New York

Odd Nerdrum

Though striking and technically accomplished, Odd Nerdrum’s recent paintings seem at first like so much virtuosic pastiche, as if, after eating a particularly rich meal late at night, one saw all the great paintings on the second floor of the Metropolitan coalesce into one enormous work of nightmarish intensity, in which all the illnesses and shortcomings of man loomed up out of varnished brown sauce.

These images arc puzzles. They do not illustrate any particular myth or moment in time; they do not explain themselves or seek to explain any particular system of belief. They are of primal man, garbed in animal skins and helmets, caught in strange static moments of shock, blindness, and/or despair. They seem the product of an alienation so extreme as to require a vocabulary entirely its own.

Nerdrum’s loaded allegories recall the work of art-historical figures like Hieronymus Bosch and more recently Peter Blume. But, it’s really the techniques, more than the subject matter, that have been appropriated. In an apocalyptic landscape with the flat northern light of Flemish paintings, he combines the “basement” lighting effects of Caravaggio with the academic realism of Géricault.

There are more men than women here, but sexual pairing seems to occur only in death (or a sleep resembling death). Which is not to say desire is nowhere present. It is everywhere. If anything makes these pictures compelling, it’s their consistent fascination with the human body. The images—of paired corpses, madmen, men in pain, a man without eyes—may be frightful and abhorrent, but every limb and torso is lovingly rendered. Pale, muscular, sexual, the figures are painted so that one must take them seriously—in much the same way that it is music that grounds the otherwise bizarre stage spectacles of Wagnerian opera.

Justin Spring