A floating snowman with a black-button smile, a flattened hat and a very long nose made of a carrot that ends in the groove of an LP. This is the motif in one of Lars Nørgård’s works from 1998. It is not atypical of Lars Nørgård to play with a proverb or an idiomatic phrase – in the present instance the expression being “to get stuck in a groove”. Hearing an LP running in the same groove and repeating the same very short piece of music time and time again is rarely something to be enjoyed. In this work, any listeners must surely have been frightened away long ago – at all events the LP has continued in the same groove for so long that a cloud of smoke is spreading over the left side of the painting.
Despite its straightforward appearance, the gentle colours, a style related to that of the strip cartoon and the title of Poolboy, which on the face of it is cheerful though not particularly informative, this painting gives the impression of being about something more serious. About being stuck in a groove and being unable to move on. On closer examination, the scene is transformed into a reference to a familiar concern. For surely most people know the fear of having become stuck? In his own way, Lars Nørgård here shows that he is aware of the danger of being stuck in a groove for too long – and perhaps this is part of the explanation for his very heterogeneous body of work. He is constantly on the move, and on his way he challenges both himself and those who look at the works.
Variability is seen not only in Lars Nørgård’s work as a whole, but also in the individual pieces. This applies not least to his more recent relatively abstract paintings in which shapes and colours intermingle in play with space and form. In the figurative work, too, and in the drawings an ambiguous chaos predominates when humour, gravity, figure and abstraction intermingle and not least when the motifs are transformed en route, while what is reminiscent of an action nevertheless turns out to be a false trail. There are no simple answers in Lars Nørgård’s works. But for that very reason they are difficult to put aside for the viewer. And the viewer’s encounter with Lars Nørgård’s pictures is to be the subject of this article.
On movement (in the works from the last 10 years and in the viewer)
There is plenty to get on with when standing in front of Lars Nørgård’s pictures. Just take one of the latest paintings, Caesar in the Coal Cellar from 2011. Shapes and colours mingle over the entire surface of the picture, and a certain centrifugal force seems to be present as is the case in several works from recent years (another of which has the very fitting title of Centrifuga). Recognizable shapes appear in an exploration of the work – a crutch surrounded by a laurel wreath, the lapping of waves, a couple of disconnected feet hanging down in the middle of the right hand side of the picture, a large black cross against a white background that can be faintly made out against glazed, slightly transparent colours, briefly stopping the centrifugal movement. A stepped formation can be perceived as the structure behind the painting. The figurative elements can be sensed, but they immediately disintegrate again because at the same time they act as abstract elements in the picture.
In an interview with Lisbeth Bonde, Lars Nørgård himself comments that he wants the pictures “constantly be wrenched away from a meaning. Every time people think that now they have a meaning, it must disappear to be replaced by a new meaning.” This comment sounds a bit like an echo from a postmodern discourse in which all signs are fundamentally viewed as void, for which reason references to something recognisable in a painting will not necessary lead to a meaning. But here it is less about signs than about form. And in Lars Nørgård’s works it is not only important that meaning should be expunged from them. It is at least as important that there should be a constant process of movement towards something new and that the picture should thus set something in motion in the person looking at it. Constantly, it seems that new forms are appearing which nevertheless are not the vehicles for an entire story. Therefore, the picture comes to be about movement towards form and about everything that is in the process of becoming rather than in the state of being.
The fact that movement often plays the main part in Lars Nørgård’s pictures is especially clear in the completely abstract pictures, for instance Velouria from 2007. In these paintings, the figurative elements are reduced to such an extent that they fail to become anything recognisable before they disappear again. Instead, the motif becomes colours, shapes, lines – and the movement itself.
