While we still remember the future
This is not the simplest task from my standpoint, but for a few days I've tried to imagine a situation where I meet Sverre Bjertnes' new body of work without preconceptions, without knowledge of previous events. Not knowing the artist, nor his context. Of course, this is impossible, but I've enjoyed thinking about what the effects of all this - a lot, both in scope and content - would've been, had I not known his artistry. If I were a completely innocent man in his, let's say mid forties to early fifties, unaware of life's dangers and traps, and without warning came across this, I believe things would appear radically different afterwards. Not that I am completely unaffected now, either; if one is to relate to painting regularly, one way or another, it is important to remember that one is bound to come across matter that will change oneself from time to time. We're not playing around - the times art is talked about as "dangerous", this is why. But, even tough this sudden, unexpected experience seems attractive, as some sort of shock therapy, it's still dizzying reflecting from the vantage point I've held for the last 10 years or so. Even though this segment of time alone is enough to get a feeling of weightlessness and disorientation, one of the nice things that comes with writing about art is the possibility to map out the unknown. Or, more often, getting mapped out by the unknown. Since we are already working with a Then and a Now, I would like to quickly jot down a couple of important differences between these markers, before I focus on the Now.
The scope is greater than before, in every way. That does not necessarily mean it has been a narrow one in the past. His artistry has expanded violently from its original base of photorealistic painting, to virtually annexing every sleeping or dead ism in the modernist project - where it's no longer about quoting nor recycling, rather about sampling and fragmentation.
Some of the fundamentals whose presence has been constant,are put at the forefront with a certain emphasis. With this, the connection seems likely, comes a kind of intensity that gets hard to shake. It's like getting up early, opening a window and the 20th century smashes in your face. And, in my mind, it was always like that, yet not quite like it. In reality everything has changed and is more ingrained with a insistent feeling, if not exactly intimidating - if it were a voice, it'd be the voice of an annoyed person who's been repeating the same sentence to someone half deaf, rising in volume to the point where the pitch has replaced the message and order has been foregone out of pure frustration. I'm not implying that frustration and irritation are explicitly present as motivators in the exhibition, but the effect is the same, the order of things seems random, and the implicit narrative always present in figurative painting (even when it collides with abstraction, as it does in these paintings) has been swapped with so many layers of contradicting information that the paintings at the same time appear weirdly open and cryptic, like labyrinths within labyrinths. There are many ways in, but no way out is given.
(As I'm writing this, a crisis arises in an exhibition I'm curating in Oslo opening in one week, as the framer who is already working a tight schedule looses two fingers to an accident. The last sentence I wrote for the press release was "Sad - the kind of sad where you break your fuck-off-finger in five different places".
I just awoke from a dream where I had breakfast with my ex wife and all my clothes were too small, and really... None of this is random. It's hard, incomprehensible and difficult to orientate oneself through at times, but not at all random.)
Of course, we could bicker over the general meaning of the lost isms of a century, a millennium past, but my personal opinion - and it's far from a rare one - is that surrealism most probably is the most important collective experience of this period in time. I could mention two or three isms I love much more, but this is not about my inclinations, but what contained the greatest collective progress - and in that respect, surrealism has all the arguments on its side. It made us, as a species, notice our own internal workings. It marked us as individual quantities. It's also in these semi-transparent grey areas between dream logic and the waking worlds' loss of control Bjertnes' progression as a painter has resonated. If we imagine his artistry as a house, the surrealist experience is the grand living room on the first floor. A natural refuge where one could examine the contradictions between the autobiographical and self-performative, the mythical and the factual and all the other forces that creates the electromagnetic force-field by never quite fitting together. And in this case with virtually no nostalgic patina nor quoting of art history, in retrospect I think of it as a probably necessary refuge for work that overflows with ghosts and personal symbolism.
Now, of course, everything's changed. A lot can happen in a short amount of time, and we could, if we chose to, just stay on the surface - which is in fact, interesting enough - which in this case is a relatively extensive manoeuvre in relation to painting as a creative means of transport and instrument for dissemination. The reason for the house is a painting about painting. The painting it is about is a painting with ambitions to fathom the opportunities within the grey transport distance between two darks we find ourselves subjugated to. Every stone is lifted and examined.
The organisms living beneath the stone desperately squirming about as a side-effect, intolerably exposed to sunlight. For those of us inclined to the fetish of different materials this is exquisite. For those of us that also have a thing for the underlying motifs, it's a complete bonanza. Note: every painting registers a conflict, illustrated by two aesthetic universes colliding within the same plane. Sometimes three. Even four. There are also traces of subject matter slightly outside the field of art history; comic aesthetics, urban art and psychotic scribblings. And then you're already past the surface, noting the small, exact details within the large, contrasting fields that open for bottomless understanding, where layer upon layer of information is processed and put against its opposite.
Whether it is autobiographical, geeky fascination over historical or pop cultural phenomena or lust oriented obsessions. Or, not least, all the different, often self-inflicted, traumas one has earned as an adult, and weirdly enough has put into a system. To say it in the simplest and most educational way; existence it self is something each of us continuously has to process and observe, so we don't pay a heavier toll than necessary. Few of us are especially good at it, but we still have our individual ways to deal with our existential terms.
In retrospect Sverre Bjertnes, with his starting point as wunderkind from the school of the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, could easily have ended up with a strictly defined artistry, but today it's more of a meeting place for visual reconciliation- some would say it's parasitic, others would say it's generous (by the same parameters that decide whether the glass is half full or half empty). Where things are at, a slight echo arises from the 80s wave of material oriented painting, often made by cigar smoking, bearded macho men, who in a postmodern high integrated almost anything as components to their paintings. But the difference is obvious; there's a pre- and post Internet, where processing of visual materials are concerned. Fragmentation has taken over combination. We're living in interesting times.