Bjarne Melgaard with Bob Recine
In the heyday of mid-1990s neo-conceptualism, Bjarne Melgaard enters the Norwegian art scene with expressionistic and chaotic paintings, sculptures and installations full of desire and fearful longings staged somewhere in between fiction and reality. Mastering the line of drawing and the architecture of installation, he takes spectators into a labyrinth of layered and complex narratives, in which subjects are excessive and destructive, and where strokes and splashes take on the shape of otherworldly phenomena, often to the soundtrack of outrageous and violent words. Melgaard has traveled extensively for more than 15 years, taking up residence in Oslo, Poznan, Warsaw, Maastricht, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Sidney, Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin, Barcelona and New York. During this time, he has created multiples worlds while breaking down artistic boundaries and questioning the limits of morality. When his visions are exhibited in galleries and museums, they tend to provoke extreme reactions. In this mid-career retrospective at the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, a broad selection of his works are included across a spectrum of media – drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations – to give the audience an insightful experience of his artistic project, and a deeper understanding of what motivates his complicated and dark scenarios. Melgaard’s art belongs to a long tradition of expressionism that can be traced back to Edward Munch – Melgaard’s spiritual and stylistic mentor – and to the founding of Die Brucke in Dresden in 1905 (by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluf and Emil Nolde). It peaked with the activities of Der Blaue Reiter (formed by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke and Paul Klee) just before the outbreak of the First World War. Rather than promoting a uniform and easily definable style, expressionism cherished the portrayal of inner tensions, contradictions and conflicts. Thus it represented a rupture with existing artistic conventions, which dictated that works of art portray an exterior reality. In its broadest sense, expressionism denotes a visual act that manifests the inner experience of the artist at the moment of creation and therefore implicitly deviates from academic or classical standards. The spiritual foundations of the movement were inspired by the Dionysian vitality of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings and Henri Bergson’s élan vital, notions that gained popularity in the late 19th century. For many years, expressionism remained a latent art current in Europe, and particularly so in Germany and the Nordic countries. The Cobra movement, headed by Asger Jorn and Karel Appel from the late 1940s, was essentially an amalgamation of expressionism and surrealism, but with an increased emphasis on spontaneity over Freudian automatism. In the early 1960s, expressionist principles found resonance in the work of artists like Georg Baselitz, Markus Lupertz and Bernd Koberling (who would later occupy an important presence on the Norwegian art scene), who reacted against the then prevalent influence of abstract art and also stood out against the more objective and rational movement of conceptual art in the 1970s. The Viennese Actionists in the late 1960s and early 1970s were a further variation of expressionist ideas whereby artists including Otto Muehl, Günter Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch staged extreme and often violent happenings to bring art into life. Their Orgien-Mysterien-Theater presented orgiastic events followed by a series of performance-paintings involving the physical presence of the audience. The real turning point came with the appearance of the Junge Wilde in the late 1970s, a group of young German artists including Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Salomé and Bernd Zimmer in Berlin, Walter Dahn and Jiri Georg Dokoupil in Cologne, and Martin Kippenberger, Werner Büettner and brothers Albert and Markus Oehlen in Hamburg. Their paintings were figurative and spiritual, passionate and ironic and often contained strong social and political commentary. Together they were influential in generating the international movement of neo-expressionism that dominated much of the 1980s. An instinctive and genuine painter, Bjarne Melgaard adopts expressionist language in his works – or, perhaps more accurately, he has become adopted by this introspective style. His images grow from that emptiness where his artistic desires and inner demons meet. When creating his works, he will jump on the first spontaneous idea he gets, without preconception. He developed his characteristic formal language in the mid-1990s, and this period, in particular, reflects the real pleasure Melgaard takes in painting and the feelings and sensuality that go into each line – drawn or painted – sometimes taking his works to the verge of pure abstraction. Most of the time, however, we encounter male subjects within a homo-erotically charged