“When I paint, I struggle, as if in the water. I will try with all means not to drown. Sandpaper, rags, my fingers, the knife—in short—everything but the brush, which is rarely used.” ~Odd Nerdrum
Odd Nerdrum’s most recent series of paintings appears to have arrived at his latest New York gallery show from a far-away place and time. And more than being redolent with personal messages of survival, each seems freighted with allegorical and cautionary tales from the past, about dangers we face in a post-apocalyptic modern world. Pulling back the curtain on the landscape of Nerdrum’s imagination doesn’t reveal images of some Hieronymus Bosch, biblical Armageddon, but rather, suggests dramas of resourcefulness and triumph of the human spirit. Portrayed in the hushed, muted, painterly earth-tones of Rembrandt, Brueghel, Caravaggio, among other Old Masters, each work is carefully conceived as an encrypted narrative waiting to be deciphered; each a study of indomitable will and fierce personal integrity in the face of adversity. arts fine arts magazine
In this new body of work, all made in the last four years, the iconoclastic Norwegian painter continues his exploration of the universal human condition. But here, themes of confinement and escape seem paramount in his mind. Dogged by legal issues and the threat of imprisonment for tax evasion in his native Norway, Nerdrum conjured these thirteen paintings as a meditation on the freedom of movement and the liberated human spirit. Now living and working in Maisons-Laffitte, France, near Paris, his themes of alienation, flight, rebirth and reconstruction all seem bathed in a subtle new light. For Nerdrum, the Old Masters of Europe’s North Country, succeeded in capturing the sun’s oblique rays, filtered through dusty windows and reflected off walls of private chambers, to illuminate and animate their subjects.
But even as a studio painter, Nerdrum’s work is never captive to those four walls, as he continues to shape a world of his own imagining. Civilization as we know it is stripped away—obscured by darkness, lying in ruins in the distance or veiled in layers of clouds. The essential, unifying element in his work continues to be the human experience, and the vulnerabilities that result from confrontations on that journey.
In You See We Are Blind, three women are perched in a primeval setting, each armed with a frail staff for assistance, perhaps as they await an unlikely rescue. Two are in conversation; the third woman separate from the others, is deep in thought, downturned corners of her mouth revealing an undefined sadness. Pathos and isolation—even (possibly, especially)in one another’s company—are motifs here. Emotional rescue, as well as the need for physical safety in a bleak, deserted landscape, are also recurrent themes, weaving their way through this and other Nerdrum works.
The Forum show includes two self-portraits, the artist staring plaintively into the space just beyond his world, in both. Nerdrum’s decades-long exercise in self-revelation continues as in these works, he appears to be establishing his role as scribe and prophet for the uninitiated and uninformed. Timeless and enigmatic, the artist’s Baroque stylistic links to Rembrandt are reaffirmed in his use of rich browns, chiaroscuro highlights and luminous flesh tones. Each portrait appears to address us from the past, directing our attention to cautionary tales of life in a post-Apocalyptic world and to the themes of stewardship and civility, that just might offer redemption. In Arcadia, presents the artist-as-dreamer, cloaked (or more accurately, shrouded), emerging from a darkened forest into the foreground, right hand poised and animated. Might we be a welcome visitor from the present, offering a message of hope? In another, Self portrait with Child’s Skull, the artist-as-scribe carefully observes and records our actions—a clever, conspiratorial interplay between viewer and viewed, in which we become ensnared in his humanistic narrative. The presence of the child’s skull in the work serves as a clear reminder of death’s unrelenting presence in all of our lives and the power of affirmation on the path to self-awareness.
Some might find the themes under development in Nerdrum’s paintings self-evident and trite. And for the artist, that just might be the point. In the early 1970s, he would emerge from among the group of young painters to become one of the leading figures to revolt against the dogma of Modernism. In 1999, Odd Nerdrum declared himself a kitsch-painter, identifying with the notion of cheap or shoddy artistic motifs, rather than with those of the rarified contemporary art world. Initially, his declaration was thought a joke. But later, with the publication of articles and books on the subject, Nerdrum’s position, valuing a naturalistic view of the world, where differing ideologies, dogmas, and social perspectives can successfully co-exist, is considered an implied criticism of contemporary art.
