Reality Check

How nice it would be to start over. Who hasn't had that thought? Identity
can be such a trap; life, a trap. With every day you get deeper into its
thicket, more attached, more scratched, more yourself. I call it identity
here to distinguish it from the related but reflexive concepts of
subjectivity and existence, heavy and hellish in their own ways, but
constant and eternal like death, a kind of ultimate limit. Identity, by
contrast, comes after language and has to do with how you conceive
yourself and are recognised by others. It's a bad habit, like using the same
word over and over even though there are so many words that you could
use. It is the baggage you carry around though sometimes you wish you
didn't have to; the wrong foot you got off on, and everything just got
worse from there. But what if it was possible to start over, and begin
again? Wouldn't that be nice?

Magni Moss is a painter who's good at starting over. Every painting is a
new word, the first and purest impulse to go in this direction rather than
that. Delivery is a landscape reduced to its essentials – green and blue;
grass and river – added the subject that must inevitably inhabit a
landscape, similarly reduced to a black dot. There is a clarity to this
picture, something both naive and delicate, tinkering with the balance
between figure and shape. Some artists, like Bob Law or Raoul de Keyser,
dedicated their whole lives to developing this type of visual language.
Here, Moss took the initial step, and isn't that, like the first sip of a cool
drink after a long day, usually the best one? The next painting, say,
Scandinavian Mistake, contains not a hint of the colour-blocking we found
in Delivery, but explores a softer palette, a more gestural, temperamental brush stroke, and look, there is that energy again, the special rush and the
lightness of: this, too, is possible.

The problem with language is that it only ever approximates. It is a system
that necessarily involves a certain distance between word and thing, and
in that distance is imprecision, impurity. How frustrating for the
perfectionist, the idealist, the one who wants and needs for things to click
into place more neatly, like in a house where no floor tile needs to be cut
to size but just fits into a perfect totality.

The 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza believed that the
world is made up of a single substance that he called God. Substance is the
fundamental building block of reality, meaning that everything that exists
is a modification of this single substance, and all individual things are
simply different expressions of the same underlying reality. Substance, as
Spinoza defined it, does not suffer, like language, from the problem of
distance and imprecision, in fact, the perfection of an individual thing is
determined by its degree of proximity to substance. One way to read
Moss's paintings is as a game en route to Spinozan perfection; attempts to
tap into that underlying reality and defeat language by catching substance
by surprise, if only for a moment.

What Spinoza calls attributes are the different modes by which substance
may show itself, be that physically, intellectually or by volition. When Moss
starts over with each painting it is a renunciation of style in favour of
volition, or perhaps volition-as-style. Since nothing about the painting to
come is given a priori – except, crucially, the canvas – in every action, the
element of choice if foregrounded, and the human capacity to exercise will becomes both the form and the content of the picture. In Search of the
Miraculous a strange decision was made to line the edges of the canvas
with a fringe, like on a rug. A glimpse of perfection? Sure. But also of its
limit. The fringe is a frame and the frame a declaration of
self-consciousness; the stormy, shadowy scene is not nature but culture,
clearly indebted to J.M.W. Turner's seascapes, as all of Moss's pictures,
deep in the trenches of art history. And more than Turne there is, of
course, Moss himself: in the fringe of Search of the miraculous the kind of
pointed brushstroke that makes a leaf in Botanical or a feathered shape in
Sign or Image. While the substance is infinite, what Spinoza called the
conatus of individuals – essentially, what drives them – is not, and can only
survive by interacting with other things. Everything that can exist, already
does, he argued, and the development of one thing is entirely contingent
on another.

It is ironic, then, that modernism – an intellectual and artistic mode that
sustained and continues to sustain itself by the myth of originality,
newness and individual style – would choose Spinoza as its 'apostle of
reason': a modern man who stood up against the superstitions of the
church and paved the way for science and rationality – all the things we so
treasure today, and which confirm that we caught the long end of the stick
with our program of destruction. But what is forgotten, or in any case
written off as mere collateral of his time, is that Spinoza did believe in
God; that is to say, where modernism, essentially, nurtures alienation, he
believed in connectedness.

Spirituality is modernism's problem, a phobic object, as Freud, that modern apostle of (un)reason, might say, to which the humans of modernity are at once mortally attracted and repelled. This problem is
closely related to our problem with language and distance: our difficulty in
accepting that things do not signify in stable and logical ways, and that
humanity's most distinguished construction – language – is, in the end,
senseless. The history of painting in the twentieth century can be seen as
a reflection of this difficulty, which Moss also confronts us with as he
wrestles the concepts of referentiality, emotion and style. It is important,
for instance, that his paintings are mostly large and completely full;
sparseness never stands in for a sentimental acknowledgement of defeat.
And also that they are not destructively temperamental like actionism, or
what the Germans called 'bad painting', part patricide, part
self-flagellation, but rather characterised by thorough deliberation. The
aim of Moss's project is not to meditate on the impossibility of painting
but merely to make it work.

