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Odd Nerdrum's Nightmarish Execution

“Dead Ram”, 2006, Oil on Canvas, 55 x 69 in


"Crime and Refuge"
Odd Nerdrum Solo Exhibition
April 30 – July 30th 2016
Booth Gallery

By DANIEL MAIDMAN, MAY 2016

If you’ve known me long enough, you’ll remember this: some years ago, I blundered into a fight with Odd Nerdrum. I wrote a few very unpleasant things about him, including that his work existed in a flattened moral terrain, a region of indifference to the distinction between good and evil, where beauty and interest were the only concerns. This was not intended as a compliment.

I see more value in his work now. Perhaps Nerdrum has changed since I first wrote about him, or I have; certainly the world has.

He has a solo show, “Crime and Refuge,” up at Booth Gallery. He was unable to attend the opening himself, for reasons we will return to. The paintings are very large and painted thickly on heavily textured canvas. Their subtle values and dense marks are indifferent to the demands of photographic reproduction, and therefore the work packs more of a punch in person relative to its online incarnations than is usually the case.

The imagery in the work is consistent with the paintings Nerdrum has been producing for much of his mature career: hounded figures wander in a dim wilderness, coming together to participate in scenes of savagery or persecuted communion. I would like to discuss three paintings of particular note.

In Cannibals, three living figures consume the remains of a dead one. They chew raw meat off of bones, organs scattered about nearby. The dismembered cadaver of their victim lies beside them, a mere head remaining untouched atop a bloody spine and ribcage.

"Cannibals," oil on canvas, 98” x 79”

A very un-PC classical iconography of good and evil is deployed here. Each cannibal is ugly in a way associated with evil: to use the appropriate nomenclature, they are, from left to right, a cripple, a madman, and a mongoloid. As depicted by Nerdrum, there is no depth of depravity alien to them. They squat unhesitatingly on soil which appears slick with gore. They eat their victim right in his face, leaving his head intact to witness his own devouring.

The victim, on the other hand, has the serene beauty of a fallen Siegfried, unimpressed by his humiliation, retaining a steadfast, and perhaps ultimately foolish, faith in cosmic justice.

As to narrative, if any can be imputed, one recalls those teams which would attempt escape from the Soviet gulag: two sure-footed criminals and the “meat,” a fool invited along only to serve as food for the other two along the starving route. Our cannibals too have come a long way over treacherous ground, and appear to be consuming their fourth companion on an abandoned mountaintop, clouds scudding below and low overhead.

This is not a portrait of humanity in need of redemption. It is a portrait of humanity as irredeemable. It is a scene of squalid and pervasive evil. It is an evil in collusion with a wicked metaphysics, and therefore an evil from which there is no exit save death.

I used to be inclined to dismiss Nerdrum’s work as one step up from the kinds of things you saw on the covers of the late Omni magazine. But like I say, Nerdrum has changed, and I have, and the world has.

Nerdrum relies less than he once did on clever compositions and pictorial effects. Like an experienced playwright, he cares less how things sound, and more about what is said. His scenes have become more efficient, more spare, more dependent on the internal dynamics between the players. Cruelties which once seemed like adolescent put-ons seem to have taken on the grim inevitability of actual insights into the nature of things.

For my part, I am at a different stage in a particular lifelong struggle. I have a naturally sunny disposition, and I am aware that this skews my comprehension toward the virtuous only. But who is free who understands only virtue? One’s attempts to do good carry less moral weight without a real option to do bad. I would like to understand the nature of evil. Evil is a horrendous force, and has a large role to play in the world. One is defenseless against it without being able to see for oneself through its terrible red eyes. I am well aware that I have enjoyed the privilege of innocence far past the age it was becoming. And I have tried to take on the burden of evil, as an adult must, and I have come a ways along this sad road. Therefore Nerdrum has more to say to me than he once did, or rather, I have more ability to hear. He is not the buffoon his fantasy imagery suggests.

