American-Scandinavian Foundation Celebrates Centennial with Exhibition of Contemporary Nordic Art

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American-Scandinavian Foundation Celebrates Centennial with Exhibition of Contemporary Nordic Art
Saana Wang, Hujialou # 60, 2009. C-print, 31 x 37 in. Courtesy of the artist.

NEW YORK, NY.- North by New York: New Nordic Art, a focused international loan exhibition concentrating on important trends and issues in contemporary Scandinavian art, opened at Scandinavia House. Organized by The American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF) and selected by renowned curator and critic Robert Storr, with independent scholar and curator Francesca Pietropaolo, the exhibition is the second in a series of programs celebrating ASF’s centennial.

The fifteen artists represented—eight women and seven men—include established leaders of contemporary Nordic art, such as Per Kirkeby and Cecilia Edefalk, as well as mid-career and emerging artists, such as Karin Mamma Andersson, Sara-Vide Ericson, Ragnar Kjartansson, Tal R, and Gunnel Wňhlstrand. The works on view were selected to exemplify the extraordinary diversity of media, content, and artistic vision that informs Scandinavian art today. All of the Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—are represented.

The American-Scandinavian Foundation President Edward P. Gallagher states, “One hundred years ago, The American-Scandinavian Foundation was inaugurated with an historic exhibition of works by such canonical masters of Nordic art as Edvard Munch, Carl Larsson, and Anders Zorn. Since then, Scandinavia, and what it means to be Scandinavian, have changed dramatically; but, as this present exhibition makes clear, the Nordic countries, individually and collectively, continue to foster some of the most creative and original talent in the world. We are especially pleased that Robert Storr accepted our invitation to celebrate ASF’s centenary and provide New Yorkers with such a compelling view of the present and, indeed, future of Scandinavian art.”

Robert Storr adds, “Our aim in North by New York has been to focus on artists and works of merit and distinction that also reveal the multiplicity and complexity of content and form that characterize contemporary Nordic art. Indeed, the proliferation of new art by Scandinavian artists in recent years highlights the fact that the Nordic countries today are as pluralistic as anyplace else in the world.”

Encompassing video, performance, and installation art, as well as photography, painting, and drawing, the exhibition offers a concise and engaging glimpse of many of the principal themes and approaches that concern Scandinavian artists of today.

Per Kirkeby (b. 1938)—one of the “old masters” of Danish contemporary art—is among several artists whose work reflects the Nordic peoples’ long-standing reverence for untamed nature. Untitled (2009), a boldly painted canvas of forest greens and inky blacks, typifies Kirkeby’s most recent work and recalls the moody landscapes of Munch. Using very different means for similar aims, Norwegian artist Marte Aas’s (b. 1966) Torshovtoppen (2008) comprises photographs of an overgrown park in Oslo, once a beloved urban oasis but now purchased and fenced off by developers. The images are presented in a format similar to that of lifestyle magazines and real-estate brochures, thereby implicating the viewer in the transaction to which such plots are subjected. Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976) offers his own somewhat tongue-in-cheek take on the stereotype of the angst-ridden Scandinavian artist living in rural isolation: On view in the exhibition are photographs he took of an event site in Norway, capturing an abandoned barn immersed in the landscape and emblazoned with a neon sign reading “Scandinavian Pain.” (The artist performed inside the barn, alone, for several days, playing music with a Yamaha organ; select documentary photographs of this are featured in the exhibition catalogue.) Scandinavia’s ancient and intimate link to the sea is reprised and updated in Danish artist Henrik Lund J°rgenson’s (b. 1975) video Friends He Lost at Sea (2009). The scene of sailors on a stormy beach, pulling their boat to safety and anxiously gazing back out to sea, is closely based on the popular nautical genre paintings of nineteenth-century Danish artist Michael Ancher. However, in J°rgenson’s video the men are racially mixed—many are of dark complexion, and one wears a Palestinian scarf—a reminder of Scandinavia’s traditions of tolerance and hospitality, as well as its own increasingly multicultural character.

Domestic interiors and scenes of everyday life—another longstanding tradition in Nordic painting—also figure prominently in much contemporary Scandinavian art, but are rarely as quotidian as they may seem. Gunnel Wňhlstrand’s (Swedish, b. 1974) meticulous, hyper-realistic ink-wash drawings, based on old family photos, are a case in point. In The Desk (2004) a young boy in his school uniform, his hair carefully combed and parted, dutifully studies at his Swedish Modern desk; but as always in Wňhlstrand’s work, there is a preternatural stillness and too-perfect order that suggest underlying tension and discord. A similar sense of mystery and unquiet stillness informs Karin Mamma Andersson’s (Swedish, b. 1962) Who is Sleeping on My Pillow (acrylic and oil on panel, 2010), which depicts a young man sprawled face down amid bedclothes and comic books. A sinister mood is even more overt in the figurative paintings of Swedish artist Sara-Vide Ericson (b. 1983), whose Detail II (Liar) (oil on canvas, 2010) presents us with a hooded figure who straddles and appears to strangle a young female victim as she stares defiantly at the viewer.

