Bente Sætrang

"All Colours are my Friends: process and chance in the textile work of Bente Sætrang"

Norwegian artist Bente Sætrang’s commitment to the textile now spans four decades of creative output. Accolades include significant public commissions from Norges Bank, the 11th International Triennial of Tapestry's silver medal award, as well as work held in the permanent collection of the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. From 1987 to 1993 Sætrang was Norway’s first Professor of Textile Art. (1) But at the conclusion of her Professorial appointment, she recollects: “I was impatient to return to my own work!” (2) Since then Sætrang has worked in earnest from the Oslo studio she has occupied throughout her career. From 1993 onwards three distinct bodies of work have emerged: an intensive investigation of trompe l’oeil (3) drapery on reused tarpaulin; a series of monumental abstract colour studies, which also used recycled tarpaulin as the canvas; and most recently, a return to textile printing on damask and cotton yardage, in a series of bold prints produced for her solo exhibition at Kunstnerforbundet in the autumn of 2020.

Textile art encompasses artistic practices often (but no longer exclusively) destined for the art gallery, which pay particular attention to materials and techniques. In the decades since the term emerged (4) it has been met in perhaps equal measure with celebration and distain. While Sætrang’s consistent use of the textile exhibited in gallery contexts makes her oeuvre part of these debates, she cites an eclectic range of sources as inspiration, spanning practices such as the American artist Kiki Smith, to tapestries from the Middle Ages. Her own education included time as an exchange student at the Polish Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, studying with the “unapproachable authority” (5) of Magdalena Abakanowicz. She sums up the experience as: “It was awful to be there; and very good to be there.” (6) Indigo vat dyeing seen during five months of travel in west Africa in 1981 is another touch stone in her visual vocabulary. She also credits the German Bauhaus, an influence she acknowledges was not discussed in 1970s Norway during her own artistic education when Scandinavian design was often credited, but discomfort remained at acknowledgment of German visual influence.

Jorunn Haakestad has noted that Sætrang’s work from the 1980s and 1990s shares affinities with the American Pattern Painting movement. (7) Glimpses of all these elements can be found across her work, but ultimately Sætrang’s practice returns again and again to considerations of the physical qualities of her chosen materials. She describes herself as working “at the crossroads between intuition and analysis, planning and coincidence.” (8) Ultimately, “at a certain point the piece of work decides over me. I can make some decisions, but I really need to listen to the work.” (9)

Trompe l’oeil on recycled tarpaulin (1993 – 1999)

A year after the conclusion of her Professorial appointment, Sætrang completed some of her earliest works on recycled tarpaulin: Begynnelsen til bladenes historie (10) (1993) followed a year later by Lyden fra bladene er ikke den samme om natten som om dagen (11)(1994). Both use textile drapery, drawing, painting and a stencil of roe leaves and spray paint on nearly square canvases, while Pont Neuf (1994) is based on a silk screen floral pattern. Taking the existing proportions of the tarpaulin as her scale, Begynnelsen til bladenes historie and Lyden fra bladene er ikke den samme om natten som om dagen are the first of a number of large-scale, increasingly realistic, experiments with trompe l’oeil drapery. While the format is, at least in part, dictated by her choice of premade substrate, it is perhaps also influenced by the formidable textile work Sætrang had seen as an exchange student studying with Magdalena Abakanowicz in 1974. The woven “Abakans”, as they have come to be known, are also the result of a repurposed material – in Abakanowicz’s case rough sisal rope. The British academic and artist Janis Jefferies, who also studied at the Poznań Academy of Fine Arts in 1976 and 1977, notes that “Abakanowicz transformed weaving, a rather ‘humble’ practice, into contemporary sculpture that transgressed the conventional and hierarchical boundaries of art history and cultural criticism.” (12)

From Abakanowicz’s legacy, the discarded linen tarpaulin Sætrang first found on an Oslo boat slip became a consistent material in her artistic practice. Later, as she became known for her use of the material, friends brought her tarpaulins they too had found. Many contain printed letters and numbers from their former occupation. Metal grommet holes, once used to tie these textile work horses in place are often incorporated into the final composition. Along the way, edges move and patches on the original substrate are drawn over and then glued or stitched into the new surface. A mix of drawing with brushes and sponges, a small silk screen and stencils from collected and dried leaves contribute to the illusion of the textile that sits upon the original textile. But even when finished, none are static. Sætrang returns to compositions and introduces changes long after they have been exhibited. Drapery as a visual motif is an interest shared by others. For example, the American artist Lia Cook’s weaving Drapery Frieze: After Leonardo (1992). More recently, the Lithuanian artist Laima Oržekauskienė-Ore’s weavings of woven textile patterns and digital prints of cloth on cloth such as Lay it Out and Leave (2010) also share in this fascination with the magic of the textile holding a second, alternative image of the textile.

