Reflections on emptiness, light and rest

Bruno Corà


The series of works created and exhibited by Mats Bergquist for his solo exhibition at the Galleria della Fondazione Culturale San Fedele in Milan immediately stands out to visitors as a paradigm emblematising his body of work, not to mention a new “narration” of his recent creations, of his ceaseless professional journey.
Having witnessed a considerable part of his journey, I believe the Milanese San Fedele episode to reveal – for more reasons than one – Bergquist’s attainment of linguistic maturity, by virtue of a symphonic display that weaves through the different forms of a single generating tension.
And indeed, with the title Rest (a synonym of “pause”), which ideally extends to the morphological variety of the works on display, Bergquist offers a condensed deployment of the poetic, conceptual and elaborative modes that became manifest starting from the mid-1990s.
Though the aesthetic horizon of his spatial correspondence – which is wholly interior and mental, and not at all physical or pertaining to landscape – remains steady throughout his interest, Bergquist proves intent, work by work, on bringing into focus the very “emptiness” that is a generating principle and whose aspiration it is to call forth – by means of the persevering and obsessive nature of the repetitive action of painting on canvas – an ethereal value of light… the result of an appeal that feels sure of directing all physical and mental energy towards that very light, as if it were a prayer. Thus, driven by a dominating propensity towards the source of light, in nearly every experience engendered by a protean expression of outcomes, this event in Milan gives rise to a variety of reflections.

Bergquist’s various work cycles – some of which return to the aesthetic shape and type of the icon, an aspect which invested much of his early work – are fuelled by a devotional stance. And while the foundations of this repertoire, which I shall describe further on, must– as I have suggested on other occasions – be mainly detected in the ancient painting of sacred icons, Byzantine, Russian Orthodox and Greek, as well as in the “Suprematism” in shape and colour revealed in Kazimir Malevich’s paintings, it is also true that Bergquist has managed to infuse and transport those unsurpassed models into the variety of extremely personal modes that have come to set his pictorial-plastic language apart from that of the above-mentioned masters and contemporaries… to whom, however, they can still be traced back, notably in analytical monochrome painting or in European and North American Neo-minimalist painting.
We must also underscore how Bergquist always manages – and has for a long time now – to insert certain narrations (which could even be described as simple allegories) that cause fresh openings of meaning compared to the single-theme dimension of light or its reference to the sacred. And the San Fedele exhibition in Milan showcases more than one of said openings, which are worth pointing out. I am referring, for example, to Rest, 2018 – the very work that lends its name to the entire exhibition. The work is a fragment of black oak, retrieved from some vessel or other that spent over 300 years at the bottom of the Baltic Sea; the artist modelled the wood in order to obtain a symbolic relic meant to identify the threshold upon which – according to Bergquist – Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, denied Christ a resting place. Thus the objet trouvé becomes a source of poetry, not to mention of imaginary events.
No less poignant, though invested with a different degree of engagement and imaginative projection, is Votive Ship, 2017. Burdened with a load of black matter, burnt and ashen in hue, the work is suspended over visitors’ heads by means of two invisible ropes that transform the lithe, spectral Viking ship into an inscrutable, visionary entity. Though the artist – more or less implicitly – ascribes further values pertaining to Scandinavian culture to the work’s streamlined shape, it actually lends itself to the arousal of echoes and metaphors that also span certain Mediterranean religious beliefs, mainly pertaining to Graeco-Egyptian tradition. Not to mention the thanatological dimension as it is conjured up in the poetry of Dante’s Inferno à propos of the demon Charon’s ferrying the damned across the River Styx in the Divine Comedy.
Yet both Staircase, 2018 (encaustic painting on wood and pigment on iron) and Hand, 2016 (a bronze cast) – which are projected from the wall into the room, towards viewers – comply with similar metaphorical principles. And whilst Staircase – jutting out from the wall as it does – displays an unlikely topology owing to its afunctional and impracticable development as an ideal or oneiric structure, Hand, instead, was created from a cast of the artist’s own right hand, outstretched in an welcoming gesture which is actually, and equally, full of potential: pertaining both to the perceptible emptiness it displays, and to an absence-presence that can fill it.

