Exhibition Review: Odd Nerdrum

Posted on May 7, 2012

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Odd Nerdrum. “Nightjumper.”

Odd Nerdrum, the legendary Norwegian painter who is currently showing new work at Forum Gallery, makes large dark oil paintings of figures in the landscape in the scumbled chiaroscuro style of Rembrandt. Although the paintings are said to illustrate some distant post-apocalyptic future, it is a future, like the painter’s style, that seems firmly rooted in the past. In each of the paintings on view, people—draped in cloaks and tunics, wearing leather helmets, and carrying spears, shields and shepherds’ crooks—are depicted in a shadowy, marshy landscape. They gather around small smoky fires or shallow pools of water, and sit on logs, lean against trees and sleep on the ground. Some critics have roundly dismissed this work; the consensus has Nerdrum pegged as the hopelessly ahistorical waste of a prodigious talent.

The problem with such critical reaction to Nerdrum is that it hasn’t offered compelling insight into what exactly makes Nerdrum out of touch. Is it style alone that accounts for a painter’s relevance? What about his subject matter? Using seventeenth century techniques to paint what look to be eleventh century peasants is certainly unusual, but what if these techniques were used to paint a team portrait of the 2012 New York Knicks, or if Jeff Koons took on the Middle Ages, balloon-dog style? Eric Fischl paints the figure, and, if his most recent show at Mary Boone is any indication, he too aspires to a Rembrandt-like treatment of flesh. His famous subjects, though—Steve Martin, Paul Simon—place him unmistakably in this century, and so the comparison runs its course. What of the realists Will Cotton (currently showing at Boone, just a block from Forum), and Damian Loeb? Cotton’s paintings are unimaginable without CGI. Loeb’s are similarly tethered to Andrew Wyeth. Nerdrum emerges as an anomaly; his aesthetic, impossibly, is clear of any influences since the seventeenth century.

A bigger talent than Fischl, Cotton and Loeb, Nerdrum is separated by these and every other contemporary, in the eyes of the art world, primarily by his out of hand rejection of the innovations of Modernism. It is as if he walked through a museum, stopped at Rembrandt, and decreed that nothing from that point forth could be of any use to him.

It is inconceivable that a painter of Nerdrum’s abilities could misunderstand the developments of Modernism, so we must take his dismissal at face value and ask what he achieves in his willing anachronism. Future human life, the paintings tell us, will revolve around an almost ritualistic embrace of the fundamental things—fire, water, clothing and shelter—and actions—hunting, eating, sleeping, procreating, defecating—that allow it to continue. The fact that modern society often takes for granted these basic requirements for survival is the real subject of the work. The logic of Nerdrum’s embrace of a historically anachronistic style is its suggestion that that the future will return us to our past, in which every human action was geared toward survival.

Odd Nerdrum. “Icelandic Bath.”

Take Icelandic Bath, in which a naked woman lies in a shallow thermal pool, her small sack doubling as a pillow as her walking stick and dog rest by her side. Even supine, her pose is formal, full of intent. She has come to this place for this purpose. Perhaps the pool is the source of restorative powers. In Look at My Beauty, three men watch as a naked woman steps into a shallow pool. The lantern and small bowl that sit by the pool’s edge suggest that they too have come (from the hut in the distance? from the cave?) with intent. Each of the figures in the thirteen paintings on view enacts a similarly ritualistic role. The woman in Tourettes holds her hands in a kind of sign language. The boy in Nightjumper leaps above a fire and his sleeping companions. We may not have access to the meaning of such actions, but each suggests a deep commune with the natural world.

Odd Nerdrum. “Look at My Beauty.”

It is precisely through this relationship between his figures and their surroundings that Nerdrum communicates his deep nostalgia. Not only do the paintings illustrate an apocalyptic vision of the future, they illustrate the artist’s preference for such a time over our own. Often interpreted solely for their stylistic rejection of Modernism, they are far more profoundly a disavowal of the entire Modern era. To see the work in this light is to really understand Nerdrum’s struggle for relevance. It is his nostalgia for a simpler past that drives his visions of the future, and it is under these terms that the works should be understood and judged.

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