Stones Talk
In a short story called Popular Mechanics, in his collection WhatWeTaIkAboutWhen We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver describes a momentous, heart-breaking trauma in less than 500 words, in which a man and woman, in the last violent moments of a doomed relationship, take their final shots at one another and physically wrestle for the custody of their baby. In the first moment, as "the snow was melting into dirty water", she says to him, "I'm glad you're leaving. I'm glad you're leaving". In the confusion of the last moment she "felt the baby going from her"; "her hands came loose"; "she grabbed for the baby's other arm' ; "he would not let go' ; "he felt the baby slipping out of his hands" and "he pulled back very hard".We are not told whether this last very hard pull secured the baby. Carver simply says, "In this manner, the issue was decided".

Despite appearances, heartache calls for blankness. Comforting someone in distress we entreat them, "tell me all about it" only to find that there are no words or that the investigation into the causes of the pain is a distraction. "Tell me all about it" is a request that shows kindness but only on the condition that the pain is made present to the other in a report. It is already a demand that the heartache be dealt with and put away. "Tell me all about it" is a form of social control that calls the sufferer back into the fold. Blankness, by contrast, is pure comfort.

Detailed descriptions are too close to acts of surveillance (forms of supervision, control, regulation, administration, mastery, colonisation, spying, theft, domination and suppression). Blankness is the cure for the power privilege and pleasure of the detective and the peeping Tom. Studying and scrutinising or cross-examining the other puts knowledge and truth before all that matters. Blankness backs off. In preference to urgently extracting information, blankness is good company.There is a difference between attentiveness and interrogation that blankness knows all about.This is the sort of blankness in Mari Sunna's paintings.The blankness of the faces, especially, is nothing short of an embrace.

When Sunna paints, she invariably paints people but she never paints portraits. She paints faces. Instead of the trivia of personality or the accuracy of likeness, Sunna paints featureless faces or faces containing thin traces of anonymous eyes with, perhaps, a perfunctory mouth.

Mostly, though, the faces in Sunna's paintings are simply blank.They are not effaced or denied, though, and this is hinted at by the fact that their blankness is not an emptiness or absence, it is creamy and solid.The figure (that is to say, the person) is not erased, masked or faded; it is fully present. Sunna's paints these people blankly so as to make no demands on them to identify themselves, to reveal themselves, to be present for us.

All that is missing from Sunna's blank faces are the details, which are the fetishes of character and the facts of identification. Everything else is there, in the disc of colour. Everything, that is, that our faces are adept at concealing and cancelling.Whatever fills these plain discs, then, leaves them raw, charged and absolutely alien. They are as remote as the moon or as mute as a stone, not because they are cold and distant, but because they are someone else.

Sunna's paintings connote an otherness that dispenses with the drama of exoticism. Her soft, empty faces have none of the bizarre features at a Freak Show or the monstrous projections of prejudice. Occasionally, grotesquely makes an appearance in these paintings but it is never titillating, only tender and sparing. Sharing the sensitivities of Martin Buber's ethical conception of the relationship between I and Thou, recognising the irreducible alterity of the other as the basis for care, Sunna's featureless characters always keep something to themselves. An impenetrable core of privacy is protected by Sunna's paintings, acknowledging a surplus beyond the onlooker's grasp that is the other's internal life. It is through their anonymity that these faces of strangers bridge the gap between the individual and the universal.To put it abstractly, the I is a Thou to a Thou who is also an I. Our reluctance to force the Thou to conform to our own norms is a measure of our ethical bearing. Every face painted by Sunna is a picture of a Thou.

In Renaissance portraits of women the profile was very common because of social restrictions about the traffic of the gaze between the sexes. The profile was the perfect screen on which male onlookers could project their masculinising desire with minimal disruption. It was also a mechanism that guaranteed that the women were not themselves engaged in the erotic and powerful exercise of looking. Manet's Olympia, of course, reversed the polarity of the gaze by having his courtesan look back with an uninviting, dull stare.This is another reading of the blank face and it is aggressive in its resistance to proper, polite behaviour. Sunna's blank faces get behind the defensive mask of refusal. Profiles and the backs of heads are just as common in Sunna's paintings as the full face because these individuals are always already beyond the onlooker by being Thou. They are, in this sense, always turning away from us, even when they look us straight in the eye.

When, as an up and coming physician, Freud gave a paper introducing his theory of the aetiology of hysteria, the analogy with archaeology was usefully to hand. On discovering a ruin, he said, we can content ourselves with inspecting what lies about on the surface and then proceed on our journey, or we can prepare by bringing along picks, shovels and spades and clear away the visible remains to discover what is buried. Only then can the fragments of columns be filled out into a lost temple. In a victorious flourish, Freud crowned his argument that buried traumas are the key to understanding and treating neuroses with an archaeologically inspired exclamation, appropriately delivered in Latin. Saxa loquuntur! Stones talk.

Handing the responsibility of discovery to the observer - in a gesture that anticipates something of Barthes' death of the author - Freud learns to become a subtle reader of all manner of blankness. Although Freud is an evangelist of the talking cure, he is nonetheless acutely aware that the invitation to "tell me all about it" is a fraught injunction. In terms of painting, the difference is between two approaches to narrative.Victorian painting turned to narrative as a technology of control, stabilising the fragments of the painting to form coherent moralistic messages, and thus stabilising society through the moralistic function of art. There is, however, another approach to narrative, one that is much closer to the talking cure than the intruding request to "tell me all about it". Open narrative is the way we speculate and reach out to the world and to others; its meaning, as Barthes explained, is an embrace with a weak grip. Narrative, in this conception, is the technology of care.

Anxiously guessing about the physical and psychological situations of the blank figures in Sunna's pictures, the paintings seem to turn away from every attempt to fix them or tie them down.There is no struggle, just a series of short-lived embraces.And then it strikes me that my failure to capture the paintings is what gives them their ethical dimension, and what compels me to return to them again and again. I am ready to begin my reflections for the catalogue. But of course, as soon as I do this I know that the paintings will turn away from me again.These are the things we do when we talk about love.

Dave Beech, Senior Lecturer, Camberwell College of Arts