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 settingpartly devotional, wholly theatricalForum
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 Nerdrums
So! John Nerdrum was not really Odds biological father!
There was something odd in Odds parentage! Therein lies
necessitys sharp pinch! The veil lifts. If only we had
known we would nevercross our hearts, not everhave
snickered at all that Viking kitsch. To understand is to pity
and embrace. An expensive text is on hand to help us feel
the artists pain. The very first page huffs and puffs
to deflect attention away from the work itself and onto the
crafted artifice of the artists available-by-catalogue-only
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 sufferingThe
Artist as Exemplary Suffererto 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 Nerdrums
wholly admirable mastery of craft. If there is any authentic
substance to this show, it exists in Nerdrums 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 Nerdrums 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 Nerdrums
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 Rembrandts
Jewish Bride and Portrait of Saskia as Flora.
The distended abdomen could belong to any overfed Dutch vrouw
turned into Eve or Cleopatra in Rembrandts 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 cant help but see it
as a send-upliterally, an "up yours"of
all the bloated solemnity that surrounds Nerdrums work.
In that respect, Self-Portrait in a Golden Dress might
be the only honest painting in the show.
But, then, we dont expect honesty from the entertainment
industry, which is the exhibitions 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 catalogues testimony that
Nerdrum has spent long Oslo nights brooding on Oswald Spenglers
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 youve got the mix.
There is a sucker born every minute, poised to fall for the
myth of romantic anguish that churns in the artists 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 isnt drag.