When does a picture become a picture? When does it go from being pigment on a ground to being a painting? When does the painting become an object? Where is the picture – in the retina of the eye, in the image in the mind, in the name of the pigment – lamp black, sky blue?

Where is the picture – in which room?
When does the picture happen – in the innumerable applications and sandpaperings of the layers of paint, in the interplay with the light in the room, in the encounter with the viewer, in the memory of it?

Jakob Simonson spends a long time on each painting – he observes it, he feels it, he allows it to slowly ripen, to deepen – and this time is painted into the picture and charges it up, making it an object that both holds meaning and is meaningful. They are not monochromes, in the modernistic sense of the word, that he works with, monochromes in which the monochrome image is an endpoint or an ultimatum. Rather, they are portraits of the colour itself, something that is accentuated by the way that the titles of the paintings are often the name of the colour. Sometimes, they are very concrete: in the painting Grålysning, gärde (grey gleam, field, 2009) the name of the colour is there in the list of materials, Falu Red, and suddenly we see how the matt, aluminium sheet with the red-painted rectangle is the deep red on the gable end of the cowshed, from where it stands out in the light of early dawn.

Bone, black, lamp, black...a second from half a second ago (2010), Simonson’s magisterial work consisting of three black monochromes with the proportions of apartment walls (275x399 cm, 207x90 cm, 275x559 cm), is a distillation of his interest in space, image, space formation, and the mental image of a room. The large, intensely black paintings look like they eat up light. Standing close to the largest monochrome is like waking up in the middle of the night, in a dense, impenetrable darkness with no chance of orienting oneself – a situation that lasts a few seconds. And the next black painting, which has the format of a doorway, an opening in black. And the next, a new wall. This is not Ad Reinhardt’s sublime black, it is darkness, absolute darkness, like a materialised memory. Approaching the pictures from the other direction, they are simply walls, propped up and held in place by the kind of iron weights used in stage-set construction to keep the scenery in place. It is as though Simonson is allowing the viewer to go back and forth between the intimate darkness in the apartment and the existential darkness in the paintings, as though, by turning the paintings into parts of a stage set, he is making a conceptual demonstration of what a painting is: yes, it is a physical experience, and a mental image; yes, it is something absolutely present, which will soon be turned into a memory, and which brings to mind other memories; and yes, it is in a room, but it is not the same thing as the other walls in the room.
    The colour memory of the title, “lamp, black” is both the name of a specific colour, and something that sounds like an oxymoron, but which is actually not one: lampblack was originally made from the soot left in an oil lamp.
    I believe the work can be read as being a counterpart to an earlier piece of his, Untitled (Cerulean Blue Deep, Cerulean Blue, Cerulean Blue [imit]) (2008), a 456x282 cm painting with a “doorway” on its left side, and fluorescent lights in front of it. Here he thought of the lights as a foreground, the room behind the painting as a background, and the painting itself as the scene of the drama.
    The fact is that the blue of the sky and the blackness of the night do not always need to be experienced atmospherically – the sky can feel like a cupola, dense and hard, the darkness of night closer, but equally dense.
    Simonson talks about the pictures as being dramatic actors. He gives the viewer a choreography. One can go close to, or even through, certain of his paintings. Simonson positioned the dark-green landscape painting Untitled (the Forest) (2006) with its back turned towards the room. Viewers were forced to squeeze themselves into the passageway between the painting and the wall in order to be able to see the picture at all. This was the first time that Simonson worked with the distance between viewer and picture, and the result was overwhelming: at a distance of ten centimetres the gaze loses itself in the vibrant dark-green. The landscape painting (Simonson’s own term) becomes the landscape.
    At approximately the same time, he explored the question that many painters have worked with – is it possible to convey a state of mind to the viewer solely through colour? Mark Rothko was convinced that this could be done. Simonson adopts a more open approach to the problem. In Untitled (Fever) (2006) the pale-green surface vibrates uneasily, as if there were something there, invisible to the gaze. In a way, it seems possible to have the paint (in Simonson’s case there are no visible brushstrokes) preserve the memory of a state of mind in such a manner that the viewer can “open up” the painting.

