Icelandic Art Today: Jón Óskar
~ Ólafur Gíslason
Icelandic Art today, Ch. Schoen & H. B. Runólfsson. Hatje Cantz 2009.
At the first of Jón Óskar’s exhibitions I attended, there were, among other works, photographs of a young man painted in vibrant yellows, whites and reds. It was not the picture that had been painted, but rather the man himself: clothes, hair, everything except his eyes. Was this man therefor transformed into his own portrait – which was then altered and printed as a series of photographs – or what?
These large-scale images came as a fresh wind into the Icelandic art scenery and raised obtrusive questions about the ambiguous relationship between the image and its model. Ever since this exhibition, where Jón Óskar already showed to be a mature artist, has his art been dealing with this ambiguity between appearance and being.
When we examine a portrait or a picture of someone, we take for granted that the picture is blind – that it cannot return our gaze. The man Jón Óskar painted broke this rule and thus complicated our understanding of figurative representation. Certainly the artist "fixed" this "error" by then photographing the man who had been changed into his own portrait, thereby sealing in the subject’s vision. Nonetheless, the photograph awakened a consciousness about, and scrutiny of, the nature of the equivocal relationship between reality and its representation. The portrait is blind; thus, to a certain extent, it assumes the qualities of a death mask. It affords the viewer a power he cannot have when facing a living person. In this way, portraying reality is somehow connected to a form of violence and our desire to come to terms with what we see bur cannot completely control.
To my knowledge, Jón Óskar has not played this trick again, but the performance has nevertheless shed light on the wide variety of works he has produced since. Whether in the form large-scale painted portraits, pictures referring to historical events or the spirit of times past, drawings, photographs, or prints, what always shines through is Jón Óskar’s awareness of how the presence and absence of his subject matter are in conflict on the surface of the picture, often through a work process that reveals its own conflict and violence. The picture’s surface becomes a sort of battlefield where we find the remains of a struggle between the painter and his subject matter, which has long since abandoned the field and left nothing but indefinite traces of its presence.
If we are to look to art history for parallels to Jón Óskar’s work, we can stop both at Diego Velásquez’s painting Las Meninas and René Magritte’s picture of the pipe, two classic examples about the conflict between presence and absence in figurative imagery. Jón Óskar’s parallel in contemporary art can be found in Anselm Kiefer, who in his historical paintings has shown us the surface of the painting as the battlefield between nothingness and being. He has brought back to life in his paintings a world that no longer exists save in historic memory as a kind of mythology; and thus awakened a challenging consciousness of a paradoxical presence of nothingness. Jón Óskar’s pictures are of the same ilk, whether they show portraits, snippets of tapestry patterns and ornaments of a forgotten era, or the famous account of George Washington crossing the Delaware during the American Revolution. The artistic approach Jón Óskar takes in this endless endeavor is nonetheless highly personal, making him unique in contemporary Icelandic and Nordic art.
Though Jón Óskar’s works seem at first glance to bear marks of Expressionism, his expression is not a search for openings and outlets for inner passions as found in Expressionism of the early twentieth century. The conflicts within his pictures are much rather a testament to the struggle between absence and nothingness that the subject matter leaves behind, on one hand, and its presence that it beckons on the other.
It was the mandate of modern abstract art, and especially Minimalism, that objective reality should not be represented in visual art, but rather that art should be straightforward without making reference to anything but its own existence. Minimalism emptied our idea of art of its core. In Jón Óskar’s work, we see how reality reappears in visual art through the struggle that exists between being and nothingness in the existence of contemporary man and his surroundings.
Jon Oskar Crosses the Delaware
~ Jón Proppé Art Critic
Cataloque, 101 Gallery, Reykjavik, Iceland 2005.
From the beginning, Jón Óskar’s art set him apart, even on Iceland’s sometimes chaotically diverse art scene. His paintings, always confidently executed, managed to balance a high modern sensibility with something quintessentially contemporary, quite edgy without tying into trends. His portraits and formal studies used only a narrow spectrum of colour but they were remarkably complete though often rough, they had poise. The male figures exuded calm and confidence like Hellenic statues in a tie and a dress shirt. The composition was often borrowed from the cinema and the figures were framed in a tight-shot. They were cool and slightly futuristic.
They seemed to me at the time to signal an intelligent alternative to the callow yuppie mentality that was taking hold in the eighties, the profit-obsessed wolves that cavorted in the dress of hedonistic lambs. With Reagan and Thatcher at large there was a keen need for inspiring art.
The portraits earned Jón Óskar immediate recognition but he chose to develop different aspects of the work, the formal studies fuelled by his fascination with patterns, repeated figures and distributed composition. At the same time, he worked as a designer on newspapers, magazines and other print projects where his style was unmistakable as was his clear and dynamic use of type. He also cultivated a documentary style with photographs in the exhibition and book project Friends and Lovers in 1994 and the scanner portraits shown and published in 1996. His extensive work with computers in design and game development led to the Counter Strike installations in the Mynd exhibition, Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo, and Reykjavik Art Museum 2000 and 2001. These strands or lines of thought were largely kept separate. Though there were frequent spillovers, Jón Óskar pursued each discipline on its own terms, quietly analysing even the computer games for their expressive capabilities and aesthetic contributions.