Velouria is far from being as centrifugal as the slightly later pictures. Instead, incipient motifs, suggestions of outlines and expressive strokes seem to explode across the surface from somewhere at the centre of the canvas – the movement out towards the sides is also present, but the centrifuge is not in action. However, it is still the energy and the rhythm in the areas of colour, the lines and the splashes that make the picture appear to create movement. Indeed, it may be that movement itself is the actual significance of the abstract pictures. Understood here as movement both in the picture and in the the viewer. For the fact that there are tracks in the picture that a viewer can pick up and build on means that the viewer’s work, too, becomes part of the picture’s meaning. While the picture’s movement is the one that seems to take place in the actual picture space – the dynamic lines and expressive splashes that intersect each other – the movement on the part of the viewer takes place in the head. That is to say when we see something we think looks even just slightly recognisable and try to relate it to something familiar. For instance a cloud that suddenly becomes a dog, a dragon, a cup of coffee and so on. And it is precisely the feeling that there is constantly something that is on the point of revealing itself, but which never completely manifests itself that gives the picture its power of attraction. By means of imagery that is partly recognisable and partly abstract, Lars Nørgård’s abstract paintings encourage viewers themselves to continue the work of creating a meaning, and although these are paintings and thus objects, it is not in the painting itself that an unambiguous meaning can be discovered. A meaning arises rather in the interplay between the painting and the viewer – in the movement that the painting seems to be able to prompt in whoever stands before it and “works along with it”. This implies that not all viewers will derive the same narratives and meanings from the picture.
To return to Velouria: this picture has set something going by its very title. Velouria is the title of an energetic, melodious, punkish piece by the band known as the Pixies, and once you have heard that it is difficult not to see the energy of the music in that of the picture. It is in general a very obvious conclusion to think of music in extension of Lars Nørregård’s work. Here, because it is almost possible to hear the music’s energy in the expressive strokes and dots in the picture and also because there seems to be something both rhythmical and melodious about many of the abstract pictures: the numerous coloured surfaces are painted with straight and meticulously placed brush strokes but are often interrupted by more isolated strokes that suggests something – perhaps an incipient figuration. This can be compared to the melody that emerges above the rhythm in a piece of music, often masking the rhythm for a moment only then yield to it again. That he has a musical approach to his works is something Lars Nørgård indirectly suggests himself when talking about titles. A question about the titles, the effect of which is often confusing rather than informative, will often produce the answer that the rhythm of the title fits that of the picture (for instance in the work entitled Collecteur’s Square). And Lars Nørgård always listens to music as he works. In recent years names such as Pat Metheny, Art Bears, The Shaggs, This Heat and earlier records of John Mayall have all had their time on the stereo in the studio.
On energy (in the pictures and in time – back to the beginning)
Probably Lars Nørgård’s background music when working on the earliest pieces in the exhibition was punk? The picture This is just a Temporary Place to Stay is redolent of 1982 – squatters, punk music, rootlessness, a devil-may-care attitude and the potential for new beginnings. It is raw and violent in expression and colour. While the later pictures have an energy deriving from the constant movement in the composition and the genesis of forms, energy is definitely also a crucial element in This is just a Temporary Place to Stay. And in this work, too, the forms move out towards the surface of the picture from some central point. But at the same time there is a quite different approach to this painting from that in the most recent pictures, which are usually extremely carefully contrived. In This is just a Temporary Place to Stay, there is something else going on. The colours are simple: red, black, grey and white. The powerful red signal colour and the heavy black are dominating the shades of white and grey. The picture has been painted with ordinary wall paint, and the colour has run in various places. The motif is relatively simple. There are shapes that can be recognised as parts of a hammer, a corkscrew, a saw, an arrow and something that looks like a screw. The picture gives the impression of having been done more quickly than the later works and thanks to the material used it also tells plainly of the straightforward approach to painting as a medium that was the mark of De unge vilde (“Wild Youth”) and the group centred in Værkstedet Værst (“The Workshop Worst”) – of which Lars Nørgård was a member during the early 80s. As the title so splendidly suggests, this is a question of something temporary – it has not been created as a work to last for ever; it is rather a work that both through its materials, its expression and its history appears to document the time in which it was created. 1982 is the year in which painting was revived in earnest on the Danish art scene, and artists were working all out. There is raw energy in the air. Poetry, music and visual art are united – festivals and private views are a mixture of all three. The artists work together, or at any rate in the same room, in Værkstedet Værst, in a building scheduled for demolition in Rosenørns Allé in the Frederiksberg area of Copenhagen. So there is something temporary about the place, and the painting This is just a Temporary Place to Stay disappears for a time because Lars Nørgård moves to Germany when the building is demolished in December 1983. He finds it again in an auction 26 years later, so that – in spite of everything – it has survived. A glance at the picture gives an impression of both the energy of the period and the early, energetic painting of the 80s.