The blood red Til minne om Briam Boarram, en ung marokkaner som ble drept av le Pens tilhengere i Paris 1 mai 1995 (13) (1997) uses a similar composition but with more folds and ‘errors’ exposed – patches were ink from the print screen did not touch the canvas allowing sections of heavier colour to conceal the floral motif. The political narrative of this particular work is clear from the work’s title: Briam Boarram was killed in Paris by le Pen supporters several years prior to one of a number of residencies Sætrang’s has undertaken at Cité International des Arts. Similar political titles appear in works such as her earlier South African sunshine: see how the guns shine (1987). In 2004 when Sætrang finished work on Tretten til bords i Bagdad (2003) (14) several days after the invasion of Iraq, she explains “the title gave itself” to the work. (15) But on the whole political commentary is something of an outlier in Sætrang’s oeuvre. While recognition of current political events appears in some titles the strategy is far from a mainstay of her practice. Far more constant is a recurring investigation through material, of material.

Soon to follow were works that become more and more intent on visualising the drapery of cloth, on cloth. Transformati (1998), for example, captures folds of white lace patterned cloth across almost the entire substrate of tarpaulin. In its new lease of life, the textile pattern curls over the original canvas all the way up to the top edge of the work where four heavy, functional grommets offer a quiet reminder of previous purpose. But to the right-hand edge a wider band of exposed canvas – an edge within an edge – reveals the sharp lighter edge of the trompe l’oeil followed by several softer folds twisting out to the final edge of the canvas and its second row of grommets. This space allows the eye to understand just how many layers of cloth image are built up across the canvas surface: pattern, over drape, over cloth, as though – as the title suggests – the textile is emerging or transforming itself from tarpaulin to lace.

A year after the completion of Transformati, (16)(1999) centres the drapery folds at each grommet point. The composition heightens the history of fabric; both layers of textile – the material and the optical – tug at each of the well-used grommets. A gritty sandy colour scheme is a reminder of other sculptural folds perhaps familiar in our memories because of materials such as marble or stone. Unlike later works, the colour scheme invites architectural associations and the weight of the cloth suggests sturdiness rather than frivolity. Even the original rope remains tied into each of the securing points along the top and both side edges, some dangling and merging into the lines of drapery in the picture plane, leaving only the bottom line of the canvas free from tie points.

Here, as in many of the recycled tarpaulins Sætrang has used over the years, printed names and numbers are incorporated into the composition: industrial pentimenti. (17) While the three central columns of drapery begin at points consistently drawn from the top grommets, Sætrang has also moved patches and rearranged panels – a feature common to many of these large works on recycled canvas. The sequence is ever shifting – the top centre patch has been moved before drawing and the drapery folds incorporated over the repair. Elsewhere the sequence changes. The top left block, which holds drapery lines from the now empty square of the top right, is lifted to expose a portion free from folds and reattached on the other side of the work.

From the same year Meeting point.html (1999) shifts to a fluttering, folding rhythm of drapery which seems to dance across the composition, loosened from the literal weight of the grommet points which secured earlier compositions. While the palette remains similar to Transformati and, this drapery feels more like the ghostly marks of earlier compositions are distributed across the entire composition. Sætrang explains the partly repaired linen tarpaulin from NSB, the Norwegian railroad company (18), “was cut and sewn together again into a meaningful physical format. The drawing of grandmother’s old pillowcase with feminine wrinkles and lace provide contrast and another narrative against the rough and well used material.” (19) Crucially, Meeting Point does not feel loyal to one particular orientation – perhaps alluded to in the work’s digital html name – top could be bottom as easily as side could become top.