In his 2001 book on Nerdrum, Richard Vine writes, “The anxious dialectic between self and world, self and group, will go on, [his] images attest, for as long as the human race persists. The sea, that enduring metaphor for eternity and the fathomless unconscious, laps at many of his scenes. … Thus on the liminal shore between land and sea, time and eternity, consciousness and unconsciousness, the wanderers pause to confront the realm from which all life emerged. … The implicit sexuality of their quest, made manifest in those pictures where the actors are pregnant, highlights the aloneness one can feel even in the most passionate encounters, even at the climactic moment of putative fusion.”
Rather than being other-worldly, as some critics have noted, these most recent paintings are clearly ‘of the earth.’ The action is grounded in landscape, and life appears to spring from the soil, playing out dramatically in ambiguously threatening scenes or, in one case, hover ing with gravity-defying grace, above terra firma. In Night Jumper, four figures sleep around a fire in an inhospitable world, while another appears above them, magically suspended in mid-air, as if the fire has propelled him upward. The horizon’s curvature divides the action and, therefore, the dual message of this painting: hope and despair; renewal and resignation. The two sleeping female figures are pregnant, offering unfulfilled promise for the future; the two males are turned away, unaware of the scene unfolding. Defying gravity—as if rising from the flames—the ‘night jumper’ takes action to enter a world of his own, separating himself from the indifference below. Here, a symbol of resurrection or spiritual awakening captures the essence of Nerdrum’s work: a celebration of life and human experience in the face of adversity, universal spiritual values that he believes remain true over time.
Certain pieces in the show are more effective than others, in my opinion. Paintings like Mother and Daughter and Birds were showpieces for Nerdrum’s painterly technique and were, I am certain, redolent with symbolic meaning. However, they did not seem to elevate or progress the dialogue between the painter and viewer in ways that could be accessed, without the benefit of clarifying text or explanation. Titles are ambiguous and these figurative portrayals have the same hollow-eyed, bruised look of so many of his works, without the visual cues that would progress movement beyond the sense of, once again, being confronted by survivors in yet another of Nerdrum’s battered wastelands.
Egg Snatchers had been moved temporarily to the gallery booth at the Armory Show, replaced by a small photograph of the piece. Here too, the actual work may have spoken volumes. But, without explanation, the viewer is left to wonder about this large painting—and in it, Nerdrum’s virtuosic use of metaphor and symbolism. The timeless nature of his figurative renderings, completed in his layered, mannerist style, are both ancient and modern at the same time. But, where is the narrative taking us? Are we in the land of the sacred or the profane…or both? If this is an auto-reflexive work, what is the message; if this is referential, what is to be learned?
A work with strong appeal is one that, as it turns out, may have a more personal meaning to the artist than to others. Tourettes pictures a woman standing against a tree in a dimly-lit forest while behind her, at a distance, a group of figures gathers in a circle and a fire glows threateningly. Gazing toward the viewer, the woman conveys a message with her eloquent, poised hands. Nerdrum shares a secret with the world through this enigmatically-named painting—that he, in fact, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. Characterized by multiple tics and compulsive utterances, this neurological condition can often be embarrassing in public and debilitating throughout one’s life. The artist has struggled to manage the symptoms, most effectively with meditation. His experience with this disease has helped him explore from within and focus on what is essential to the human experience. The figure of Tourettes stands confidently in a glade. Far from the dangers around her, she is signing in the Buddhist tradition, the Akash mudra—thumb and middle finger about to touch—a gesture to help center energy, nourishing any part of the mind or body that is lacking. For Odd Nerdrum, whose thematic work deals so profoundly with the survival and well-being of humankind, this painting, particularly, is about his own journey toward healing.
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
An exhibition of 13 recent paintings by world-renowned artist Odd Nerdrum will be on view at Forum Gallery, 730 5th Avenue, New York City, from March 8 through May 5, 2012. The Forum Gallery exhibition is presented in cooperation with The Nerdrum Institute.