As early as the 1980s, Lars Nørgård embarked on a series of stylistic summersaults – ranging from casual punk through “weird” pictures of his circle of friends inspired by the Danish modernist Vilhelm Lundstrøm, to darker pictures such as the both sombre and ingenious Underbukser (Underpants) from 1986. Out of the dark, greenish yellow and brown background to this painting two forms appear – on the right a naked man whose face seems to reveal a certain discomfort in view of the situation and on the left a pair of white underpants. On the face of things there is no story and no immediate explanation to the picture. In spite of the sombre atmosphere, however, there is still a humorous element. If a pair of underpants had not disturbed the left half of the picture, it would not have demonstrated the same ingenuity, but the question lurks there as to what has taken place beforehand. A drawing with the same motif gives preponderance to the humorous element. It shows the man on his way off towards the right, while a couple of lines suggesting rapid movement show the underpants flying off him, and here, too, they are deposited on the left-hand side of the picture. The drawing preceded the painting, and something has happened in the meantime. The comical element in the drawing, where the underpants suddenly take on their own life and slip off the amazed man, has disappeared in the heavy, dark colouring of the painting. Here, the man is standing still and it all seems rather more lonely and serious in spite of the absurd positioning of the fine white underpants as the central motif.
The dark expression and the mixture of shades of brown and greenish yellow in many of the pictures from the middle of the 1980s are in accordance with the young artists’ move to distance themselves from aesthetic painting. These painters return to painting after a lengthy period during which painting was neglected in favour of the often politically based conceptual art of the 1970s. They are inspired by similar movements especially in Germany, where the so-called “Heftige Malerei” – “brutal painting” – made its breakthrough a few years earlier – and then they produce for all they are worth. There is no urge at that time to produce a masterpiece; it is rather the process that is the most important thing. The “wild youth” artists were considered by their contemporaries to be a group, but they had radically different approaches to painting, and in spite of the euphoria that brought them together and the unceremonious attitude to the creation of pictures, they soon went off each in their own direction. For many of the artists, painting was a new medium to which they turned without having studied it, and without painting as such being their main interest. Several of the artists in the group around Lars Nørgård, for instance Claus Carstensen, Peter Bonde and Erik A. Frandsen, worked conceptually with painting and among other things went in for “the aesthetics of ugliness”, meaning that they consciously worked with something ugly – for instance garish colours. Lars Nørgård’s studies in the Academy of Art College in San Francisco means that he differs from them in having a knowledge of the technique of painting. However, he distances himself during this period from the bright colours that he had been shown by the Californian art world and which are found again in the later abstract paintings. But he has no need to work conceptually as do many of his colleagues. Instead, he concentrates on painting and its potential.
On transformation (humour, gravity and the figures)
Between the dark, the “weird” and the rapidly painted, more bombastic works in the 1980s and the lighter, precisely planned, abstract works of the last ten years or so, there is a group of paintings in which the figures take over. It is here – in the paintings from the 1990s – we find bellboys, snowmen and men with guns.
The figures are often caught in absurd situations from which they are more or less vainly trying to extricate themselves. There seems to be an element of humour present in these paintings, as can be justified partly by the approach – often in the nature of a strip cartoon and reminiscent of humorous drawings – and partly in the absurd situations portrayed, which are reminiscent of slapstick humour. The situations in paintings such as Underground Cook and Bellboy, in which an apparently frightened bellboy is trying to fight his way out of a suitcase with a huge clock in the background, are reminiscent of those in Lars Nørgård’s drawings and for which he is just as well known as for his paintings. The drawings have been created as an independent medium alongside the paintings since 2004, but there is also a dialogue between the two media, and the same figures often appear in both. In a few cases, the aesthetics of the drawing are transferred to the painting, and a motif from a drawing is painted directly on to a canvas in a single black line against a white background, for instance in Protest Song from 2010. However, the drawings are often no more than just drawings on paper – quite simple lines, but certainly not simple motifs, where absurdity and transformation abound. Here it must be noted that Lars Nørgård does not refrain from making sketches when working with his painting and this has always been the case. There are large numbers of drawings behind the paintings – most of the lines on the canvas have ultimately simply disappeared behind several layers of paint.