By the end of the decade, Sætrang began to break with trompe l’oeil. Dancing with Moons (1999) includes a lace pattern within the composition but the bottom portion of the canvas is sliced and ‘dressed’ with a shiny black damask skirt. She recalls the consternation of some viewers at the time in this boundary breaking: depicting the textile was tolerable; introducing it physically into the artefact created an uncomfortable boundary breech for some viewers. (20)

Monumental abstract colour studies (2000 – 2013)

A few works that capture the textile quite literally follow using oblong compositions: Rest (2000) a portrait orientation of a white and yellow scarf, followed by Tretten til bords i Bagdad (2004) and Dag etter dag (2005) both long thin landscape compositions. But 2004 marks an aesthetic turning point in Sætrang’s practice with the introduction of the monochrome Det var en gang. (21) Starting with another large recycled tarpaulin, the drapery motif and trompe l’oeil visual games are replaced with a canvas of deep black punctuated with five tiny repair patches that act like miniature lenses into the original cloth beneath. By the end of the decade, the emotion of her work has shifted entirely. No longer subdued, the striking rose of Pink Madder Lake (2010) created from acrylic on tarpaulin is a joyful statement of colour. While the recycled tarpaulin continues to provide the canvas base with a deep black used as a frame of sorts, the heart of the work is a stunning colour field.

Despite the dramatic shift in mood, other types of optical games continue. The black framing edge of Pink Madder Lake is disrupted along the left-hand side when what looks like another section of vibrant central composition re-emerges. The linear edges of the canvas don’t quite behave themselves either, with stripes and patches disrupting straight edges. Where past works had ‘hung’ the optical drapery folds through grommet points along the top edge of the work, here the top edge reveals patches of canvas and bleeds of colour. One small exuberant yellow patch – alone in a composition of black and rose – appears on a curiously high horizon line: an oblong sun illuminating the bright landscape.

The bold geometric shapes of Breaking Black (2012) suggest yet another shift in focus. This time the composition lends itself to an anthropomorphic reading. While raw edges of the canvas are left bare, five large shiny lacquer spheres contrast with the not quite square patch top mid-centre of the composition. The shine of these bold geometric shapes suggests electricity pylons or the mechanical donkeys of oil rig fields pecking and pumping away at small reserves beneath the surface. Mid-right of the composition sharp lines tangle and crackle with energy.

In different ways, variations on light and energy mark much of the work created during this time. While almost entirely black, Milky Way Black Sea (2012) differs entirely in mood from Sætrang’s earlier Det var en gang (2004). Inspired by the constellations in the night skies Sætrang was able to see first-hand crossing the Atlantic Ocean by sailboat the year prior to completing the work, a trellis of decorative pattern covers much of the surface. But there is a strong feeling that beneath this decorative trellis is light. The feeling reappears in Stay Behind the Trees (2017) where elements of the bold graphic quality of Breaking Black are combined with the newfound sense of light emerging from within the composition.

Made in the same year, Island View (2012) is a distinct aesthetic contrast to Breaking Black. Painted acrylic and collage create an abstract landscape of turquois stripes and bold geometric blocks. Two years later, Western View (2014) continues the exploration but with soft pastel hues. Trade mark functional grommet holes remain visible along three sides, but here acrylic paint is used in a softer composition suggesting the light and landscapes of warmer climates. Sætrang returns to her earlier interest in trompe l’oeil effects with the drawing on linen, Waypoint One (2012). Creases replace her earlier investigations of drapery in the sky blue composition of folded paper. In contrast to her earlier series of drapery images, the effect is more subtle and the palette, which appears throughout many works at this time, full of gentle light.

During this prolific time Sætrang also returns to silk screen printing. Superficial compositional similarities are shared with Island View and One Size (2012), but in the case of the latter one oblong silk screen is repeatedly placed at ninety-degree angles on the fabric – creating a puzzle of layered print colour. A single building block repeats across the entire composition made from either one length of the screen or doubled to create a longer form, what Sætrang has described as “moving the block around as a stencil”. (22) The colours visible before the dye is fixed in an acid bath can vary dramatically from the final result, creating a blend of control and chance that contribute to the final pattern. The palette of One Size is in part a game of luck, a strategy that heralds Sætrang’s most recent series of printed textiles on damask.

Textile printing on damask and cotton (2013 – 2020)

A hunger to return to her extensive stock of dyes and work with the intensity that vat dying provides led Sætrang back into her textile dye lab in 2013. In her most recent series of work she also returns to the textile screen printing she explored extensively in the 1980s. A series of clean graphic drawings created during an earlier residency at Cité International des Arts, when Sætrang did not have access to a large silk screen table, have found new purpose as inspiration for the series. Back in her Oslo studio white and ivory damask and cotton textiles provide the foundation for the series. But rather than set the silk screen in premeasured repeats, as would be common to create a repeating pattern on a textile print, a small silk screen is treated more like a printing block laid at random on the fabric. Masking and spraying play a part too, although control is limited and accepting imperfections inevitable.