The properties of emptiness appear in Bergquist’s work in various plastic moulds – in some cases objectively defined, in others alluding to its scope. For that matter, emptiness doesn’t always exclusively mirror the physical state but, rather, the conceptual and poetic state. Such as, for example, with Concave/Convex, 2017, an encaustic painting on wood of which Bergquist previously provided a version entitled White Concave/Convex, 2010 (30 x 24 cm). Another such example is Path, 2015, a floor installation where some of the white encaustic paintings that make up the work present a series of hollows reminiscent of the pressure of knee prints that alters the regularity of their surface. Furthermore, Path proves to be a spatially more contained yet similar in nature to Milky Way, 2010-11, previously on display at the Kunst-Station Sankt Peter in Cologne.
I believe the three encaustic paintings on wood (120 x 90 cm each) entitled Bethlehem, 2008, to be ascribable to the same entity of emptiness. Shaded black like thresholds, they recall the three Holy Doors leading to the birthplace of Jesus, which can only be crossed with bowed heads. Thus, an imaginary emptiness – in the exhortatory and mnemonic sense – of an actual place that exists somewhere else. Then again, Door, window after Böcklin, 2011 (2 parts) or Small Door, 2012, greatly admired at the time, alluded – much in the same way – to ideal thresholds to be crossed by means of thought.
Finally, there is a further dimension of emptiness in Bergquist’s work that we cannot ignore: it reveals itself in the quality of the ‘rest’ – that is, as the interruption of a continuum pertaining to matter or sound, as the source of a rhythm. In the work Vintersaga + Vintersaga bis, 2017–2018 – made up of twelve large paintings (125 x 100 cm each), turquoise skies accompanied by twelve white icons (37 x 30 cm each) with hollow traces, though only four turquoise and four white canvases are on display here – the arrangement on the wall is governed by an alternation of the paintings, aimed at conferring an inner rhythm upon the series, further emphasised by the intervals between one painting and the next on the wall. It is common knowledge that in music, rests are actually what allow sound to reveal its distinct spatial scope. Likewise, in this work of Bergquist’s, spatiality – already pertaining elementally to each canvas by virtue of the sky-blue chromatic elaboration obtained by the encaustic technique (the same goes for the white) – combines, expresses and extends thanks to calculated relationships of emptiness between paintings. Thus, each turquoise canvas is accompanied by a white one, much like the cosmic pair of Earth and Moon. And alongside the others, rest after rest, they conquer the spatiality of a well-balanced system.

The common denominator underlying the Rest pinpointed by Bergquist also governs all other series on display. Bergquist’s Regular Iconostasis, 2009 (made up of 59 wooden elements, all differing in size and painted with black encaustic) and Regular Iconostasis, 2017 (made up of 48 elements, 17 x 13 cm, white) are scattered over the walls, giving life to the iconostasis of images which, though absent by now, are no less laden with a potential luminosity that viewers must arouse in themselves, so as to find within an echo of the same intensity we perceive in the paintings the artist worked on for so long.
The Triptych, 2016–2017 (176 x 300 cm), Diptych, 2016–2017 (125 x 100 cm) and every other White Icon and Black Icon «always return to the non-image, the empty shape» – claims Bergquist. «And that’s where we began.»
While Bergquist, by now boasting incredible linguistic skills, realises that he has spent years intent on «attempting to portray the aspiration of emptiness» or, like in Ayiasma 2, 2017, discovering that the image has disappeared from icons by dint of devoted kisses, forcing him to pursue his quest of regaining that “enlightening” darkness described in Gunnar Ekelöf’s verses dedicated to the “black image”:

«All we desired
All we never desired
kissed and consumed-by-kisses
All we escaped
All we desire
again and again.»

If all this coincides with the artist’s life – with his ambition and need to fill it with meaning – then, in the last analysis, we can view the various versions of his raku pottery (Daruma, 2015) showcased in this Milan exhibition as nothing more than further transmutations of the very feeling of existence in the oval emblem of completeness.

Gioiello, November 2018

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