The art of spinning an irregular thread

By Ditte Vilstrup Holm 2012. Translation Dan Marmorstein.

The wall-frieze handprint, Labyrint [Labyrinth] (2009) delineates, with slender luminous lines, a rhythm that settles over the textile’s fluctuating dark field. It is shimmering in nuances, against the backing fields of dark turquoise and warm orange and it appears fragile, albeit simultaneously stringent and precise. The inspiration for Labyrint stems from a hand-woven French shawl originating from the 1920s. Taking her point of departure in a sample of the shawl’s labyrinthine pattern, Louise Sass has intensified the pattern’s stringency in a plotted rendering made on graph paper, where each and every turn in the labyrinth’s progression has been scrupulously notated with precise measurements – but this is only a point of origin. In the course of the process, the labyrinth takes on its own life, unfurling itself independently as form and structure – controlled by Sass, of course, but also by the possibilities for which the labyrinth itself has opened up.

Labyrint can be seen as a metaphor for the artistic process that persistently delineates a labyrinth of detours and dead ends – as a complicated pattern spread out across a surface that slowly takes shape. We know that Ariadne's Thread led the prince, Theseus, out of the labyrinth on Crete after he had killed the monster, Minotaur. We speak about a guiding wire, about finding our way through life’s labyrinth, confronting our inner demons and arriving safely home again. However, in the artistic process, the labyrinth is being drawn at the very same time that it finds its own way. Colors and compositions are tested out; motives are put in play. The outcome cannot be determined in advance. It will not be revealed until the process has been set into motion.

When it comes to textile printing, the final result is determined by equal measures of intuition, chemistry and experience with artisanship. The textile is dyed with water-soluble transparent dyestuff. The thread gives rise to a particular texture and conditions the color’s reproduction in the fabric. Not everything can be accomplished, but certain limits can be challenged during the process; accordingly, the process itself can come to be delineated in the finished work. For Labyrint, Louise Sass drew up the pattern on paper, scanned it in, enlarged it and exposed it onto film and subsequently printed it, using the serigraphic technique, onto cotton. She retained the process’s imprint in the numerical figures she had originally jotted down for purposes of capturing the labyrinth’s rhythm across the surface. In this way, Labyrint displays not only a final form but also the process that served to construct it.

Pearls on a string

What is characteristic of Louise Sass’s oeuvre is that the process constitutes an essential aspect of the artistic expression, although it is not always the case that the process is folded directly into the motive, as it is in Labyrint. More typically, you see the artistic development process reflected in the way she deals with a visual theme: different combinations are unfolded in series of works revolving around one and the same theme. You can also see it in the way she switches back and forth between painting and textile printing in order to test out the motives’ expressive potentials and, moreover, in the way she presents a “keyboard” of colors as the basis for variations in a series of works.

From 2000 until the present day, Louise Sass has, for example, been working with a series of dot-compositions. In different variations of density, dispersal and coloristic interplay, she has been experimenting with this “motive” in her paintings, lithographs and textile prints. The inspiration for the motive came to her during her sojourn in Ravenna, Venice and Rome, where she made a careful study of glass mosaics and baroque architecture. The mosaics’ coloristic force and capacity to reflect light caught her interest and this marked the starting signal for a series of works – 10 malerier på papir [10 Paintings on Paper] (2000-2002) – presenting color dots that have been organized as networks.

In reciprocal coloristic interaction, and having been built up of layer upon layer of network-linked color dots, the dots glow like pearls on a string. They epitomize and reflect the light effects from the mosaic patterns, while the interplay between the network’s harmonized regularity and the coloristic variation simultaneously points back toward the dynamic layout in baroque architecture, which also caught Louise Sass’s attention on her trip to Italy: for example, the manner in which the paintings engender a sense of ongoing spatial displacements when the dots are superimposed on top of each other in countless layers. But there is also a decidedly contemporary touch in the paintings, namely their unfinished edges, where the network’s threads are unraveled and displacements in the motive’s spontaneously regular rhythmics can clearly be spotted.

