Ragnar Kjartansson Scenes from Western Culture/Architecture and Morality/World Light
Luhring Augustine, Chelsea and Bushwick
November 5 – December 22, 2016
The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s fourth solo show at Luhring Augustine is a tripartite serving of oils, videos, and a four-screen film. Concurrent with his survey retrospective at the Hirschhorn Museum, the exhibitions show Kjartansson seeking to redefine the terms of a durational aesthetic engagement through his deeply mindful, perhaps too historically conscious, art, while displaying the multivalent nature of his somewhat uncharacterizable approach.
In Chelsea, the front gallery presents works made this May while in the West Bank courtesy of Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Art. With a washed-out palette of thinned, quickly laid paints in a blend of Luc Tuymans, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Rackstraw Downes, the ten 4-x-5-foot oils (2016) bear a Ruskinian title—Architecture and Morality—and depict new housing in the Occupied Territories. Working en plein air, Kjartansson made one of these uninhabited scenes per day. Israeli flags emerge here and there, reflecting celebrations of Independence Day on May 12. But such visual banality cannot deflect the charged nature of these beige pre-fab edifices. Like Dorothy’s sepia-toned Kansas farmhouse dropped incongruously into a Technicolor Munchkinland, these modern family dwellings have been planted in the inhospitable desert, their basketball hoops and garden furniture seen against a scruffy backdrop of arid hills and overcast skies. Kjartansson approaches this most contested landscape on the planet with remove, but his rigor elucidates the ongoing debate over Israeli policy. In 1997, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus sang “A shady lane, everybody wants one/A shady lane, everybody needs one,” a memorable paean to the American suburban communal dream and its unintentional isolationism. Here, it is the unsparing lack of shade that illuminates this charged nexus of architecture and slipped morality, a divisive governmental agenda made concrete.
The gallery’s rear rooms contain videos on nine monitors comprising Scenes from Western Culture (2015), seemingly innocuous slices of contemporary life that range from nineteen minutes to a little over three hours. In one, jazz pianist Jason Moran and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran dine at Upstairs at 21 in Midtown. Framed by a bland mural of Grand Army Plaza and Bergdorf’s, they enjoy an uneventful dinner with barely audible conversation ranging from music to basketball players to wine. As in all but one video, the camera is stationary, and the film loops with an imperceptible edit. In The Pool, the painter Elizabeth Peyton swims laps for twenty-four minutes; the frame tracks her laterally as in Olympic coverage. Her yipping terrier doggedly follows her progress. In Dog and Clock, a Shetland Sheepdog lies on a rug before a grandfather clock in Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s house museum. When the clock oddly strikes at 4:05, she dutifully barks after the fourth chime. In The Boat, a man docks a vessel on a lake, helps a woman out who walks away, then unmoors the craft and putters off-screen, returning a few minutes later with another woman, repeated for over two and a half hours. It is gorgeous and monotonous, although briefly Chaplinesque when he inadvertently falls into the drink. Burning House is a ninety-two minute shot of exactly that, in a Swedish wood, the conflagration seen against dark conifers. Lovers shows the luxury of day sex in an affectionate and explicit scene between a man and woman with interchangeably long hair.
The Bushwick venue features a film of Laxness’s World Light (1937 – 40), a novel Dickensian in both theme (the troubled life of a neglected foster child who aspires to be a poet) and format (serialized, in four volumes). Subtitled The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Kjartansson shot over twenty hours of footage on makeshift sets in a Vienna exhibition space with the public invited to watch. Distilled here to a hardly-trim eight hours, it is presented on four centrally facing screens (one for each book), with multiple takes of each scene. The ever-dapper artist serves as a stage manager, as in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, wearing a white dinner jacket, and red rose boutonnière, introducing the action and often comically stumbling over the set and his lines. In one scene, when the poet Olaf liberates himself from his lover, Kjartansson appears behind him nude, holding placards in the form of flames and the rose still ridiculously attached to his bare chest; he follows Olaf as they race out off set and burst into the bright Viennese sunlight. Like the novel on which it is based, the film is at once romantic, poetic, earnest, and slightly ludicrous. It is a rewarding challenge to follow its two strands: the technicians and performers crafting the piece and the presiding narrative.
Ultimately, Kjartansson’s aesthetic counts on creating an unpredictable experience for the viewer. His art is one of emotional anticipation, but it is also rigorously framed and historically minded, even cautionary: Lovers mimics Gustave Courbet’s Le Sommeil (1866); World Light opens with its protagonist as a Romanticist Rückenfigur, seen from behind and staring off into the aqueous landscape of his childhood haunts in absurdly ill-fitting clothing. Here it is: the melancholy monotony of Western life, its comfortable banality, its trans-national catalog of imagery and literature, balanced ultimately by the conflagration of Burning House. There goes that shady lane.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.