And, finally, the world has changed. The lid has been ripped from the cauldron, and a boiling tide of malevolence is spreading from its usual miserable corners of the Earth toward the heartland of what we aspire to call civilization. The melodramatic murder theater of the Islamic State is shocking to the conscience not in its death toll but in its selfie-culture publicity seeking. At long last we have a fusion of the ageless barbarism of human nature and the unseemly vanities of the internet age. There is no picturesque form of slaughter which has not made the leap from lurid dystopia fiction to ISIS’s various Youtube outlets. Behind ISIS marches the more ordinary mass-murder of the grisly Syrian dictatorship; perhaps much larger in scale, and more capable in execution, but carried out decently far from GoPros. Syria represents the twentieth-century model of liquidating the people. ISIS, by contrast, has its finger on the thready pulse of the times. Clownish iPhone-ready mayhem has infected the streets of a Europe that increasingly seems to be not a post-historical technocracy, but a guerrilla battlefield. The world, in short, has more clearly come to resemble a Nerdrum painting. Nerdrum turns out to be a painter for our bitter times.

Consider a second painting from the show, "No Witness." In this horrendous piece, one participant fires a gun at the other. The bullet has left the snub-nosed pistol, but it has not yet reached its target. The entire composition is organized so that its brightest point, a cold muzzle-flash, appears blinding.

"No Witness," oil on canvas, 131” x 80”

Hair flying, the gunman twists in a single fluid motion, like some heraldic Hermes, so that his pose combines reaching for the holstered pistol, drawing, aiming, and firing. The victim, already bloody from a prior beating, rocks back, though the bullet has not yet hit him. His eyes bulge in horror, quoting Ilya Repin’s portrayal of Ivan the Terrible in the moments after murdering his son:

Ilya Repin, "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581" (1885), oil on canvas, 79” x 100”

And yet, whereas Repin’s Ivan experiences this horror in recognition of what he has done to another, our victim in No Witness fears only for himself. If he had got the upper hand, the scene might have played out in reverse. There is nobody to root for here. Again, Nerdrum’s model of humanity is not so much unredeemed as irredeemable.

Consider the characteristically murky landscape in which this incident goes unwitnessed. Mountains rise in the background, and behind them, scattered hot glows, as of volcanic eruptions, or towns burning. This scenery once struck me as so much posing. But I am inclined to give it, these days, at least partial credit for expressing the same dismay Matthew Arnold wrote about in that poem high school students think they understand, but don’t:

…we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Finally, we have a third major painting from the show, "The Last Procedure."

"The Last Procedure," oil on canvas, 109” x 81”

Now what the fuck is this? Nerdrum himself sits on the right, hunched in dignified despair, hand upturned to express reasoned truth or beg leniency. He faces a motley gang: a bailiff carries a long gun, a judge-king holds a ceremonial spear in one hand and points the finger of accusation with the other, and a clerk displays the verdict. What is the verdict? A tall scaffold is being prepared on a dim shore in the distance. Nerdrum is to be hanged. The use of “procedure” here seems to be akin to the French “procès” - “trial.” This is the last trial of Odd Nerdrum.

Is this some kind of self-aggrandizement? Well… not exactly.

On the one hand, Nerdrum’s public writings include a large volume of self-pitying and paranoid rants about the wrongs done him by the art world and the academy. And on the other hand, he did indeed miss the opening of his solo show. He was under order not to leave Norway, because he may be summoned to prison at the pleasure of the government.

Anyone aware of Nerdrum has been following a bizarre court case against him for many years now. The gist of it seems to be that Norway accuses him of having hidden income from taxation. Nerdrum contends that the money in question was not hidden, and not income. Rather, it was set aside to finance restitution to collectors for a number of older paintings that prematurely decayed. In any case, the relevant tax has now been paid several times, and the charges have mutated over the years. The case drags on, with lower court rulings being reversed by higher courts, new charges being brought, different sentences being proposed and reversed, and no end in sight, except that it has now been ruled that Nerdrum may have to go to jail, for a year, during which he is not to paint, because this is considered a commercial activity.

It is very difficult for a non-Norwegian to discuss this case with any lucidity. The key documents have not been translated into English, the relevant laws are extraordinarily complex, and the facts of the case are both complex and ambiguous. Nerdrum appears to have done himself no favors with his usual erratic and belligerent behavior, but all available texts and commentary are by rabidly pro-Nerdrum partisans. The Nerdrum camp’s allegation has always been that this is primarily a political persecution, like that of Edvard Munch, whom the Norwegians harassed so hard with tax prosecutions that he wound up a broken man, in shock treatment. It is maintained that Nerdrum, like Munch, is a renegade artist, making work unanswerable to, and opposed to the policy of, the State, and therefore has made himself the target of a malignant prosecutorial machinery.

