is gouged and striated with a squeegee. In this way, the details of the visual elements are always applied deliberately and consciously. Painting means breaking down the barriers of convention.

By way of conclusion, I would like to mention the title stratum (2006), which refers directly to stratum and plateau. “The strata are phenomena of thickening on the Body of the earth, simultaneously molecular and molar: accumulations, coagulations, sedimentations, foldings. They are Belts, Pincers, or Articulations.”9 In this case, it is paint that creates such thickening, accumulations, coagulations, sedimentations, foldings, producing belts, pincers, or articulations. Each picture, liberated from the conventional significances of art, gives an insight into a plateau of vibrant intensity. “It is only after matter has been sufficiently deterritorialized that it itself emerges as molecular and brings forth pure forces attributable only to the Cosmos. It had been present “for all of time”, but under different perceptual conditions.”10 Deterritorialization and molecularization of the material are the direct path to its energies.

  1. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, transl. Brian Massumi, London 1998 (originally published as Mille Plateaux, volume 2 of Capitalisme et Schizophrenie, Paris 1980).
  2. Ibid., p. 329.
  3. On seeing a large number of paintings by Pia Fries together, we have to speak of type and variation, memory and familiarity. They undoubtedly possess a thoroughly distinctive “style”.
  4. The “smooth space” of the paint does not refer to a smooth painterly finish, but to the formal and material openness of the flows of colour that are not subject to any moral or aesthetic norm. Smooth is not synonymous with homogeneous. Striated space is defined by points that regulate the line, whereas smooth space consists of lines that are vectors (flows and energies).
  5. See G. Boehm, “Ausdruck und Dekoration. Henri Matisse auf dem Weg zu sich selbst”, in Henri Matisse: Figur, Farbe, Raum, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2005, pp. 277–279.
  6. pia fries: schwarzwild, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, 2006, p. 9; German in this catalogue, p. 130.
  7. Max Wechsler in Pia Fries, Kunstmuseum Luzern, Lucerne, 1992.
  8. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari (see note 1), p. 12.
  9. Ibid., p. 502.
  10. Ibid., p. 347.