environment. It is a complex, even chaotic, pictorial world where figures and objects seem to metamorphose in indefinable ways from one state to another. Melgaard invents fantastical scenes, or rather, he “renders visible” dreams and fantasies, as if trying to make them real. To emphasise the connection to an exterior reality, he sometimes incorporates images and photographs cut out from magazines into his works. These clippings serve to anchor them in a given moment in time and provide each work with a fundamental identity. In addition, Melgaard frequently makes use of text – fragmented sentences, exclamations and singular words – to balance the graphic, visual element with the phoneme, the small, segmental units of sound. Together, words, paintings, drawings, and sculptures become like one overarching installation, which seems to submerge and overwhelm the spectator in their own particular time and space. His works are animated by a surrealistic impulse and are loaded with punctual symbolic references almost always explicitly sexual and violent in nature. The same references appear again and again throughout his works, as if an obsession. Animals like dogs, monkeys, penguins, octopuses and kangaroos are often portrayed together with black holes and penises. The word “fuck” becomes an ongoing theme, both metaphorically or literally: “artist fucked in his head,” “fuck Africa,” “fuck you,” “fuck me,” “fuck Bruce Nauman”… This is the artist speaking, repeatedly telling the spectator and the world who he is, a homosexual and an outsider, while at the same time taking on different transient identities – Casanova, Rob Bobel, Bernard St. Summiere, Raoul – in his attempt to challenge repressive social conventions, expectations and prejudices. It is an attempt to stage autobiographical fiction, and to approach absolute freedom. After a period of predominantly narcissistic works in which he engages deeply with his own sexuality and specific sexual encounters, Melgaard shifts his focus onto wider and more general subject matter inspired by the popular science-fiction film from 1968, Planet of the Apes. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and starring Charlton Heston in the lead role, this film was loosely based on Pierre Boulle’s novel La planète des singes from 1963. The Planet of the Apes by Melgaard (2000) is a vast epic that tells an intricate story of racism and exclusion in the contemporary western world. It casts the relationship between apes and humans as a metaphor for the complicated relationship between different races and, not least, between homo- and heterosexuals. These gigantic works (ranging in size from 6 to 7 meters) tell stories with a host of geographical and historical references. More so than his earlier works, they are constructions, and seem to conflate the distinct mediums of sculpture, painting, drawing into sundry collages. Formally, the style is more constrained and the use of language more subdued than in most of the artist’s other works, although vulgar and transgressive subject matter creeps in from time to time, most notably in the sculptures. This is increasingly the case as Melgaard became influenced by the Black Metal world in the 1990s. Fascinated by the philosophy and social attitude of Norwegian black metal rockers, championing anti-authority, anti-Christian and anti-bourgeois attitudes, the artist brings their particular aesthetics into his perverted and unique pictorial world of homosexuality, sadomachosim, drugs and extreme violence. Both in terms of subject matter and style, his works become more violently expressive and the artist seems to adopt the role of the “invisible third partner” in different acts of sex, violence, and even death. Melgaard has often likened the act of creation to prostitution, characterising the painting as a whore or a slut – and it becomes increasingly obvious that he “paints with his penis.” Following on from The Planet of the Apes and his experiences with Black Metal, Melgaard reverts back to a more introspective style of expression and enlists hermitic subject matter where human figures resemble animals and imaginary monsters symbolise the artist, himself, and his experience of suffering, solitude, and emptiness. This period in his career (from 2003 to 2008), where he lives in Berlin and then Barcelona, coincides with an escalating use of drugs and steroids. The words and phrases within his works become more aggressive than sensual and the creative process itself appears divorced from the excitement, frustration and exhaustion conveyed. And then, about a year and a half ago, Melgaard made his latest move to date, to New York City. As he has adapted to a new life style, the pleasure of painting seems to have returned. New kinds of projects are initiated, although the overall subject matter and obsessive style remain the same. He has radically changed his way of working, hiring assistants to reproduce selected images to a pre-specified degree of photorealism, on top of which he then inserts his own instinctive, expressionistic, art brut style. This body of works