What this means, of course, is not an easy question, for the artist or for
the viewer. You have to spend a lot of time with a painting to know, not
just if but how it works. And the answer to such a question, as well as the
fact that the painting is, indeed, able to answer it, in the end, is the
location of its spirituality – the point at which it brushes the sleeve of

Few people have embodied the phobia of spirituality like Ludwig
Wittgenstein, the philosopher who lived and breathed the tragedy at the
core of modernism even as he worked, helplessly, from inside it. When he
built a perfect white cube of a house for his sister Gretl in the late 1920s,
he laboured endlessly over the design until not one of the black stone tiles
needed to be cut to size, and even the doorknobs were unlike anything the world had ever seen. But in the same way as his famous Tractatus on the
system of language is an outline of what language is not capable of
grasping, he himself had to admit that the house lacks in 'primordial life,
wild life striving to erupt into the open.' Though 'the product of a
decidedly sensitive ear and good manners', he concluded, 'you could say it
isn't healthy.' Gretl agreed: is not a house for mortals, she said, but for
Gods. She did not want to live there.

All this to say that there is in modernism's denial of the spirituality of
Spinozan connectedness a real danger that spirituality is replaced, either
by a secular notion of perfection, which is, like fascism, hostile to humans;
or, as Günther Förg's photographs of soft light streaming through the
windows of the empty Wittgenstein house showed, sentimentality. Artistic
positioning vis-a-vis this danger, a battle against kitsch, is what has
produced formalism, conceptualism, and, in German painting especially, a
strong sense of irony. But beneath the lid of every God-like sarcophagus is
a portrait, highly individual, of the specific human who lived and died, like
the faces in Moss's Pompeii Mask. In other words, by keeping in mind both
the theoretical infinity of the substance, and the real limits of the conatus,
we might find a solution to this problem that is neither nihilistic nor
exclusively individualistic.

Beginning again, as we witness it in Moss's painting, is the opposite to
Wittgenstein's finicking over doorknobs, because it has built into it an
acknowledgment of the certainty of failure: it is not a matter of starting
over with the chance of being able to go on, this time, teleologically, for a
thousand years – if only this time, on the right foot for all eternity – but
rather to commit to beginning again and again in perpetuity. To start every sentence with the knowledge that its meaning is not given, but
produced in situ. Or to understand, as Wittgenstein also said, that there is
no such thing as knowledge without doubt.

In the end, he got around the limitations of language by seeking
'illuminating comparisons', since to say that one thing is 'like' another is
already to have admitted that it is not the same, just as the word is not
adequate to the thing that it describes, and yet some kind of meaning is
produced. In Moss's work we see this 'like' in how many of the large
paintings are made up of two canvases joined together. In the most
straightforward way, we are already looking at a comparison. Further, like
in the case of Pompeii Mask, we are invited to compare the faces to those
on the walls in Pompeii, as well as one face to the other, and this painting
to the next one. What is illuminated in those comparisons, what distance
is, at once, manifested and contravened?

A complementary tool to the comparison in Wittgenstein is that of
'seeing-as', meaning to change the 'aspect' under which something is seen:
to see first-person reports of psychological states ('I am in pain', etc.) not
as descriptions but as expressions; or a mathematical proof not as a
sequence of propositions but as a picture. To say 'this is a very pleasant
pineapple', as another famous example goes, makes no sense if understood purely on the level of syntax, since pleasantness cannot be defined in relation to the pineapple, whose world we do not know. But how might we understand such a sentence if seen as an expression, or an image; what would it look like, if it were a painting?

Aspect-seeing has to do with perspective, or framing, whether discursive
or physical. In Moss's exhibition, the objects that are placed in the room
ask the viewer to move and see in-relation-to. If you back up to look at a
painting, you will be forced to reckon with the aspect of the object: the
black metals frames once approximately proportional to the paintings,
now deconstructed; a grey wooden structure, like a gate or pagoda, which
pushes at the threshold between artefact and architecture. A dark wooden
board darkens the hues in Botanical, and a curiously pale lilac wood beam
brings out the filth and the dynamism in Scandinavian Mistake; a picture
may be seen in one moment as mood or light, and in the next as sign or
structure. These objects have the dual function of making us see a painting
differently through them, and of making us see the paintings together,
under them, as unifying aspects.

Another word for aspect might be attribute, the word Spinoza used to
describe the different modes by which the substance can be approached.
Another word for that, when it comes to painting, might be style, in Moss
resisted or perhaps rather seen as a process, something begun but never
finished. What we witness here is language in action, constituting itself
reflexively between one painting and another, and in the shifting
gradations between space and object.

In a way, modernism was a very human fantasy of wanting to start over.
Get rid of the old junk. Do it right this time, or at least better. Each human
goes through this process, too – call it youth. But sooner or later you face
the fact that junk is not so easily left behind. You look in the mirror and
see your parents, or, in any case, their substance under a new aspect. A
nightmare, you might think, but such is existence. This is not a conservative or fatalistic argument, just a Weltanschauung that's been reality-checked by the philosophy of language. It is also an argument that asks us to be creative, because no sentence is ever complete, no meaning ever clear without some proactive joining and seeing. All linguistic experiences are aesthetic, but not all aesthetic experiences are linguistic – I think we can say that the experience of seeing Magni Moss's paintings is one of them.

Kristian Vistrup Madsen, 2023