Joseph Beuys never saw this coming. “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art,” he said in 1969. “The rest is the waste product, a demonstration. If you want to express yourself you must present something tangible. But after a while this has only the function of a historic document. Objects aren’t very important any more.” So said the artist who in 1974 spent three days in a New York gallery swaddling himself in felt and hanging out with a live coyote.
Yet one of his most successful students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf dedicated his life's work to painting figures in the landscape, taking cues from Rembrandt. He works up the surfaces from a prototypical Dutch umber into chiaroscuro-heavy scenes which take place in an imagined future where humans (Scandinavians, at least) revert to a prehistoric state. They take to lollygagging in the rocky plain, clad in leather and white cloth if clad at all, bathing in natural pools and sporting enigmatic expressions.
Odd Nerdrum exemplifies a widespread problem in contemporary realism: its practitioners have as much skill as anyone could ask for, but little to say with it, and the more drama they try to infuse into their work, the more histrionic the results. Nearly every Nerdrum I have ever seen struck me, at first, as fundamentally silly. I understand the temptation to reach into narrative in order to give a sense of purpose to a figurative scene, but why this post-apocalyptic Renaissance fair?
Nevertheless, I've been coming around to his work over time. It's so much better than most contemporary figuration, and much contemporary art in general, that I keep giving it second and third (and fourth and fifth) chances. This indicates to a critic that despite his reservations, the art in question possesses something of value.
In 1998, Nerdrum revealed his philosophical underpinnings, identifying himself as a kitsch painter, not an artist. He holds a position that aesthetic appreciation can operate in a redeemed form of kitsch concerned with, as he put it, love, death, and the sunrise. In essence, he rendered unto Kant what was Kant's, and carved out a place for himself where dusky pictures of blonds wearing nothing but toques made some kind of sense. It is as convincing as any other manifesto, namely, not at all beyond indicating the personal necessities of a handful of artists, but the point of manifestos is to rally supporters to a cause. History is often unkind to their authors, and Nerdrum currently finds himself charged with tax evasion by the government of his native Norway and threatened with jail, where he would not be allowed to paint or draw.
These troubles didn't affect his paintings on display at Forum Gallery, and they convince me that while his subject matter is a kind of vague fantasy illustration, this is the sole problem with his work. Not only is his technique in oil beautiful in its flickering transparency, Nerdrum is able to get figures to fit into their surrounding landscape in a way that few living painters are able to achieve. These sizable canvases – many are four or five feet wide, one is almost ten feet tall – depict many wide-open spaces, but have few dead areas. The cloaked lad with a stick in Birds seems confluent with the forest behind him, the lake in the distance, and the blue sky overhead dappled with violet and ocher. The oddly gesturing girl in Tourettes (the artist suffers from the disorder), seated on the trunk of a leaning tree, is surrounded by gloom, but subtle additions of flora, landscape, and forest floor throw intriguing variations into it. Nightjumper, the aforementioned ten-footer, shows a group sleeping around a pure white fire while a nude male leaps high overhead. The whole curvature of the earth is in back of him, and every corner and edge of this painting is worth looking at in its atmospheric rendering.
Finally, the one problem isn't much of a problem. If Nerdrum's contrived universe of post-historic moping Norwegians is unacceptable, then so are Judith Linhares's charming, cartoonish co-eds in Arcadia, Dana Schutz's picnics of freaks, and Mernet Larsen's boxy people in their orthogonal habitats. The notion of the imaginary world conjured into being for the sake of art goes down the tubes. Looked at this way, Nerdrum is working on a problem of significant contemporary interest. To dismiss him would be to dismiss him on the basis of style. Objects are still important, but are styles?