Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2017–18, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 70 7/8".

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2017–18, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 70 7/8".

Bjarne Melgaard

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac | London

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2017–18, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 x 70 7/8".

Bjarne Melgaard’s recent exhibition had two parts, each separately titled. “Bodyparty (Substance Paintings)”consisted of fourteen works populated mostly by bulging-eyed, penis-faced figures with multiple protuberances; “Life Killed My Chihuahua,” meanwhile, was a takeover of the gallery’s Instagram account. Most of the square canvases (all Untitled, 2017–18, and measuring roughly seventy inches by seventy inches) that made up “Bodyparty” sat on marble tiles and leaned against the wall; four were propped up, back-to-back, in the middle of the room. Packed tightly into a small space, the front room of an eighteenth-century mansion, the paintings created a bawdy, enveloping environment. Each work depicted its grotesque creatures in thick, muddy paint on a bright, monochromatic ground. Norwegian phrases such as NYBEGYNEER (beginner) and ALT SAMMEN (all together) provided a written counterpoint. For example, a peach-colored painting featured a central scrawly figure with a fuzzy face, flanked by two smaller figures with erect penises, one licking him, the other touching. Two red penises seemed to penetrate the picture plane from above and below. The words LITT SAAR (little wound) appeared written in the top left corner. Were the comically angsty pictures intended to be erotic? The pictures seemed more confrontational than seductive, but maybe they offered a glimpse into the inner life of one highly sexed man. What came across was a sense of compulsiveness. The dabbed-on impasto at times had a Plasticine-like texture, while other areas were splashed on in a more free-flowing manner, but overall a painterly charm sat in surprising contrast to the crass imagery.

In appearance, Melgaard’s painting fits into an Expressionistic tradition. One can trace a lineage from his fellow Norwegian Edvard Munch and German Expressionism through Cobra and Neo- Expressionists such as A. R. Penck. But his inspiration—and his iconography—derives as much from popular culture as from painting, with sources as diverse as the Pink Panther, Planet of the Apes, and black metal. This demotic content, as well as a predilection for performances involving, for instance, live teacup pigs, caged baby tigers, or—in a work that may be apocryphal—a potentially HIV-positive sex partner, have earned Melgaard his reputation as an enfant terrible. By comparison with some past works, however, this exhibition seemed downright disciplined and focused, however provocative its imagery. Melgaard himself has called these paintings “some of my most introspective yet. . . . The works are about personal archetypes. Oh, and the embrace of male sexuality, of course.”

That might explain the show’s second part: Melgaard worked with Elise By Olsen, a young fashion editor, blogger, and curator, on the gallery’s Instagram feed. Serving as diary, document, and experiment, his chronicle of “Oslo’s counterculture” had a palimpsest quality: Most of the posts linked to other creators’ pages. The entries included videos, images, and music from young photographers, artists, and designers and from Recens Paper, a teen culture magazine By Olsen edited until recently. Images of fashion and daily life mingled with other artworks as well as with Melgaard’s own paintings and his accompanying comments. The format highlighted his magpie approach: that of a networked bricoleur throwing together the kind of sprawl that his other shows manifested in three dimensions. Providing a sense of staged voyeurism, the Instagram feed also became a kind of time capsule of one artist’s 2018. If this is Melgaard’s idea of being more introspective, the rest of us may have to rethink the notion.

Sherman Sam