The series also includes simple compositions of oblong blocks. Only on close inspection can you see the fine lines of overlaid colour that confirm the many layers involved in each composition. Sections that look like black are in fact made of built up layers of colour. A mixture of monochrome and bold palettes appears – pink and yellow in particular pop with a vibrancy that makes the composition look as though it is vibrating. She explains that the lengthy steps to this working process (boiling, washing, dyeing) are enjoyable and accepts that the final colours are difficult to control.

In this latest series, some bold geometric shapes have misbehaved on the printing table – wetter dyes bleeding and softening the edges in an effect Sætrang admits she first found surprising but later came to enjoy. “I accept; I like when you can feel process like elements of time.” (23) The American artist Anne Wilson’s recent work shares Sætrang’s interest in how colour bleeds through the woven fibres of damask cloth. But where Wilson’s interests are in the visual tension between marks that can be read as micro or macro (one small splotch of ink soon suggesting constellations of stars), Sætrang’s visual references return to the concrete considerations of her earlier series of drawings. Are any colours more difficult than others to work with? I ask of this new vibrant series and the numerous swatches of test recipes that hang in her studio beside the print table. “All colours are demanding, but they are still my friends,” she smiles. (24)

Professor Jessica Hemmings

February 2020

(1) At the time called the Bergen School of Arts and Crafts (BKHS). For a history of the institution see 245 years: Education in Art and Design in Bergen, Narayana Press, Denmark, published by the University of Bergen (UiB) and the Faculty of Art, Music and Design (KMD), 2017.

(2) Studio visit with the author and Bente Sætrang, Oslo, December 13, 2019.

(3) A French term, borrowed by English, that refers to a visual illusion, often three dimensional, in art.

(4) In North America the term fiber art is more familiar. Extensive studies of textile art/fiber art include in English: Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, The Art Fabric: Mainstream (Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York: 1981); Mildred Constantine and Laurel Reuter, Whole Cloth (The Monacelli Press, New York: 1997); Markus Brüderlin (ed.) Art & Textiles: Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art from Klimt to the Present (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 2014); Rebecca Morrill (ed.), and most recently Vitamin T: Threads & Textiles in Contemporary Art (Phaidon, London & New York: 2019). In French Sophie Laporte (ed.), Decorum: Tapis & tapisseries d’artistes (SkiraFlammarion, Musee d’Art modern de la Ville de Paris/ARC: 2013).

(5) Bente Sætrang, “Notes from a Textile Herbal”, 245 years: Education in Art and Design in Bergen, pp. 61.

(6) Studio visit with the author and Bente Sætrang, Oslo, December 13, 2019.

(7) Jorunn Haakestad, Bente Sætrang: mønster, mening, minner, 2003: 72.

(8) Email correspondence with the author and Bente Sætrang, February 3, 2020.

(9) Studio visit with the author and Bente Sætrang, Oslo, December 13, 2019.

(10) The Beginning of the History of Leaves

(11) The Sound from the Leaves is not the Same at night as day

(12) Janis Jefferies, Selvedges: writings and artworks since 1980, Victoria Mitchell (ed.), Norwich Gallery of Art and Norwich School of Art and Design, 2000: pp. 23.

(13) In memory of Briam Boarram, a young Moroccan who was killed by le Pen’s supporters in Paris May 1, 1995

(14) Thirteen to the Table in Baghdad

(15) Studio visit with the author and Bente Sætrang, Oslo, December 13, 2019.

(16) Taking the @ symbol as a word, the title reads as a pun: No Limits at Limited Company

(17) Pentimenti is a term usually applied to painting where visible traces of earlier version of the work are visible.

(18) NSB or Norges Statsbaner, now called Vy, is today one of several railroad companies operating in Norway.

(19) Bente Sætrang unpublished notes.

(20) Studio visit with the author and Bente Sætrang, Oslo, December 13, 2019.

(21) Once Upon a Time

(22) Studio visit with the author and Bente Sætrang, Oslo, December 13, 2019.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Ibid.

full catalogue essay (Arnoldsche Publishers 2020)
catalogue excerpt published in Selvedge (issue 96 September/October 2020, pp. 70-73)
image above: courtesy of Bente Sætrang Pink Madder Lake (2010)