This task becomes even more complex in Simonson’s Untitled (Arrival) (2008). He tells the story behind this model: many years earlier, he had read Franz Kafka’s novel The Castle. His mental image of the room that K enters was very vivid, a complex situation with two different perspectives on the room, which had a distinctive shape. The memory of the room in the novel came back to him when he was working on some sketches for other rooms. Out of curiosity he re-read the novel, and discovered that there was no description at all of the room there! The vivid mental image came from Simonson’s own visualisation of the text he was reading.

This was, of course, much more interesting, and drove him to reconstruct his own mental image from memory, which was to be the beginning of a series of complex experiments and thoughts about what we see when we see – and when do we actually see it? When the picture or scenery is in front of the retina, or in the following moment, when we remember the visual image?

In his exhibition at Galleri Ping-Pong in Malmö in 2011 he played with the concept of Camera. The word, in fact, means room, but also refers to the device, the Camera, the remarkable invention that allows the visual image on the retina to be etched by light onto prepared plates or light-sensitive paper. He built a scale model of the gallery, in which the model’s interior walls were totally lined with mirror glass, like the reflector in the camera body. Through the model’s window one could see into a kaleidoscopic room that both mirrored oneself and any possible reflections of the surrounding world outside it.
    The three paintings in CMY, which Simonson exhibited together with Camera, had the same proportions as the gallery’s three windows, and were painted with hundreds of extremely thin layers of the basic printer’s colours, cyan, magenta and yellow. These three primary colours, of course, subtract from each other, so that the result is a vibrant grey.
    One of these paintings, which are almost non-paintings, has as its supplementary title a quotation from the philosopher Montaigne: “arriere-boutique”. Montaigne thought that every human being should have access to their own private room, a place for reflection, both literally and figuratively.
    Through this one title specification Simonson abandons the picture’s material starting points, so as to open up its spiritual or intellectual potential. It transcends. The reflections in the model become the activity we call thinking, which is in itself dualistic – we think with ourselves, we reflect and carry out self-reflection. Simonson shows us what the language says.

One of Simonson’s earliest painting experiments reveals his fascination with the way the picture can appear and disappear. Erasing (2001) was constructed as follows: Simonson placed a transparency in a projector and projected the image onto the white wall. He painted directly onto the wall, using the exact complementary colours to the photograph in the transparency. For every point he painted the projection’s opposite. While the projection was being shown, the viewer saw a vibrant, but otherwise neutral, grey colour surface. When the projector was turned off, the motif in the photograph re-appeared (a young woman laughing), but as a negative. The grey painting that we saw when the transparency was projected onto the surface was a kind of camouflage – it concealed its own image.

So where actually is the picture? When do we begin to see a picture? When does the material become a memory? This is not merely phenomenology – it is the very foundation for the experience of our existence. Descartes tried to find this foundation in our constantly ongoing thinking – je pense, donc je suis. Merleau-Ponty responded that, before the thinking even begins, there has to be a body in which the thinking takes place, and this body sees and is seen, and so begins our “entanglement”, our enmeshed relationship with life. It is in this fundamental discussion about our seeing, our thinking, and our mental images that Jakob Simonson operates.

He himself describes how it all began with an experience he had when he was visiting the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1999. The artist who was exhibiting was Ann Veronica Janssens.
    She had filled the entire pavilion with artificial mist. At first, the mist was quite light and transparent, but it soon thickened to the extent that Simonson sees his body disappear when he looks down. If he stretches out his arm, his hand and fingers vanish almost completely. He can hear other visitors in the room, but not see them. Suddenly, someone comes up to him. Both of them stop. She looks like a dream or a vision, an optical illusion. The idea strikes him that she must be experiencing him in the same way, as an object, as part of an art experience.

Again and again, Simonson recreates these situations –his works could be called arrangements in which a picture can arise.
    Sometimes, Descartes famous phrase is rendered as: Je doute, donc je pense, donc je suis. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am. Simonson doubts, and passes on that doubt to the viewer. He regains his faith in the picture, gives it an extra layer of paint, thin, so thin, and then rubs it down with sandpaper, and paints on it again. Viewers can do nothing but put their faith in this vibrant surface, the site for what might be a mirage.

/ Gertrud Sandqvist

(Translated into english by Mike Garner)