Per Kirkeby

Provocation by way of beauty might be a fitting way to describe Per Kirkeby’s paintings of the ’90s. This recent exhibition consisted of 19 tantalizing canvases, each radiating a dark, almost subterranean energy—with gray and purple areas of clay, mud, and gravel; glowing belts of ore and burning lava; and green and bright-blue streams. Kirkeby, a trained geologist, has transformed science into art, to splendid, almost unnerving effect.

One could detect in Kirkeby’s previous work a desire to explore the places where nature and culture intersect. Each canvas was a semiotic battlefield—fragments of figures clashing with abstract fields of color, and mechanical and artificial elements confronting organic ones. Some of the paintings were sliced into sections, frustrating the viewer’s desire for integration and unity, while other works incorporated fragments lifted from pop culture—including bits of advertisements and pornographic magazines—to produce a multifaceted, at times confusing brew.

In recent years, however, Kirkeby’s paintings have become increasingly harmonious, and, one is tempted to say, even ecological in tone and content; these geological landscapes seem very distant from the worlds of media and modern technology. At a time when many European painters seem somewhat unsure about the status of their medium—often working simultaneously in a variety of styles—Kirkeby, the painter, has steadily worked toward a certain coherence and unity of expression. Although he demonstrates his versatility as an artist by working as a sculptor, filmmaker, and essayist as well as a painter, he is not trying to push the boundaries of his artmaking or to question the validity of painting. On the contrary, his paintings concentrate on nature, a quite traditional subject in Scandinavian art.

It is not at all difficult to see Kirkeby’s new work as representative of a long tradition of Nordic landscape painting, with forerunners that include Carl Fredrik Hill and, perhaps even more importantly, August Strindberg, an amateur painter who verged on inventing abstract art. An interesting question, however, is what the desire to depict nature in its pure form can signify today, in a world brimming with technology and digital information. Are these paintings nostalgic images that express a yearning for lost innocence, or are they instead forward-looking expressions of Heideggerian hope? The canvases may radiate a warm and reassuring glow, but they give no answer.

This does not, however, mean that they are mere metaphysical wallpaper—rather that these incredibly beautiful, large-scale oil paintings are executed with a skill hardly any other European painter seems capable of today. In the current artistic climate, beauty comes as a shock.

Daniel Birnbaum