In dialogue with modern painting

The modern expression becomes amplified in other variations on the dot-motive that Louise Sass subsequently developed further in a series of paintings created in 2003-2004. Here, the color dots are larger, the structure is looser and the paint has been allowed to drip to an even greater extent than it had before. At the same time, the composition is airier, for even though the pieces are still built up of layers, it’s easier here to get a sense of just how many layers there are and it’s easier to see through to the white base of the paper.

Louise Sass presents an even more simplified expression of the “motive” in a series of lithographs from 2007, where only three or four layers of dots gathered together come to form the finished manifestation. But here, also, she consistently follows the trail from the previous works, both by making use of the very same hues in several of the color dots, but now without any cords to hold them in place, on the line, and by retaining overlappings between the dots as part and parcel of the motive’s aesthetic expression, albeit here in only three or four layers. The art of limitation comes to be a manifestation of the technique’s inherent possibilities but also an experiment focused on the motive’s variational potentials.

In these variations on a visual theme, Louise Sass manages to disclose not only an affinity for the mosaic art’s play of light but also an affinity with modern painting. As a matter of fact, her entire production is, to a pronounced degree, engaged in dialogue with modern abstract painting, where form and color become independent bearers of the aesthetic expression. This is due especially to the advances within painting that have carried it away from being essentially narrating to being essentially self-examining, visually, but also to developments in textile art, where process and experiment are being given the chance to take up space and where the works are not necessarily contrived with a utilitarian value in mind beforehand but constitute artworks in their own right.


Both Louise Sass’s serial adaptation of motives and her one-off pieces bespeak a kinship with modern painting. Sass herself cites her interest in the association of French artists, BMPT, who were active as a group in the 1960s, and whose most celebrated member, Daniel Buren, exclusively created works with vertical stripes after a standard measure. The other members, for their parts, respectively painted circles (Olivier Mosset), dots (Niele Toroni) and horizontal stripes (Michel Parmentier). The BMPT group was the manifestation of a radical minimalism and even more particularly of a conceptual approach to art. Accordingly, their work is different from Louise Sass’s, although the aesthetic efficacy in taking one’s mark in very simple visual grips can certainly be seen in Sass's work. It’s only that she allows intuition, coloristic nuances and a more experimental rhythmic form into her works.

It is not so much the method's consistency that is important to Louise Sass as it is the aesthetic energy in the finished work, as can be seen, for example, with her site-specific decoration of the retirement housing complex, Serafen, in Stockholm. As the starting point for the decoration, Louise Sass developed a keyboard-like register of colors that was envisioned as figuring into the in situ work’s two large compositions. Like a keyboard, it makes its appearance, quite straightforwardly, as a series of colored girders placed alongside one another. However, this is only a point of departure for the actual works: a wall frieze and a stage curtain, both of which constitute intuitive and dynamic interpretations of this keyboard.

The wall-frieze, Panorama (2004) allows the colors to enter into a strongly contrasting composition, where the individual colors are displayed right up against each other in vertical stripes of variable thickness and density. The stage curtain, Farveklaviatur [Color Keyboard] (2004), on the other hand, gives rise to a decidedly more tranquil sense of movement transpiring over a shimmering blue background, where different stripes of contrasting colors establish periodic and almost rhythmic pauses in the blue background surface. These two compositions offer testimony about how mutually divergent expressions can be generated from one simplified starting point. Louise Sass, moreover, created three additional compositions, Panorama # 1, # 2, # 3 (2004) on the basis of the aforementioned site-specific decoration project: the working notion here was to test out what aesthetic effect Panorama could elicit if it were elongated in its height rather than in its length. The three resulting compositions, in this way, constitute cross-sections of Panorama, expanded to the more radical height of three meters.

One-off pieces and series

One-off works and the serial are, as can be seen in the particular example of the decoration for the retirement housing complex, Serafen, closely conjoined in Louise Sass's work. The one-off works are, indeed, manifestations of an adaptation process that takes its mark in the repetition – albeit with displacements – of a specific starting point. This can be said about both her earlier and her most recent works. Labyrint, for example, embodies and displays a process of working with repetition and displacement in the surface’s transformation and the same can be said about two other earlier works which, stylistically speaking, call Labyrint to mind with their fine, detailed lines, which serve to engender a complex and almost chaotic but simultaneously melodically undulating composition that transpires across the surface.

