There are exhibitions that ought to have a notice posted at the entrance warning visitors susceptible to mental depression and other psychological disorders to beware the premises, lest they succumb to profound melancholia when they encounter the paintings on view. One of these hazardous exhibitions, Odd Nerdrum: New Paintings , is currently at the Forum Gallery.
Those of us familiar with the work of this daunting Norwegian painter (born 1944) know what we’re in for: a relentlessly graphic, bleak and unforgiving vision of the cruelties and sufferings that have so often in human history been visited upon the defenseless flesh of the powerless. But innocent newcomers to Mr. Nerdrum’s special brand of earthly doom ought to be advised of the risk. Mind you, I’m not suggesting a boycott, but parents might want to leave the kids at home. Even for perfectly healthy adults, these lurid images of hopelessness, despair and breakdown are probably best seen on an empty stomach.
Mr. Nerdrum has said of his work that “the Old Masters are my guide” and “nature is my God,” but the nature we observe in these paintings often has the look of a lunar wasteland. As for the “Old Masters,” it’s not to be denied that Mr. Nerdrum has perfected a remarkable pastiche of what now passes for the “Old Master” look in painting. In other words, at its best the style is a brilliant imitation, and at its worst it’s a kind of parody of Scandinavian angst.
Thus, in a huge painting called-what else?- Lunatics (2003), 10 seated figures, some naked, some draped, and all more or less catatonic, occupy a brilliantly illuminated nowhere. In an even larger picture called Five Singing Women (2003-2004,) the principal female figures look a lot like singing corpses, while a tiny young girl reposes in despair. Mother and Son (Prince of Iceland) (2003), with its mythical figures set in some sort of imaginary primeval epoch, isn’t much fun, either. It’s only in Mr. Nerdrum’s Self-Portrait with Glasses (undated) that we’re given a glimpse of a recognizable world.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that in the past I’ve been more favorably disposed to Mr. Nerdrum’s work. On the present occasion, alas, the artist’s show-off technical prowess strikes me more and more as a parody of rather than an homage to the Old Masters, and his apocalyptic vision too facile to be convincing. As I walked through the two floors devoted to these paintings, I came to realize that the only thing that’s really interesting about them now is their imitative technique, and that has become-for me, at least-a familiarity that breeds contempt. The claim advanced by the Forum Gallery that “Nerdrum’s paintings go to the depths of the human soul” is the last straw. I don’t think it’s the province of art dealers to set up as judges of the human soul. As for the comparisons made with the paintings of Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Masaccio, they are simply preposterous.
And so with Odd Nerdrum: New Paintings , I make my exit from the Odd Nerdrum bandwagon. For those still curious about the work, the exhibition remains on view at the Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th streets, through July 30.
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.