Flatland and the Narrative

StefanJSchaffeld - Part 2 - Materiality - Fragments

Flatland – Abstraction Narratives

It is already some time ago since I went to Luxembourg and discovered the past exhibition at MUDAM Luxembourg (07 Oct 2017 – 02 Apr 2018) on ‘Flatland / Abstractions narratives #2‘, the second part of contemporary abstract art after a previous first exhibition at RAC Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée in Sérignan in 2016. It felt quite relevant to my coursework and especially with the recent works I did during part 2. I purchased the exhibition book (covering part one and two) with some good essays about context from the curators Marianne Derrien and Sarah Ihler-Meyer in the ‘Introduction’ and from Vincent Pecoil on ‘Flatland’ and a more art historical essay by Klaus Speidel on ‘The Problem of Narration in Abstract Art’.

The title of the exhibition derived form the book of Edwin A. Abbott ‘Flatland: A romance of many dimensions’ (1884), a story of two worlds: a two dimensional, flat world and the encounter of a square with a three-dimensional world. Flatness in painting is a paradigm since Modernism with the influencing writing oy Clement Greenberg and his view of medium-specificity, and to empty all external reference from painting embracing an ‘utterly flatness’ of the painting support.
One key aspect the curators and authors were addressing is how abstract art can convey narratives. Challenging another paradigm that G. Lessing explored in his book ‘The New Laocoon’ (1767) with the fight between spatial arts (e.g.painting, sculpture, photography) and temporal arts (e.g. poetry, literature, cinema). It was considered that only temporal arts with the key element of time can convey a narrative, telling a story. Still, spatial pictures would not be able to do so. A notion that I felt is still prevalent today when revisiting current comments from photography students on the OCA discuss forum, the challenge whether and how one photograph could have a narrative.
I found the differentiation of how we conceive narratives quite insightful:
  • by codification: signs, pictogramm, ideograms referring to meaning and concepts
  • by condensation: shapes and colors as strictly pictorial are hybrids referring to uses and practices (history and cross disciplinary)
  • by suggestion process: shapes and colors suggesting sensations and atmospheres inducing narratives via effects related to texture and material (eg Vera Kox)
And an open questions that very much followed my reflection on my works how to see fictional narratives versus the material reality. An example my interrogation of cut out shapes and a step-by step process of arranging various ‘events’ (Fig .1), leading into a time-based animation.

Stefan513593 -SP - part2- cut out collage - a step in between

Fig. 1: cut out collage – a step in between – a step in between – (c)StefanJSchaffeld, 2018

I do agree with the authors that still-images are ‘silent’ images waiting to be activated by the viewer’.

“Exhibition labels appear between paintings like intertitles in silent films” – V.Pecoil

What all these aspects of ‘narratives’ have in common is a reference to external parts, not being part of the work itself. The narrative shifts away from the work to its context (history, intention, connotation) as Vincent Pecoil explained it, what also resonates for me with Barthes conception of denotation and connotation. What leaves the question how abstract art can tell stories through the painting?
Pecoil compared this with the visual language of abstraction and how we speak through flowers – building on the underlying idea that verbal language can be substituted by language of flowers

“Our beliefs and knowledge influence our aesthetic experience. In that sense , the immediate experience of a work of art does not exist” – Vincent Pecoil

Words are always there, if not in written form then in our heads, letting abstract art evoking it’s own history. The narrative of traditional history paintings was included in the work, it subject. Abstract art with the subject eliminated has to ‘transcribe vision as an imaginary space’ and transforming the artist into a ‘visionary whose gaze is turned towards the future’ (Pecoil). The author is given the example of Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ with the icon structurally persisting in the viewer’s mind.

But is the picture only triggers a narrative that is already there, in the mind? Would this not make the work just second to language? Klaus Speidel quotes Gottfried Boehm here when asking that

“if the image is in truth reduced to being merely a monstrative repetition of what has already been said previously – a sort of detour taken by language – it has no sovereignty of right and can only remain confined to a copy-image, a second image.” – Gottfried Boehm, 2010

What altogether brings me back to my past work (Fig.1) asking whether the narrative derives from the fork-shape object with its cultural meaning or if there is more at stake?

The author describes that shapes can behave as actors, with a subject-hood I would add. A way of thinking that was studied at a deeper psychological level by Fritz Heider and Marianne Summer with their work ‘An experimental study of apparent behaviour’, a film that triggered all sort of different stories by the participants.

It resonates very much with my own experience with the ‘cut-out collages’ but also with my larger scale Walking through Painting that both eventually led to my Object-Box, when Speidel explained how narrativity is gradual, relating to aspects of dynamism, transaction, conflict and tension inside the work and between shapes or objects.

“narration always co-created with the viewer, kind of ‘script’ as a “generalized sets of expectations about what will happen in well-understood situations .”- Michael Ranta, 2011

Speidel concludes that this kind of narration depends on:

  • Recipient (motivation, skills , knowledge )
  • Context (venue or seeing mode)
  • Presentation (and used medium)
  • Content represented (nature and degree of explication)

Two questions remain unanswered, how the element of time adds to the narration, whether it is rather restrictive or open. And what would be difference between a narrative and an invention of a story? At the end it comes down to the two poles of artist’s intention as a criterion for capturing the narrative and the participation of the audience as a co-creator of meaning. I like the term ‘self-entanglement’ the author is using considering the bond between the viewer and the narrative.