In Undervejs # 2 [En Route # 2] (1997), the point of departure is a specific structure of luminous line segments that have been etched again and again – or maybe rather stamped – down into the black habotai-silk base, in displaced layers and running every which way. The dark ground has, by this means, become brighter, with fainter and, by turns, sharper points, for when the dark lines are subsequently printed on the tracks, the print takes on the status of being a fulcrum between spatial illusion and apparent motion on the surface. The result is an almost matted structure that you sense as rolling, in an undulating fashion, over the surface. What we have here is, once again, an aesthetic labyrinth, which has come to reveal itself in the course of the process.

This is not really the case, though, when we consider one more example of how variations on a repetition can give rise to a unique expression: Shinjuku (1995), which is represented in this book in two of its versions, Shinjuku, 349 green (1995) and Shinjuku, 359 brown (1995). This work, in many respects, is somewhat extraordinary in Louise Sass’s output because it, as one of the only such pieces, has been created with a view to its functional use, namely as curtain fabric, and has been produced in eight different colors in a more controlled process than what we see in Sass’s artistic works.

Intermediate spaces

The pattern for Shinjuku, 349 green, and Shinjuku, 359 brown constitutes an interpretation of the Tokyo district, Shinjuku’s, skyscrapers. Displacements and gaps in the high-rise buildings’ rows of windows engender a dynamic pattern of lines and a distinctive spatiality on the surface: qualities that are not unlike the Baroque’s vivacious architecture but here in a more contemporary metropolitan form. This appeals naturally to Louise Sass's knack for coupling the Baroque’s spirited rhythmics with modernism’s simple elegance and certainly, a more minimalist albeit dynamic space-structure was one of the things that absorbed Louise Sass’s avid interest during her stay in Japan.

The classic building- and landscape-architecture in Japan is characterized by dramatically staged spaces, where each and every element has its precise place and where, when it comes to both the body and the gaze, the person’s interactions are instructed in a careful and precise way. At the same time, however, there’s a dynamic flexibility in Japanese architecture, seeing as the difference between outside and inside can potentially be rescinded by allowing walls to be pushed aside, with the upshot that an otherwise screened-off room can merge with the garden outside. The boundary or the intermediate space between inside and outside becomes, in this way, a dynamic motor for visual and spatial transformations of the architecture’s space.

You can see how intermediate space’s importance as a rhythmic spatial component has inspired Louise Sass in her work, Sort/hvid [Black/White] (1998). Differences in the ink-stripes’ density and small displacements in the rhythm between black and white engender a complex spatiality allocated over the surface, a sense of life, having its source in what otherwise might have been a rather monotonous structure. The work’s rhythm looks ahead toward one of Louise Sass’s most recent works, Perlemor [Mother of Pearl] (2011), where the play between color and intermediate space plays a role in bringing about a dynamic rhythmics transpiring along the continuous length of fabric.

Displacements and overlappings

In 2008, Louise Sass switched to a new working technique. Rather than blending the translucent textile dyes prior to applying them to the fabric, she moved over to exclusively using pure colors, which are printed onto the fabric in overlapping layers – accordingly called “overprinting”. The idea of doing this is to bring about a color blending method that happens directly on the textile, where the process and the color’s movement can be followed on the fabric, while the color’s saturated tone gets built up. The effect of dyeing fabric in several stages simultaneously entails that intense and more complex color effects turn up on the surface, as can be seen in the first examples that made use of this technique, namely, Uden titel # 1-5 [Untitled # 1-5] (2008). Here, the process is also disclosed in the field’s edges, where colors from different layers are combined impressively with one another. A different kind of coloristic complexity arises when colors from adjoining fields bleed into each other – also known as iris printing – and combine, with effects that show up first when the fabric is rinsed.

This is a technique that appeals to Louise Sass’s affection for color. It also gives rise to a sense about the importance of the interaction between overlappings and displacements in intermediate space – which she learned to appreciate during her sojourn in Japan. She has subsequently managed to refine and systematize this new technique, especially with Farvestudie i 4 farver [Color Study in 4 Colors] (2008), where she blends the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue in order to obtain different tones of gray, which are compared with gray tones created by adding a touch of black to the individual colors. This study was followed up with a larger Farveskala RGB + sort [Color Scale RGB + black] (2010), where the three primary colors, in moderate concentrations, were explored in dialogue with black, in seven varying degrees of brightness. The result is a nuanced array of variations in colors and gray tones.

