New York

Trude Viken, Midnight Theater 2, 2021, oil on canvas, 67 × 74 3⁄4".

Trude Viken, Midnight Theater 2, 2021, oil on canvas, 67 × 74 3⁄4".

Trude Viken

According to the authorities on such matters, Snow White was a girl of incomparable loveliness. As the Brothers Grimm tell it, she was as “beautiful as the day.” In the words of Walt Disney, she was nothing short of “an angel.” Indeed, so stunning were the young royal’s features—so mesmeric was the shine of her raven hair, the flush of her bloodred lips, the creaminess of her milk-white skin—that they drove her vain stepmother, egged on by an enchanted mirror, into a homicidal rage.

It is this fairy-tale figure’s synonymousness with beauty that makes Norwegian artist Trude Viken’s twisted interpretation of the princess, Snow White, 2021, so deliciously jarring. Shown in “Midnight Theater,” Viken’s second solo exhibition in New York, the painting depicts its titular subject as being far more monstrous than maidenly. In place of Snow White’s doe eyes are thickly rendered swirls of dishwater-gray paint—windows or, more aptly, chasms into a soul of perhaps questionable virtue. Her famous tresses, let loose from their traditional bun, do not cascade so much as ooze from her scalp, leaking like squid ink down the left side of her face. Her mouth, indicated by a drooping band of anemic pink, looks less like a pout than like an old rubber band, depleted of its elasticity. The magic mirror may have declared Snow White “the fairest of them all,” but Viken, an expressionistic imagemaker more concerned with interiority than with exteriority, is interested in knowing what the princess might have seen when she gazed upon her own reflection: What anxieties or apprehensions did Snow White have about herself? What ugly thoughts lay beneath her unspoiled surface?

The disjuncture between emotion and self-perception is thematized across the artist’s entire recent body of work—inspired, perhaps, by the increase of videoconferencing and of self-contemplation under Covid-19 (a trend that has caused what journalists dub a “Zoom boom” in cosmetic surgery). The seven paintings in her show here, made between 2020 and 2021, delved into the fears and fantasies of her subjects—most frequently, the artist herself. Viken adeptly commits to canvas the often-ineffable feelings of dysmorphia and disquiet that many of us struggle with. Alongside Snow White, visitors were treated to a poignant selection from her ongoing “Diary Notes” series, begun in 2014, consisting of small self-portraits that map the artist’s shifting daily moods, featuring her internal monologue inscribed onto the surface of her face and torso. Across three works, the artist presents herself as a trio of radically different women: a shy blonde, gazing askance at the viewer; a wanton brunette, tongue lolling out of her mouth; and a creature of darkness, enveloped, like Snow White, in a dark tangle of hair. The drama of identity captured in “Diary Notes” is dialed up to surreal heights in Midnight Theater 1 and 2, both 2021, showing dream sequences that present the artist locked in a tumultuous battle between her inner angel and her inner demon. These two images are the centerpieces of the exhibition. With their unapologetic maximalism—layered brushwork, saturated color, and carnivalesque staging—they evoked a kind of malevolent whimsy, something like the work of Francis Bacon crossed with that of Florine Stettheimer. Still little known outside her native Norway, Viken, in “Midnight Theater,” gave us merely a small taste of the strange delights she has to offer.