It is the absurd that unites the figurative paintings and drawings. There is always something taking place that does not immediately make sense and which is not really possible. Such as a doormat that is transformed into a fighter plane in the drawing A scrap of truth (from 2003). Or a cook with a rifle, the barrel of which turns into a tunnel into which a locomotive can disappear. In Underground Cook, we are back in the clear strip cartoon figuration, of which Poolboy is also an example. And this picture, too, contains a touch of gravity in what at first looks comical. Comical because it is in the style of the strip cartoon and because it shows an absurd situation. In addition to the cook, we see some sad figures reminiscent of hunters in their green attire. All six of them are preparing to shoot each in their own direction, but they face different challenges. In the case of one of them the barrel of the rifle ends directly at the centre of a target. A second appears to have shot a small flag out of the barrel instead of the lethal bullet. A third is taking aim but has a plaster over his eye. In the case of a fourth, all that is visible is the hat and the barrel. Huntsman number five appears not to have any great problem apart from a red nose, while the last of them is probably faced with the greatest challenge of them all – his gun is a branch from which a pear is hanging. This last huntsman can incidentally also be seen in the work entitled A Musical Experience from the following year. If I call these figures sad and not merely amusing, it is because tragedy seems to be as close at hand as comedy. The cook’s red-ringed eyes and the dogged expressions of the others reinforce the impression of quite tangible desperation. And they are sad lives that are afraid of something indeterminate, while at the same time giving the impression of not being capable of defending anything at all.
In general, tragedy appears to thrive just as well as comedy in Lars Nørgård’s work. The viewer is faced with a strip cartoon-like expression in a medium and a format which historically speaking have been reserved for great drama – for instance in impressive historical paintings – and is invited to laugh in encountering figures and absurd situations that can easily bear comparison with the work of the Danish satirist Storm P. However, a touch of gravity is introduced, and humour is succeeded by melancholy. For the challenges encountered by the figures suggest certain general concerns – for instance a recognisable feeling of insecurity or the suggestion that everyday life is sometimes figuratively speaking an uphill struggle. One illustration of this is the long row of nails lying in the road leading to the fish in the coloured drawing Protest Song, in which the main figure otherwise seems to be faced with plenty of challenges, having bicycle handlebars as his head and with the head of a cat peering out of his trouser seat. So hidden in the tragi-comical, quirky humour underlying most of Lars Nørgård’s work there is perhaps also an unpretentious acknowledgement that real life also contains a host of absurdities.
Extro – on everything at once
Despite the immediate heterogeneity of Lars Nørgård’s works over the years, the link between them is constant movement and the transformation from one thing to another. In the figurative paintings and in the drawings, it is easy to see what is transformed into what. The figurative absurdities in paintings and drawings prompt the viewer to solve the problem of what is actually going on, though the solution is beyond reach. In the approach to form seen in the abstract paintings, there are no simple, established figures, but rather a fantastic, insoluble jigsaw puzzle of possibilities and constant geneses.
Should one finally conclude to the question whether Lars Nørgård is stuck in the LP groove like the snowman’s nose, the answer must be no. He is still moving.
The viewer’s experience of the works has played the main part in this text, and the focus has been on movement, energy and the transformative process. For that seems to be what is at play.. However, opposition is also a principal element in Lars Nørgård’s work. And perhaps it is opposition that is the unifying factor in the midst of all the variable elements. For Lars Nørgård lays traps on the way. For his figures, himself and the viewer. He confronts his figures with quite major challenges when bellboys are constantly caught in bags, when men suddenly lose their underpants, or when an entire backside flies away as in the drawing And the Backside Goes (from 1993). But so as not to become stuck, he also confronts himself with challenges and moves on as soon as he has found an expression.
In relation to the viewer, opposition is also what sets it all going. Opposition is the riddle that is established in both figurative and abstract works, and which encourages the viewer to continue the fantasy and to take part in the work of creating meaning. So it is a question of positive opposition. An opposition that creates and activates and which means that the pictures not only show something, but encourage an active participation on the part of the person looking at them. It is unusual for so many enigmas to be produced, for so many obstacles to be encountered in a work, and for so many subtle stories to be sensed in the process as is the case with Lars Nørgård’s works. And it is these small stones on the way and the stimuli to considerations both lively and humorous as well as more serious and melancholy and most of all to the constant renewal that makes these works appeal to the viewer again and again.