New York

Per Kirkeby

Michael Werner | New York

Per Kirkeby’s recent paintings, simultaneously refined and raw, are about memory: the memory of the northern landscape in which he grew up and of the abstract terrain of art that is also his heritage. A Dane trained in geology, Kirkeby arranges his pictures in strata, often disrupted by outbursts of the aurora borealis, sometimes infiltrated by grainy shadow, always set against the black of the Arctic night. Indeed, this landscape is not just Scandinavia but the icy, exhilarating no-man’s-land of the far North. Kirkeby carries Sturm und Drang to a mystical new extreme in which an intimate merger with nature is suggested even as the dynamics of heavy earth, rushing water, fiery light, and crystal-clear air are respected. More broadly, the paintings take their place in the northern landscape tradition, which has tried to penetrate the dramatic mystery of nature since the time of the Danube School. They are ripe with metaphoric potential, but they are also realistic, however bizarrely: Kirkeby meticulously records wood grain and the texture of rock down to every last irregularity. Nature’s eccentric signatures can be read as signs but remain largely cryptic, which is why they are at once mysteriously abstract and purely material—indeed, the more materially primordial they are, the more absolutely abstract, which is the message of these paintings. They are imitatio natura in the deepest sense.

Kirkeby’s handling is at times abrupt and impatient, as if the artist were attempting to capture rapidly changing weather, and at other times patiently observant, as though to render the landscape’s enduring presence. The mood is sometimes dark, with earthbound colors predominating, and sometimes light, with an overtone of sunny yellow. I suspect that the aura of indefiniteness and haphazardness within the larger stability of the strata’s frame is a naturally occurring element of the open northern environment, with its constantly shifting perspectives and unpredictable climate. These works are all untitled except for Plank—Stone and the grand Return from Egypt, both 2000, but even the latter painting, with its dark bands containing a mirage of greenness, shows a broad struggle to resolve opposites, despite the title’s suggestion of a specific scene.

Kirkeby is a romantic painter, but he has “described” the mysticism of the landscape, focusing on the tension between pattern or structure and seemingly structureless fluidity. To borrow the language of chaos theory, his paintings are an ingenious blend of chaotic (expressionist) dynamics and chaotic (abstract) harmony. “Patterns born amid formlessness: that is biology’s basic beauty and its basic mystery,” as chaos theorist James Gleick has written. Kirkeby shows us the uncanny resemblance between the eccentric patterns of seemingly formless inorganic matter and those of living organisms, the former appearing to foreshadow the latter. Simply put, these visionary works convey the cycle of life and death—indeed, they suggest the very instant when life and death seem one. These oddly dialectical paintings indicate that this primordial moment can perhaps still be experienced at the poles of our planet.

Donald Kuspit