I am an analyst, not a reporter. I have encountered little luck in my desultory attempts to access more balanced information about the Nerdrum case. I did write to a reporter at Dagbladet who won several top journalism awards with stories devastating to the government’s case; I did not hear back. I did not write to the Norwegian consulate to enquire whether they had any comment.

I understand some of Nerdrum’s situation because I have myself been the subject of tax prosecution. Unlike Nerdrum, I was guilty as hell. So I had several sources of comfort he lacks: I knew that I had brought my troubles on myself, and the representatives of the Treasury’s interests were, on the whole, decent and helpful people. My process was not opaque, its outcome was fairly generous, and I was able to work my way through the still-heavy punishment toward a closure of the books.

Even so, it was a harrowing experience, a period of clenched guts and shattered teeth, midnight anxieties and dark afternoon thoughts - the darkest. It took a terrible toll on me and all those around me.

It is not impossible to extend this fresh memory to match Nerdrum’s circumstances: a case very much in dispute, and likely unjust or erroneous - an outright hostile government - the weariness of age (Nerdrum is 72) - the fear of imprisonment and of a prohibition on painting.

Was Nerdrum erratic and belligerent? Perhaps. But so was the State. And the weight of duty rests unequally upon the two. The State, with its mighty implements of punishment, has a duty to be gentle and straightforward. I am perfectly comfortable admitting I do not understand the facts of the case, and yet inferring from the facts I do know, that the case amounts in large part to persecution. The government, having been humiliated in its initial claims, and having had restitution made nonetheless, should have turned its attention elsewhere. To come up with new charges as soon as the resting ones fail - to indefinitely prolong the process - to wave about the threat of imprisonment without ever quite getting around to summoning the defendant to jail - these are the hallmarks of process itself turned into punishment. The punishment in such a case amounts to intimidation, to threats, to the amorphous ruin of reputation, to the gleeful wasting of time and money with paperwork and court appearances, to the draining of the target’s creative energies in an endless nightmare of fear and anxiety. It is a punishment designed by bureaucrats. There is no defendant here. There is only a victim.

This case seems to me to illustrate a State run amok. Nerdrum has provoked the State; perhaps originally with his style of painting, or his politics if he has any. But beyond a certain point it is his resistance alone which sustains the State’s animus. The case has become a closed loop. It has no origin except itself. Norway means to grind Nerdrum between its gears.

And yet, in a more profound sense, there is no State. This is the insight of Nerdrum’s "The Last Procedure," and the consolation it offers to those who are doomed to lose. There is no State, there are only individuals who have awarded themselves fancy hats and a monopoly of weapons. Nerdrum sits on a collapsing wood crate, but so does his enthroned tormentor, who embellishes his failing seat with a couple cloths and furs.

 

detail, "The Last Procedure"

Study the prosecutors: they have faces cruel and stupid as any Ecce Homo crowd. The State in this painting consists of a petty and incompetent gang. Its trials may sound grand, and its punishments terrible, but when faced square, it is ever so much smaller than it claims. The Last Procedure is a painting for our times, just as Cannibals is. It is a painting of the crisis of the legitimacy of government. This crisis is unfolding in a series of disasters across the face of the former First World. The governments of Europe and America have lost the consent of the governed. In America, the electoral process is destabilizing as a result; in Europe, the State itself is coming apart at the seams.

And there Nerdrum situates himself, his face calm, his hand socratically upturned, content to be the last to be destroyed by the panicked and decaying procedures of an exhausted civilization. This may not be true of Nerdrum the man, but the man and the artist are never the same thing, and cannot understand or even perceive one another.

detail, "The Last Procedure"

I have had, and continue to have, very significant problems with Nerdrum as a man and an artist. But when differences between artists are stacked up against what appears to be a conflict between citizen and tyranny, then the differences between artists must properly be sent to the back, and perhaps stay there indefinitely. Therefore I offer in friendship what I have to offer, which is to say, writing, to Nerdrum the sufferer. I wish you godspeed, Odd, in the restoration of your rights and peace of mind. WM


Booth Gallery is located at 325 West 38th Street, New York, NY 10018. For further information, please visit: www.paulboothgallery.com or email paulboothgallery@gmail.com

 

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.

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