DARK COSMOPOLITISM: A Scandinavian Sampler
by Jarrett Earnest
North by New York: New Nordic Art
SCANDINAVIA HOUSE: THE NORDIC CENTER IN AMERICA
APRIL 14 – AUGUST 19, 2011
You’ve been sitting there staring at me only, and your eyes have drawn out of me all these thoughts which were lying in me like silk in a cocoon—thoughts—bad thoughts maybe—let me think.
—August Strindberg, The Stronger
The curators of the exhibition North by New York: New Nordic Art (April 14 – August 19, 2011) have been faced with the problem of how to organize an exhibition around regional identity in the age of globalism? Curators Robert Storr and Francesca Pietropaolo argue that the answer lies in trying to circumvent the monolithic sameness of the global contemporary art fair in search of the cosmopolitan—the plural specificity of Scandinavian life. North by New York celebrates the centennial of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which introduced Americans to over 40 artists 100 years ago in its Scandinavian Art Exhibition, including Edvard Munch, Carl Larsson, and Anders Zorn.
In an effort to dispel any lingering visions of macho Aryan Vikings, the present exhibition’s 15 artists present ethnically disparate work, from photographs of young women painted as Peking Opera singers, to videos of men screaming an apology to the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Scandinavia includes Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark, a grouping that presents on a smaller scale the dynamics of global citizenship. Being “Scandinavian” is founded upon an acknowledged plurality—an awareness of the cultural differences and diversity between each region and country; a Scandinavian citizen is by definition a citizen among citizens of a country among countries—moving toward a model of cosmopolitan consciousness.
There is a mix of several generations that range from the renowned Danish painter Per Kirkeby’s fecund abstractions to younger artists just coming of age. Furthermore, artists like Cecilia Edefalk attempt to situate their project within a larger cultural and historical lineage, as in her video “Histories for the Future” (2008–2011) in which terse typewritten dialogue flashes across a white monitor mounted on the wall. The floating words of emerald green, rust, and gray, are a humor-laced melancholic conversation between the artist and August Strindberg from beyond the grave, in which he instructs her to make peculiar ethereal paintings with an absurd restraint worthy of the great dramatist. Nearby is her painting “Ande August” (2008), which visualizes the ghostly interlocutor through thin tatters of gray and white brushwork, evoking Strindberg’s own atmospheric visionary landscape paintings.
While the exhibition presents a hardy mix of photography and video, it is the paintings that stand out. In the Isreali born Danish artist Tal R’s large oil painting “People from Clock” (2009) one finds the fullest embodiment of the exhibition’s underlying anxiety. His large work colorfully re-imagines Danish-American muckraker and social activist Jacob Riis’s photograph “Bandit’s Roost” (1888), which shows criminals lining an alley of what was considered the most dangerous area of late 19th century New York. Its paint coagulates into solid patches of rich and subtly putrid colors. The excessive gloppiness of the forms meet startlingly and suddenly with harsh dry strokes barely covering the white expanse of the canvas. The “Bandit’s Roost” photograph is totally destabilized; the painting refusing to resolve itself into an image, remains perched upon the precarious present of its surface. Far from the festivities it seems to promise, R’s colorful painting is like a party mask put on a sun-bleached skull, or as one of Strindberg’s character’s would put it, over “the great abyss of the human heart.”
Such a denial of narrative or emotional resolution in the face of impending doom marks even the more straightforwardly representational works. For example, in the youngest artist in the show Sara-Vide Ericson’s trio of paintings, two enigmatic “details” flank a large central work showing two people—one’s hands wrapping around the neck of the other, who lays in the foreground surrounded on all sides by an acidic field of green. The smaller paintings that act as its satellites are more interesting; one is a pair of hands smeared with blackness, palms toward the viewer as though they were one’s own, in front of a dingy pale sky. The other is a face seen from an extremely low angle, neck extended against the same ashen background. The relationship between these three, and their composition, seems to owe much to the lineage of wood cuts and comic books, taking up the endless psychological nuance that can be explored through sequencing.
Gunnel Wåhlstrand’s large format ink-wash drawing is a stark delight in its soft silvery glow, more closely aligned with the tradition of marvelous children’s book illustration than the blurred photo-aesthetics of Gerhard Richter. In “The Desk” (2004) an impeccably dressed and well-groomed boy reads seated at his orderly Swedish modern desk. In details like a toy airplane posed in lift-off between two female portraits, and gently slumping rows of books, there is all the pregnant strangeness of Balthus and the sweet darkness of Hans Christian Andersen.
Attempts at the comedic or ironic largely fall flat, as in Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Scandinavian Pain” (2006), a performance represented through stills of a neon sign proclaiming the title phrase on top of a secluded cabin. Far from making laughable the reputation of Scandinavian seriousness, it largely re-inscribes it. Despite attempts to move beyond the stereotypes of the brooding North, crystalized in figures like Søren Kierkegaard or Ingmar Bergman, the works in this exhibition are defined by an extreme uncertainty about the ongoing realities facing our world, seen through the cool, dark lens of Scandinavian psychology. As Karl Jaspers, that great theorist of cosmopolitanism, once wrote, “Only the unthinking can build their lives on the premise that catastrophe will not occur.” His insight from half a century ago could not be more pressing, and here the specter of disaster slips about, in and out of this exhibition defined by narrative and visual ambiguity.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.