Copenhagen

Ola Billgren

Galerie Asbaek

If on entering this big show of recent work by the Swedish painter Ola Billgren one knew that for a ten-year period from the mid ’60s on he had been occupied with a critical, antihumanist painting which might be related to such catchword categories of the ’80s as “appropriation,” “eclecticism,” and “post-Modernism,” one ran no risk of being disillusioned. When the initial appearance of these paintings as “Romantic” works disintegrated, one was not surprised. On the contrary, one felt that Billgren’s earlier, in itself very complex discourse on the surface, the photograph, and the mythopoetic function of media imagery was made to seem almost didactic in light of this new work.

The amorphous color clouds and the receding space of these big square abstractions suggest landscape, but not nature; this is a landscape whose referent is the conventions of painting. At the same time, the works seem to serve as targets of the beholder’s desire for a theater of the self, a desire Billgren cruelly leaves unfulfilled. The various canvases exemplify different painterly attitudes, their techniques ranging from a cool detached use of shade to violent, semitransparent brushstrokes charged with “expression.” However, a seemingly “honest” expression tends inexorably to be falsified by the other paintings in the series these works seem to compose. The ice-cold gray greens of some canvases and earthy tones (like Anselm Kiefer’s) of others, which counter the predominant artificially bittersweet colors, also foil the viewer’s desire for a correspondence between the paintings and the artist’s ego.

More interestingly, however, the individual works seem to have emerged from a dialectical play between an examination of the rhetorical elements of Romantic painting on the one hand and a (fundamentally Romantic?) “pressure to paint” on the other. By taking the risk of admitting that the act of painting is pleasurable, Billgren can reveal the conventions of sentimentality from within. Thus the matter at issue is not “neo-Romanticism” but a far from simple critique of the Romantic tradition. The frustrated beholder, trying to find something to warrant the desire for “immediacy,” finally grasped this only on viewing the lithographic suite “19 Romantiska landskap” (19 Romantic landscapes), which was hung halfway through the show.

These prints were made from photographic originals which in turn were taken from collages made up of reproductions of other pictures—fragments from newspapers, journals, travel brochures, and art history books. Removed from the seductive enticements of painting, the prints possess a different kind of instructiveness from the big, richly flowing canvases; I felt that they played a decisive role in Billgren’s own understanding of his practice, as well as in that of the viewer. The works wrap up numerous cultural strata in seductive, “unnatural” colors. The Romantic concept by which the artist, through the creative act, becomes one with nature, beyond intellect and language, should be absent from these “Romantic landscapes”; instead of pantheist unity they offer the fragmentation of collage, instead of immediacy, technical distance. Nevertheless, the scenery of these prints appears perfectly “real”—at the same time that the hierarchic relationship between nature and culture seems reversed, and nature appears a special case of culture. After this maneuver it only remained for Billgren to complete the deconstruction and, in an equivocal gesture, call these extremely constructed landscapes “Romantic.”

Lars Nittve

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.