The final conclusion seems to me very relevant, though I feel I didn’t grasp it completely, as the meaning of it feels as vulnerable as its content. The author state that not recognition of a narrative is the ground, often restricting further reflection, but

“what matters is the way in which a particular work of art interacts with its references – the manner, for example, in which it rewrites the script on which it draws. What also counts is that there is a rich relationship between its material manifestation and the object of reference – the fact that the reference does not merely provide a surplus of meaning to a pretty form. It is only when we begin to ask ourselves these kinds of questions that we can advance from being mere passive receivers who play the gratifying game of arty storytelling to becoming emancipated spectators who avoid the trappings of their own vanity.” – Klaus Speidel

I am wondering how my Walking Through Painting (Fig.2) does respond and deliver to these process of questioning and ‘rewriting of scripts’?  The latter referring in my case to my object box (Fig,3) and our relationship with mundane objects.

Stefan513593 - SP - Part 2 - Walking Through Painting

Fig. 2: Walking Through Painting – (c)StefanJSchaffeld, 2018


I was inspired by some artists and their works where I feel some resonance with what I did so far -and that I will take notes for future reference:

Artist – works – abstract narratives

Vera Kox (b. 1984)

She works with and explores materiality of polyurethane, bubble pack, and silica gel beads. The text tells that her sculptures in ‘artificial colours evoke future relics of an industrial present’. 

Her exposed work Temporary forms and permanent doubts,2013 (polyurethane foam and acoustic foam- one piece out of a series) is a chain suspended painted sculpture that reminds me strongly of my made-objects, especially those activators’ made from irregular shapes from packaging material and sprayed with bright colors. Her material choice is intriguing (something to test myself?). Her works plays with the relationship of organic and inorganic materials and forms, something I can relate back to Candice Lin. The growth tendency of PU foam is in itself a material that overcomes full control and adheres a certain subject-hood. Her objects seem to ‘live’ their own life, quite organic, and at the same time vulnerable – a element that I can related mostly only with my red made object from a towel in Walking Through Painting (Fig. 2 and 3). An aspect that I feel intriguing.

Sonia Kacem (b. 1985)

Her human scale installations are made with found materials and shapes derived from ordinary objects, and often made with fabric (striped and monochromatic blinds ) with connotations of memory of holidays at seaside. I can relate her works to folding, drapes as seen in the works of Sam Gilliam and Katharina Grosse, also bringing back my earlier explorations on folding-unfolding and the Baroque., an approach of concealing an revealing. 

Her exposed work Loulou, 2016-16 (owing its name to Félicité’s parrot in Flaubert’s ‘Un coeur simple’) is quite an geometric abstract work of pyramidal structures. Versus some of her other works that remind me at times of my studio table or floor space (see here). For me the fascinating aspect of using fabric to cover abstract forms, and to convey through colorful patterns and use of ordinary materiality of blinds a mystic sense as a narrative to engage with.

Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann (b. 1960)

The shown work L’Amour est plus froid que la mort, 2015 the artist expresses the strong emotional oppositions related to human conditions of desire and mourning. She relates this to two other works, poetry and filmic, one the novel of Jean Genet ‘Querelle de Brest’, 1947 and films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder who adpoted Genet’s novel for cinema. In this approach she takes external references as Candice Lin did in her work A Hard White Body, 2017 and triggers various narratives that the viewer can tap into or to stay at the work itself and to connect with the visual expression of shapes, color and spatial extension. For me, the contrast at play feels intriguing: metal shapes and soft pliable velvet tissue.

Tarik Kiswanson (b. 1986) 
The shown work Robe, 2015 felt quite harsh against above mentioned organic and pliable sculptures. I felt more intrigued by the multiplicity of reflection and disruption of reflection through cut slits and bended plates.  
The work evokes connotations to masks and knights’ armours. His sculpture Father Form, 2017 is composed of several dozen metal slats polished to become mirrors. The sheer endless and multiplicity of reflections can be also considered as a multiplication of our own image. A mix and match of objects and identities. 

Walking Through Painting (detail) - (c)StefanJSchaffeld, 2018

Fig. 3: Walking Through Painting (detail) – (c)StefanJSchaffeld, 2018


  • Objects and materiality that convey a sense of grow and inner ‘life’ (e.g. Vera Kox Temporary forms and permanent doubts)
  • Contrast: playing with materiality characteristic to establish tension and dynamic that can trigger a narrative (e.g. Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann’s L’Amour est plus froid que la mort, 2015) 
  • Fabric as pliable material to use as a narrative medium through folding and concealing (e.g Sonia Kacem)
  • Dynamism, transaction, conflict and tension as internal elements that can establish an abstract narrative
  • Conception of narratives through: codification (signs), condensation (shapes and color referring to cultural practices), and suggestion process (shapes and colors suggesting atmosphere and sensations)

Related Posts
Jacqueline Humphries: Layers – a painterly narrative
Stefan513593 - Ex 2.5 - Making - space
Part Three – Preliminary Thoughts

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