top of page

When It Takes

Discernible brushstrokes in impastoed fields of color, relieved by smoother, softer layers, balancing on the border between abstract and figurative. Some are opaque and self-contained, others shimmering and inviting. Movement in the paintings in Ilija Wyller's exhibition Dirt Jelly is evident not only in the clear traces of the artist's hand, but also in the constant oscillation between these disparate forms, modes and moods.

Let us talk briefly about emulsions. While oil and vinegar cannot bond due to their different polarities and densities, if whisked together with egg yolk, the vinegar will evenly wrap itself around droplets of oil in a lattice-like mesh. Now the vinegar will continue to absorb the oil almost indefinitely, thickening the mixture and solidifying the structure. It has become mayonnaise.

Roland Barthes refers to the point at which the vinegar begins to absorb the oil as It Takes (Ca Prend) in a short essay of the same name published in 1979. Barthes uses the term to describe a watershed moment in September 1909, when Marcel Proust finally succeeds in emulsifying a diverse set of heterogenous ingredients (the past and present, history and fiction) within the literary framework of his seminal work In Search of Lost Time. Once the mixture had started to take, Proust was able to let a seemingly endless set of contrastingelements be absorbed into his text.

Emulsions played a central role in the history of western painting until the 15th century, when egg tempera was superseded by oil paint, Wyller's preferred medium. And although emulsions no longer play the role they once did in the chemistry of painting, Barthes culinary analogy seems almost literalized in Wyller's handling of the paint itself: In places where the paint forms thick lumps, wax has been mixed in with the paint, while translucent layers indicate thinning with turpentine and shimmering areas those with oil.

Wyller not only brings together different solutions, like the ones mentioned above, but also draws on the principles of various pictorial traditions. Although her works belong to the abstract, she insists on calling them landscapes, a genre that strictly speaking belongs to the realm of the figurative. The insistence becomes clear in her use of the same spatial strategies employed in traditional landscape painting – following the basic principle of foreground, middleground and background, heavier, earthier tones gather in the lower half of the painting, while the upper half gives way to softer, brighter hues (Wyller notably refrains from using colors not found in nature). While the concept of creating space in abstract compositions is not novel, Wyller's insistence on doing so by traditional means – the same means early abstraction largely abandoned – lends her paintings their distinctive anachronistic tension.

The tension between pictorial strategies is also evident in the extraordinary speed with which Wyller paints her works. While landscapes in oil often were meticulously planned out with detailed underdrawings, Wyller typically finishes her compositions in a single sitting. Here, the traditional oil-landscape comes into contact with speed generally associated with movements such as abstract expressionism. This vivid, snapshot-like production of images allows Wyller to capture the moods and atmosphere of a certain day, and the paintings reveal themselves as renderings of no particular place on earth, but a mindscape where time, experience and process are brought to a fulcrum.

In some of her earlier series, Wyller has explored alternative picture supports such as curtains and furniture textiles. These works seemed to reflect the post-medium condition of painting that David Joselit summarizes in the title of his 2009 essay "Painting Beside Itself". Painting is beside itself insofar as it is no longer defined by its materiality (canvas, primer and paint), but has broken out of the confines of its frame and entered the sphere of the social – in constant reference to the commercial and social networks of which it is part. Joselit's assumption stems in part from the notion that it is in the nature of painting to recurrently rupture with the past, dating its current post-material condition to a break with the autonomous pictorial tradition of modernism. Conversely, the series presented in Dirt Jelly seems to mark a return to the self-contained world of the canvas – attested to in the exhibition's spacious hanging, where each painting is given room to unfold independently from the other. Instead of marking yet another rupture however, Wyller sutures together these fractured painterly traditions, making them part of the internal logic of works rather than, as Joselit claims, an external value of painting itself.

Returning to Barthes's analogy, it is Wyller's subjective, momentary experience that acts as the emulsifier in which these temporal ruptures (landscape and abstraction, oil and speed) become suspended within the moment of painting. Snapshots of a process where opposites become part of the same pendulum motion.The mixture begins to take.

Text by Gustav Greger Elgin

bottom of page