In her video 99 Years of My Life (2003), Finnish photographer Marja Viitahuhta (b. 1979) confronts issues of identity and the role of self-portraiture in art—another timeless theme—with disarming originality and humor.

Allusions to the nature of time, memory, and cultural history often inform the work of Swedish multi-media artist Cecilia Edefalk (b. 1954). Here she is represented by two very different works, both of which pay homage to avant-garde Swedish writer August Strindberg: One is an ethereal figure painted in tempera on linen and entitled Ande August (2008); the other is a video installation (2008/2011) consisting of short cryptic sentences intended as an imagined conversation with Strindberg.

Social injustice and political commentary are themes just as compelling for today’s Scandinavian artists as they are for contemporary artists elsewhere. The photographer duo Libia Castro (Spanish) and Ëlafur Ëlafsson (Icelandic), known for their cross-cultural and socio-critical approach, are represented by a video of Brussels lobbyists at work. Danish-Israeli artist Tal R’s (b. 1967) People from Clock (oil on canvas, 2009) is based on photographs of a once-notorious section of New York City known as “Bandit’s Roost,” taken by Jacob Riis, the nineteenth-century Danish-American photojournalist whose work exposed the grim realities of mass migrations to America. However, instead of the grimy black-and-white photographic images of thugs in squalid surroundings, Tal R renders the scene in gay primary colors and flattened shapes, reminiscent of a child’s coloring book.

Norwegian-born artist Gardar Eide Einarsson (b. 1976), who lives in New York and Tokyo, is known for politically charged works in a variety of formats. He is represented here by a work specifically made for this exhibition, an enormous (8' x 8') banner with the word “anger” rendered in Japanese characters. Finnish-born, New York-based photographer Saana Wang’s (b. 1979) 2008 series entitled Hujialou (a working-class neighborhood in Beijing) features female figures with painted masks—evocative of Beijing Opera performers—posed in bleak apartment interiors that appear to date from the Revolutionary era. The effect is at once poignant and surreal.

Certainly one of the most original expressions of contemporary Scandinavian creativity is the Mieskuoro Huutajat, or Screaming Men’s Choir. Wearing their signature black ties made from rubber tires, this male choral group from Finland, conducted by Petri Sirvi÷, screams rather than sings musical lyrics. Although best known for their renditions of actual songs, they are represented here by a video in which they shout Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 historic speech to Parliament apologizing for his country’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples.

Robert Storr
Painter, critic, curator, and art historian Robert Storr has been dean of the Yale School of Art since 2006. Prior to this he was professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts (2002–2006) and senior curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York (1990–2002). At MoMA, Mr. Storr organized more than twenty exhibitions—including seminal retrospectives of Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman (with Tate Gallery, London), Chuck Close, Tony Smith, and Elizabeth Murray—and for ten years was coordinator of Projects, the Museum’s exhibition series devoted to the work of contemporary artists. From 2005 to 2007, he served as the first American-born director of the Venice Biennale. The author of numerous monographs and catalogues, Mr. Storr is a contributing editor at Art in America and writes frequently for Artforum, Frieze, and other publications.

Francesca Pietropaolo
Art historian and independent curator Francesca Pietropaolo has worked at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1999–2001), and The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2001–2006), among other museums. From 2005 to 2007, she was executive curatorial and research specialist for the 52nd Venice Biennale. Recently, Dr. Pietropaolo co-curated (with Robert Storr) the international exhibition Wrinkles in Time/Images Unconfined for IVAM (Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno), Valencia, Spain (2009). She has contributed essays to numerous exhibition catalogues and publications, including In Praise of Doubt (Fondation Franšois Pinault, Punta della Dogana, Venice, 2011) and Tatiana TrouvÚ (Kunsthaus, Graz, Austria, 2010), and has written extensively on such artists as Jaishri Abichandani, Yto Barrada, Luca Buvoli, Paolo Canevari, and Margaret Salmon. She contributes art criticism to Art in America, ARTnews, The Brooklyn Rail, and Arte e Critica (Rome).

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