Exhibition Review: Per Kirkeby

Posted on October 16, 2011


Per Kirkeby. "Untitled." 2011. Tempera on canvas.

The seven landscapes of Danish artist Per Kirkeby, currently on view at Michael Werner Gallery, are the work of a painter for whom the goodness of the natural world is not taken for granted. Their explicit acknowledgement of the concurrence of beauty and pain in nature is what distinguishes them from the work of others. Indeed, nature as Kirkeby understands it is a different beast from the sun-drenched paradise of the Fauves and the idealized Edens of the Hudson River School. Helpfully, Kirkeby acknowledges this perspective, writing in the exhibition’s catalogue essay, “Landscapes are about beauty and death. The only way you can define beauty . . . is to know that death is hiding behind it.” Through this lens the artist has observed and understood the natural world. In painting it as such, he has achieved a formal beauty that derives its power from its truthfulness.

Pictorially speaking, the paintings owe their greatest debt to Monet. Both the imagery—up-close views of round and oblong forms floating in and reflected on a watery surface—and the execution—seductive layering of pigment-loaded brushstrokes scrubbed over thinner washes of color—borrow unabashedly from Monet’s water lilies. Kirkeby’s subject, however, has its roots in Van Gogh, a painter for whom the power of the landscape lay in the knowledge that its victory over death was a temporary one.

Many painters, of course, have included death in their depictions of the natural world. From bloody paw-prints in Courbet’s “Hunter on Horseback,” to the bleached cattle skulls of Georgia O’Keefe, death in landscape painting has primarily been alluded to in symbols. Death is present in these paintings in the form of an object. Like any object, however, they can be imagined right out of the painting. Without the paw-prints, Courbet’s hunter could be a rider on any errand, just as O’Keefe’s paintings would remain landscapes (though anemic ones) without their symbols of mortality. For Kirkeby, however, death is part of the subject of the landscape. Present in every brushstroke, the idea of death can no more be removed from the paintings than it can from the world we experience every day.

Per Kirkeby. Installation at Michael Werner. 2011.

So how do Kirkeby’s paintings acknowledge the cruelty of the natural world without resorting to symbolism? For one, his palette is just disconcerting enough to suggest that all is not well in the garden. The paintings are dominated by pale greys, blues and greens, with interruptions of sickly yellows and reds that alarm in their chromatic discord, like jellyfish. The effect is both jarring and, unfailingly, “right.” They contain the remarkable color sense of Veronese, where burnished greens improbably hold entire ensembles in balance. And the forms built from such color? Large shaggy masses of what could be trees, coral, lily pads or floating scum, each comprised of spiky brushwork that radiates out from the center, like a porcupine’s or sea urchin’s quills. The suggestion is that the personal territory of each form must be constantly guarded against the threat of encroachment from its neighbors.

Per Kirkeby. Installation at Michael Werner. 2011.

One might ask where beauty lies in such a world. The answer is present in the paintings themselves. The aesthetic argument for the function of art as it relates to nature, put forth by John Berger in his 1985 essay, “The White Bird,” is one for which Kirkeby’s paintings would make fitting illustrations. In the essay, Berger writes with characteristic insight and clarity of art’s function in making permanent the momentary affirmation offered by encounters with beauty. For Berger, like Kirkeby, the presence of beauty in the natural world is always understood in the larger context of pain. Berger writes:

“Urban living has always tended to produce a sentimental view of nature. Nature is thought of as a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom. Peasants, sailors, nomads have known better. Nature is energy and struggle. It is what exists without any promise. If it can be thought of by man as an arena, a setting, it has to be thought of as one which lends itself as much to evil as to good. Its energy is fearsomely indifferent. The first necessity of life is shelter. Shelter against nature. The first prayer is for protection. The first sign of life is pain. If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose is a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly with signs, never by the evidence of what happens.

It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter is by its nature sudden and unpredictable. The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context. Reflect upon more everyday examples. However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.”

Developing the idea to include what these encounters with beauty offer us—namely the hope “that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe”—Berger connects our impulse to make art to a desire to make hope longer lasting. “Art,” he writes, “supposes that beauty is not an exception—is not in despite of—but is the basis for an order.” The power of Kirkeby’s paintings, unmistakable in a face-to-face experience of them, is best understood in this aesthetic context. Offering a lasting picture of beauty as it is encountered in its relation to death, the paintings remind us of the degree to which these forces are intertwined.