can be seen together as a painted novel, with references to the American magazine Made in USA as well as to different images of the artist and his mother and father, taken from his family album. Once again, it’s fictional self-biography. Although we can talk of Melgaard’s oeuvre in terms of different stylistic periods corresponding to a greater or lesser degree to various chapters in his life, his art is a continued, and ongoing, flow of real and imagined narratives. All elements of his works, whether photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures, installations, films, books and catalogue, tell us the same story of exclusion and invoke the same quest for the individual’s total freedom. Melgaard situates himself within a Nietzschean discourse of instincts and passions, morality and normality. He is engaged with the extent to which people are socially conditioned, pressured by existing moral and religious guidelines to conform to a specific idea of normality. For Melgaard (as for Nietzsche), passion always goes beyond reason and is inherently anti-social in nature. And he is acutely aware that “these passions must be further developed if life is to be further developed.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p.23) Frequently rejected by society – as a child, as a homosexual, at the State Art School of Norway (Kunstakademiet and Kunst – og Handverkskolen, where his application was rejected six times), and never belonging to a particular artistic group – Melgaard has through his position as an artist found a way to communicate with a society which he never really felt part of. Through this position, he is able to raise specific and pointed questions about the notion of normality and the reasons for social exclusion. He questions, and outright rejects, any form of authority, order and conformity, and adopts different, transient identities in his attack on modern society as a social contract of behaviour. By engaging with topics of discrimination, racism, sadomasochistic homosexuality, drugs, torture, extreme suffering and death, often using local Norwegian sub-cultures as reference, Melgaard’s contorted figures, his apes and other animals, and provocative phrases, are directed straight at the society in which he grew up. The artist challenges boundaries and conventions in the name of personal, absolute freedom. Melgaard has reinvented expressionism in an intense dialog with its historical figures, including Munch, Jorn, Baselitz and Kippenberger. Yet we see throughout his works a notion of constancy and repetition, the latter in a Deleuzeien sense which does not refer to seriality, but repetition as that “which may include difference within itself” (Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 1968/1994). This aspect of repetition or obsessive constancy also relates to Roland Barthes’ notion of style which transcends all forms of writing: “le style a toujours quelque chose de brut: il est une forme sans destination, il est comme une produit d’une poussée, non d’une intention, il est comme une dimension verticale et solitaire de la pensée. Ses références sont au niveau d’une biologie ou d’un passé, non d’une Histoire: il est la “chose” de l’écrivain, sa splendeur et sa prison, il est sa solitude…” (Roland Barthes, Le Dégres Zéro de l’Écriture, 1953, pp.12 and 14) (Style is always something raw: It’s a form without destination, it’s like the result of a thrust, not an intention, it’s like a vertical and solitary dimension of thought. Its references are on the level of biology or the past, not History: it’s the “thing” of the writer, her splendour and her prison, it’s her solitude.” We encounter constancy and repetition throughout Melgaard’s career. His homoerotic and violent imagery resonates within his raw expressionistic style, where a line or a trace sometimes give form to figures or remain on the paper or canvas simply as an echo of his subjectivity. His obsession with sexuality, and his endorsement of sexual behaviour that transgresses societal norms, forms a constant in his works. It is possible to gather from Melgaard’s compositions how he first establishes his subjects within the picture frame and then witness his subjective interference with the initial drawing, building up an increasingly intense reaction towards it, resulting in a certain climactic or destructive act. More often than not, one can sense the intense pleasure the artist derives from this creational process, although this pleasure often seems mixed with violence. An ambiguous but productive relationship exists between text and imagery, style and subject matter. Within this multi-layered aesthetic chaos, amidst this violent écriture of lines, scribbles, splashes and traces, one can see and feel the energy and emotional intensity that went into it. Bjarne Melgaard’s style emerges from the overall physicality of his works and the excesses of each brushstroke. It is almost as if his subjects speak through the artist as spirits through a medium, and in turn provide him with a tool for transforming his phantasms into an act of liberation.