Textile printing, as has been mentioned, is a matter of equal parts intuition, chemistry and experience with the practice. The systematic investigation of a color spectrum consequently constitutes a solid experiential foundation for more independent and experimental artistic works. For Louise Sass, color-analyses form the bases for a series of new compositions based on the interaction between pure colored fields and, in certain instances, variations of black: Falling Down a Mountain (2010), Riding in the Dark (2010) and Perlemor [Mother of Pearl] (2011).

A landscape of irregular fields

The word “baroque” stems from the Portuguese word, “barocco”, which signifies “irregular or imperfect pearl”. The baroque art got its name, in fact, because it failed to live up to the classical ideals about the straight and well-balanced art. The baroque unsettled, distorted and twisted art’s forms. Today, we have learned to appreciate the irregular for its dynamism, its vitality and the surprising aesthetic effects it elicits; it is precisely these qualities that also characterize Louise Sass’s latest works which, as their titles emphasize, display dynamic and even somewhat mysterious landscapes that are blurred and only adumbrate their nature.

Falling Down a Mountain and Riding in the Dark are both built up of dense color fields that bleed into one another while fundamentally retaining their tones’ clear expression, constructed as they are of layer upon layer of pure primary colors. They are like saturated landscapes that surround and encompass us with powerfully evocative surfaces. As such, the works conjoin an intensely visual impact with a tactile sensation of being surrounded by color. This is further underscored by the fact that one senses a covering in the layers’ many tints and shades, as if the clear light were gradually being covered over by darker and darker colors or, vice versa, as if this clear light were slowly in the process of breaking through the dark layers.

Perlemor, on the other hand, has been more loosely composed. Here, the color fields follow like steps in a scale that, at first, tentatively, and then, insistently, build up a rhythm, a melody, transpiring along the fabric’s length. Mother of pearl (also know as “nacre”) is the material that is formed on the inside of the shell of a pearl oyster, a freshwater pearl mussel or an abalone mollusk: a sediment deposited by pearl – a “spillover” that has, you might say, rubbed off from the Baroque’s irregular pearl. But it is also a separate universe, a house, a milieu, a landscape, that iridesces in the most lucid colors, not like pearls on a string, but like elements in a symphony of tints and shades that works dynamically with density, contrast, and gradients.

Postcard from Torcello

Perlemor’s subtitle was originally “a baroque conversation” – and this is, of course, more or less an impossibility, for the word “baroque” is, like its stylistic reference, a nonsensical term, and a conversation involving nonsense cannot, as a rule, have good prospects of amounting to anything. But herein lies also the art of spinning an irregular thread, since it is not really the point about art that we’ve got to find a rational meaning but, on the contrary, that we are to experience aesthetic life in the visual dynamics that an artwork can establish.

For Louise Sass, what it’s all about is working, at one and the same time, with complexity and simplification, with space and surface, with rhythm and displacement. It’s all about dealing with a theme, testing out its possibilities in various expressions and media and letting the theme spawn individual unique works. Or conversely, about establishing a rhythm between regularity and variation, plainness and complexity, as manifest in an individual work’s play with variation and structure. Color and space are always in mind, as is the process that guides the artistic thread while simultaneously delineating the labyrinth and finding its way through it.

Recently, Louise Sass started to work on a new series of pieces with the collective title, “Postcards", which has been realized thus far in the work, På vej til Torcello [On the way to Torcello] (2010). A photograph served as the point of origin for a digital cutting and finished adaptation parallel to what Sass was doing in her processual work with Labyrint. The façade of the building that constitutes the motif for the piece has been streamlined and simplified so that its time- and place- specificity has given way to a rhythmic sequence unfolding across the facade. We might be standing outside the labyrinth here but we are still in full swing following its next move, down along the side, around the corner, into the shadow, out into the light …

translated byDan A. Marmorstein