Odd Nerdrum
at Forum Gallery

The Odd Nerdrum exhibition is over until next time but the New Old Master phenomenon remains. So does the particular kind of disingenuity used to promote it. As well, the pretensions and the ignorance of a particular kind of audience to which it is aimed. It is useful to go back and take another look at the stage setting—partly devotional, wholly theatrical—Forum devised to lend Meaning to the product.

Oscar Wilde insisted it took a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell. It takes more than that to keep your composure in front of Odd Nerdrum en grande toilette as the Prophet of Painting. It requires walls painted black to inhibit wayward tendencies toward levity and to compel the obligatory frisson of millennial dread. Lighting designed for crypts and catacombs, just enough wattage to keep you from tripping over the bones of Painting Past, is a must. So, too, is the inexorable catalogue, fattened like goose liver with Dark Hints of a Jamesian wound in Nerdrum’s past.

So! John Nerdrum was not really Odd’s biological father! There was something odd in Odd’s parentage! Therein lies necessity’s sharp pinch! The veil lifts. If only we had known we would never—cross our hearts, not ever—have snickered at all that Viking kitsch. To understand is to pity and embrace. An expensive text is on hand to help us feel the artist’s pain. The very first page huffs and puffs to deflect attention away from the work itself and onto the crafted artifice of the artist’s available-by-catalogue-only psychology.

Confession is the last resort of artists running on empty. This is an exceptionally vacant exhibition. So much effort, so many special effects, so little content. Reliance on suffering—The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer—to provide an aura of seriousness is a sign of imaginative, not to say moral, exhaustion. There is nothing here but the will to style. That is simply not enough to compel assent to anything beyond Nerdrum’s wholly admirable mastery of craft. If there is any authentic substance to this show, it exists in Nerdrum’s disguised admission that he has nothing worth painting about. The cult of suffering ends in a nose-bleed.

Behold Self-Portrait with Nose-Bleed, 1999. That lovely dribble of red, quite beautiful in strict painterly terms, is iconographically silly. As token or symbol, this slight hemorrhage is implausibly weak. Even if you want to grant it dignity as an omen of illness or death, portent of unseen violence that threatens from within and without, the fact of its being so specifically Nerdrum’s nose undercuts any impulse toward broader significance. The blood is as much an item of costume as his Rembrandtean head gear. Emotive power cannot accrue to a staged anecdote. As such, the image is frozen in particularity, signifying nothing but Nerdrum’s urge to self-inflation. Pass him a Kleenex and move on.

Self-Portrait in a Golden Dress, 1997, gives us Nerdrum posing like Demi Moore pregnant on the cover of Vogue. A lustrous expanse of surging belly spills forward beneath the folds of the dress he holds rolled across his breast. The lunar glow is punctuated by a commendable erection curving skyward like . . . like Icarus? No, more like the handle on a slot machine. You want to yank it and party with the winnings.

In an essay on the pornographic imagination, culture critic Susan Sontag once observed that pornography cannot serve the purposes of parody because porn itself is a parody.

What is the object of burlesque here? Nerdrum himself, his materials, his style and his subjects. The placement of the hands in this self-portrait recalls both Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride and Portrait of Saskia as Flora. The distended abdomen could belong to any overfed Dutch vrouw turned into Eve or Cleopatra in Rembrandt’s studio. The brown-sauce backdrop, the drapery, the sumptuous costuming, the romantic coiffure: all the repertory of New Old Master showmanship is here, camping in full feather past the footlights.

And the phallus? This is probably the one mot juste in the entire exhibition. Though I suspect the self-mockery here is largely inadvertent, I can’t help but see it as a send-up—literally, an "up yours"—of all the bloated solemnity that surrounds Nerdrum’s work. In that respect, Self-Portrait in a Golden Dress might be the only honest painting in the show.

But, then, we don’t expect honesty from the entertainment industry, which is the exhibition’s true domain. This is part drag show, part freak show. Step into the tent and see the freaks first: Nerdrum as a Severed Head (Grey Self-Portrait, 1999); Nerdrum as a Blind Man (Spring Self-Portrait, 1998. We also have Nerdrum as a Deep Thinker (Self-Portrait with Lifted Arms, 1998). This one might not strike you as grotesque if you trust the catalogue’s testimony that Nerdrum has spent long Oslo nights brooding on Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. A biography of P.T. Barnum, self-promoter extraordinaire, is more likely. Throw in a few promos for Cindy Sherman and you’ve got the mix.

There is a sucker born every minute, poised to fall for the myth of romantic anguish that churns in the artist’s soul. Deshabille signals abandon. So our Heathciff of the fjords appears wearing one of those quaint nightshirts from The Night Before Christmas. The vulgarity of the entire enterprise is perfectly pitched to cultural preferences for style over substance. Tell me this isn’t drag.


July 2000

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