Per Kirkeby

Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain

Per Kirkeby’s painting has the strange quality of disorienting the viewer as much as it disorients the painterly discourse. In its lack of “tricks,” of any unusual process of facture or informing ideology, a Kirkeby painting looks the way many paintings look in our century. A painting is an event that happens in front of you, implicating color, canvas, subject matter, light, depth, space, surface, and so on, and if Kirkeby’s work is conventional in that it does all this, yet it is not necessarily traditional. For a tradition involves a privileged viewer, one who can see in a painting the way it functions semantically to preserve a specific code and context. Tradition transforms a painting from an event into a cultural object. Kirkeby’s work, however, does not predicate such a viewer, but leaves the viewer’s role open and thus demanding. The viewer as much as the artist must decide how to relate to the work, how to grant an identity to it (and gain one from it). Is the painting abstract, symbolic, figurative, illusionistic, formalist, idealist? Such questions may be answered only once one has decided one’s own engagement and implication in the work.

A Kirkeby painting seems at first sight reserved or enigmatic, and, in a broader sense, disorienting. Instead of proposing a specific identity, it reflects a complex series of possible identities whose relations are neither contradictory nor homogeneous, but particular. If at first sight nothing seems specific here, that is mostly because everything is specific. Even the label “untitled” is used very precisely, and, by the same token, those titles that are assigned must be considered in their strongest possible meanings—not as indications of subject matter, but as elements that bring a literary dimension into the work. Kirkeby is the author of a largish volume of published prose and poetry; he must be considered a writer, not simply a painter who comments on his work or composes statements of his esthetic beliefs. But Kirkeby is not a 19th-century talent dabbling in all kinds of art. More like a Renaissance artist, he has a specific scientific interest and training (a Ph.D. in geology). His predilection for nature excludes the use of anthropocentric models; his paintings are not romantic metaphors for landscape, but evoke the geologist’s irreducible experience of depth and distance.

These paintings look both familiar and strange. All the elements that would integrate them within the zeitgeist and within art history are present, but they don’t function in expected ways. Many contemporary European painters invoke history and art history in order to make their identities more distinct and explicit; history is the justification (if not the excuse) for their work. But Kirkeby’s respect for history results in a desire to remain on the outer edges of perceptibility and understanding. History for Kirkeby, instead of unifying art and culture into mainstreams or ideological trends, allows the different and the particular, reveals events that make the inconceivable possible within the very dense, compact, regulated space of artistic and cultural phenomena. Kirkeby’s work cannot be classified under any of the known labels; not without a touch of irony, it states what must be obvious for a geologist—that if Mohammed does not go to the mountain, neither will the mountain come to him.

Painting to Kirkeby is not the production of mercantile goods, but labor, toil; it proposes not iconographic samples of glamour or squalor, but the difficult, resistant ground the artist must work. If the title of a work here is Crystal, it is not only because of the hardness of this natural phenomenon, but because a crystal must be perceived through all its facets. If a painting is titled as part of a “Cubist Series,” the application of the facet principle to art history becomes a metaphor for culture as a still life. Both nature and culture, then, are possible facets—the nearest and the furthest away, perhaps, and painting involves going among the facets and being both close and distant.

Denys Zacharopoulos