Reverence and quiet grandeur: Ariane Vielmetter writes of the floor

The floor is fertile ground for a painting. I don’t necessarily mean the floor as a site of production, I mean the floor as subject. It sits like a skin between the buried and the walking. It carries the scuffs, filth, and dust of attrition and of abandonment. It is a surface that records movement, contact, erosion, and repair, and provides a stage for the small and large dramas of everyday life. The floor is a reference point in our perception of perspective, and its presence in painting is a rather bold acknowledgement that painting, too, extends into the realm of the everyday.

Herakleitos, The Unswept Floor, 2nd century CE, Museo Gregoriano Profano, Vatican

An ancient Roman trompe l’oeil floor mosaic by Herakleitos depicts the unswept remnants of a decadent feast scattered tastefully among the tiles. A light gray shadow falls from each crab claw, fowl bone, artichoke leaf, and fruit pit. A small mouse feasts on a nutshell. Maybe this mosaic was a reminder that all beautiful things are eventually consumed, whether by mouth or by decay. Maybe it was a signifier of wealth, waste, and excess, a precursor to the vanitas still life. Or maybe it was a nod to the burial ceremony of presenting the dead with a feast for their transition into the afterlife. These leftovers are immortalized – they are deliciously vivid stand-ins for their mortal counterparts, forever embedded in the grid of the image. The mosaic is aware of itself as both a floor (to be walked over, used, dirtied) and as a painting (to be looked at, interpreted, and preserved).

Julia Fish, Entry (fragment 2), 1998, Oil on canvas (from

Julia Fish, Entry (fragment 2) Spectre, 1998, Oil on canvas (from

Julia Fish focuses on the floor between thresholds, and paints the tiled surfaces in a way that gets at abstraction through the mechanics of representation. In her series titled “entry”, her subject is the tiled entryway to her home. One set of paintings is derived from the arrangement of the tiles themselves, while the other set is modeled after the original paintings and inverts the original color scheme (what was red is green, what was green is red, etc.). Like a game of telephone, the initial image is transformed through a series of subtle manual translations and reconfigurations. Each image ghosts the preceding one and gives us an equally plausible, but entirely imagined, reality. An analogy is set up between the way the tiles are laid down within a precise space, and the way the paint is organized within the frame of a canvas. Both sit at the threshold between decoration and function, arbitrariness and precision.

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Untitled, 1970, Acrylic and pencil on canvas (scanned from exhibition catalog)

In Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s paintings, her living room and studio floors are depicted with a reverence normally reserved for the celestial realms. Parquet tiles painted in shades of gold, honey, brown and white recede towards a horizon line delineated by the top of the canvas. There is an acknowledgment of the impossibility of completely translating space as it is felt and perceived by the body into the flat surface of the picture plane, but there is also an indulgence in illusory realism and in the specificity of the space depicted. Plimack Mangold lays bare the structure of her stretcher bars, the technical “tricks” of creating depth (occasionally she’ll even paint in her ruler or her masking tape), and the way that a canvas frames and de-contextualizes vision. But after all of this has been revealed, there is still magic in the image.

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Two Exact Rules on a Dark and Light Floor, 1975, Acrylic on canvas (scanned from exhibition catalog)

There is something sweet, maybe even tragic, about paying such careful attention to a thing as dull, pervasive, and lowly as the floor, but it is this tenderness that breathes life into these unpretentious pictures.

Ariane Vielmetter, at the close of 2011

1 Comment

  1. Funny, I read this after sweeping my own kitchen floor. The first floor painting that comes to my mind is Caillebotte’s “floor scrapers”. I really like that Herakleitos mosaic. Thanks for sharing.


  1. Akina Cox and Ariane Vielmetter – Another Self | Notes on Looking - [...] is a rather bold acknowledgement that painting, too, extends into the realm of the everyday.”3 Vielmetter used these words…

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