In the Dealware exhibition, Jón Óskar pulls together the several strands of the last two decades of his career. Much in the exhibition is also a sort of reworking of his original attraction to art, his upbringing in Iceland and the years he spent studying in New York at just the time of the city’s resurgence in the early 1980s when new money was fuelling a rebirth of the New York art scene. Jón Óskar uses the encaustic method in his painting, applying hot pigment in beeswax to the canvas as he did already in the early portraits. As before, the paintings are rather dark and the range of colours small with dark or black brushwork on top of a brownish background. The black drawings resemble jottings on a worksheet, a jumble of images, text and inscrutable shapes. The general approach is familiar, echoing various developments among the painters of New York as well as Jón Óskar’s own varied pursuits. It is an eclectic mix, as though the painting had to be translated into several languages to leave no doubt of its meaning.
The drawings in the exhibition, too, have a complicated provenance, including references to drawings in the children’s books that we in Iceland inherited in late translations from earlier generations of Danes and Mid-Europeans. Their nineteenth-century outlook was accepted almost at face value in post-war Iceland where boys could play cowboys and Indians in the morning and be Saga heroes after lunch. They also instilled in us a Germanic ambivalence towards forests, even though there were none to be found in Iceland, and the trees branching in Jón Óskar’s drawings evoke the frisson of a youthful encounter with sylvan mysticism.
Bit by bit, Jón Óskar assembles a complex network of images, teeming with allusions and direct references to art history, social history and the history of his generation. The intricate and layered canvases may seem hard to decode but at the same time they are familiar because they record in shorthand so much of what we have thought and experienced in the last few decades. Yet Jón Óskar’s narrative is first and foremost a personal reckoning with the culture he inherited, focused to a large degree on his own experiences in the United States.
Despite the heady atmosphere of 1980s New York, Jón Óskar seems to have retained the Icelander’s inborn interest in the landscape and its history.
The largest painting in the exhibition shows, among various other things, a map of the Delaware River which separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The reference is to one of the most dramatic events of American history and to a curious art historical twist that perhaps reflects Jón Óskar’s own feelings about the country. It was by the Delaware River on Christmas Day in 1776 that George Washington roused his men in a storm though they were already exhausted from a long and humiliating retreat. England’s Hessian mercenaries had driven them from Manhattan, west across New Jersey, and finally across the river into Pennsylvania. Most of the men had only signed up until the New Year and they must have longed for home. Many of them had no shoes but still Washington led 2400 men back across the river under cover of night and at dawn they attacked the town of Trenton, defended by some 1200 Germans who were easily overwhelmed by the Americans. This was the turning point in the war and a key chapter in the story of how the United States came to be. The great painting by Emanuel Leutze, George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1850-51), is the image that forever keeps the memory of that stormy night alive in the mind of all Americans. It is one of the most popular and best-known works in American art history.
Leutze’s painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum and Jón Óskar must have found it interesting. Perhaps it should be seen as a challenge as the vast painting seems to be the exact opposite of all that young artists aspired to in New York in the eighties but Jón Óskar would not have been content with such an easy dismissal and, in fact, the Leutze canvas is not at all as straight-forward as it can seem at first glance.
Emanuel Gottlob Leutze was born in 1816 in Württemberg in Germany. He lived in America as a child but returned to Germany at the age of fifteen to study art and became one of the better-known painters of the Düsseldorf School. He was, however, preoccupied with American subjects and had clearly been influenced greatly by his stay there. He was himself a dedicated democrat and he painted the picture of George Washington to steel his German comrades after the defeat of the revolution of 1848. Washington was an obvious role model, a democrat who had prevailed against German troops in the service of Europe’s monarchical oppressors. The painting was destroyed in a fire but Leutze fixed it and sold it to the museum in Bremen where it finally, and ironically, was destroyed in Allied air raids during World War II. Leutze then repainted the scene again and exhibited it in New York in 1851 where it sold for the enormous sum of 10,000 Dollars. That is the painting that ended up in the Metropolitan. Leutze himself lived on in Germany until 1859 when he came back to the United States where he died nine years later. One wonders how many who now view his painting stop to think of the long-dead painter who composed that scene to express his aspirations as Europe tensed for civil war.
Leutze’s painting inspired another treatment of the scene in 1952. Larry Rivers ws born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx in 1923. He played the saxophone but turned to art and exhibited at the Jane Street Gallery with a collective of young New York Artists. Rivers’ version of the Delaware is a sort of copy of Leutze’s picture, showing Washington in the centre, standing in his boat though all contemporary accounts agree that it was much too windy on the river that night. The difference between the two works is that one was painted in the spirit of the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie where Wilhelm Schadow had preached a relentless realism while Rivers’ painting reflects the searching mind of the post-war painter for whom colours and shapes where quite as meaningful as the subject and would compete with it on the canvas. A seminal work, Rivers’ painting parallels Johns’ flag paintings in testing new approaches in painting against the old symbols and archetypal images of America. Rivers was a New Yorker through and through, a jazz player and a radical who continued to challenge America’s self-image in provocative exhibitions. His art was part of the legacy taken over by the young painters that populated the city in the 1980s.
As Jón Óskar’s art matures it becomes ever clearer what thinking has gone into it. Indeed, looking back, “thoughtful” seems a very apt word for characterising his output from the beginning. The influences come clearly to the surface, the artistic precursors as well as the various images, words and symbols that imprint themselves on our memory and resurface in odd contexts to inform our thinking. The Delaware connection explores only one of the exhibition’s many layers. Each strand of Jón Óskar’s career and every layer in these new works it at once an exploration of precedents and a personal gesture, even the Pollock-like splashes of bright colour that hover, as it were, above the surface of the paintings and balance their crabbed jottings with over-all cheer. The Delaware exhibition shows all of Jón Óskar’s strengths and clearly represents a new synthesis. It is an advance in thinking, not just style, and as with Jón Óskar’s work in the 1980s, it seems both apt and inspiring, cool, thoughtful and thought-provoking.