Destruction and Repair
The Recent Work of Jon Oskar
~ Jón Proppé Art Critic
Cataloque Jon Oskar: Destruction and repair. Galley Forsblom, Helsinki, Finland 1998.
Jón Óskar’s recent works confirm his determination to test the limits of painting, to work at the edge of what can generally be considered possible in the medium. This he has done in the past through a series of interventions ranging from the application of hot beeswax to the introduction of corroding chemicals that alter the work over time. In his subject matter, too, Jón Óskar has played on the edge, moving from large heroic portraits to a kind of pattern painting resembling mutilated wallpaper. He has also used photography in various ways as an extension to and replacement for the painting process.
The subject matter of the paintings and drawings he is now showing is simple and the same in all the works. The image is well known in history though its origins are lost far back in the distant past, in the murky distance of myth and folklore. The image is that of the jester Harlequin or Arlecchino which has surfaced time and again in European art, deriving ultimately from the dark world of goblins and demons. In medieval times the jesters were „wild men” the maisnée Herlekin – who danced in the carnival to remind people of the presence of the dead. If we go even further back we see that they have precedents in ancient Thrace “the kalogheroi” and in the demons of the Dionysian festivals where they celebrated the rebirth of the god with wild abandon. From being personifications of the dead and performing in honour of the horde of ancestors they were then gradually translated onto the stage where they are represented by the pathetic and tragic-comic figure of Harlequin.
While the figure in these paintings may seem secondary to the method of execution we can see that the two are in fact perfectly meshed. Just as the image of Harlequin serves to remind us of death and rebirth, so the actual working of the paintings involves a cycle of creation and erosion, of destruction and repair, condemnation and redemption. Starting with the simple background image of the jester, Jón Óskar sets to work on the surface of the painting using industrial chemicals and power tools until the painting has been virtually destroyed. The next stage in the process is to repair the damage and Jón Óskar carefully works to restore the painting with wood filler and various other materials. The result is a painting with a history, a painting that has been through hard times even before it is exposed to the gaze of the audience and the critics. These scarred paintings remind us that making art it is not merely a creative process but always involves some degree of destruction and even violence.
The symbolic world from which these paintings emerge is thus inscribed in their very surface and appears clearly, not only in the image which they all share, but also in the history of their violent birth as it can be read in the surface, in the partly healed scars that all but obscure the picture.
Thus they also provide a poignant commentary on the role and purpose of the artist: Like Harlequin himself the artist must balance the forces of destruction and creation to mediate between the dark anonymity of death and the joyful affirmation of life. Like Harlequin he is doomed to a tragic-comic life, hovering on the edge of the abyss in order to be able to bring something new and significant into being.
Copied Mug, Distorted Mug
~ Halldór Björn Runólfsson director of The National Gallery of Iceland
Cataloque Jon Oskar: One hundred portraits. Hafnarborg, Iceland 1996.
These pictures have no real history or meaning, no beginning and no end.
They are absolutely irrelevant fictions, like most of the visuals in newspapers nowadays. Nameless faces peer into a computer scanner and flatten their noses against the glass while the sensors move slowly across and reflect the face onto the hard disk and the screen. The light that illuminates these faces and the wait for the sensors to complete their pass underneath the glass gives the faces a somewhat gaping and puzzled look, like fish in a bowl. The face does not know how to appear, as it is drawn out and its relationship to the body is blurred. The distance between the eyes narrows and the lower part of the face is enlarged as the rest of the skull is diminished. It floats like a foetus or a space alien in the dark void with a white nose and shiny eyes.
People tend to stare still into the scanner and hold their breath while the process is completed. That accounts for the inflated, curvy look that seems out of breath and surrounded by water. The faces are life-size, which is disconcerting to the viewer since they are distorted and therefore appear to be smaller than a normal face. They are, in fact, a brutal reminder to the viewer that he has no idea of the size of his own face, it being that part of the body that one sees least often and always only in a mirror. That is another reason why these images shock: They stare back at the viewer like that face in the mirror; his own disfigured face in the hall of mirrors.
Though the images are scanned in black and white, they are printed to paper in four colours. The grey grains take on colour, though it is not sufficient to enliven the pale face. The effect is all the more ghostly, like the image of a made-up corpse. Perhaps Hamlets father appeared to his son as a grey fog in four colours. The faces appear to form like wraiths by the concentration of specs of light in the darkness. That is how Dracula’s voluptuous helpers appeared in the snow-filled air of the Carpathians – how the apparitions looked at turn-of-the-century séances. There is something about the process of scanning these nameless faces that seems likely to become the subject of folklore. Who is to say if it doesn’t somehow affect the soul behind the face? Can we be sure that it does not become disfigured like the face?
What has now become of the renaissance frame that ensured the viewer’s invisibility? Instead of him observing safely from his window a scene where nobody can see him, other viewers now flock to the window to stare back at him and trap him in their distorting mirror. He is caught behind his window and cannot escape. It is best, anyway, to relax and keep still. Any movement in the scanned face only leads to more fogging, so that the features of the face are blurred and indistinct. Thus the audience becomes the audience of an audience that looks back, staring like a floating apparition.
Some faces are disfigured through merging. Two or more images form new variants of the species, like when Bergman merged Liv Ullman and Bibi Anderson into one persona. This visual fertilisation leads to total chaos.
The faces become like over-ripe mushrooms. Their features are threatened by clones. The face of our time is an impersonal mass-mask that is only a face by name. The unlimited possibilities of modern genetics are mirrored in this visual cross-fertilisation where the opportunities for combination are inexhaustible, yet are exhausted at once since they have no limit and no discernible goal. In the endless sea of faces we resemble each other like peas in a pod. When a pea is formed with the combined characteristics of two others nobody notices the difference.
These floating visages are from another dimension; they condense and appear without shape. They have no ears, for instance, and so must be deaf. The glass prevents them from making a sound, which is apt since apparitions are generally silent. Their shape is anamorphic or oval, which tells the viewer that he must change his perspective to see their true form. The reason is that anamorphisms have different perspective points and sections than those things that the audience sees in normal perspective on an even plane. It is often enough to lean up against an anamorphism to see its shape, providing you can get close enough.
It is said that the sixteenth-century master Holbein the younger wanted to jest with his subjects, the French ambassadors to the English court, Jean de Dinteville and the bishop George de Selve whom he painted in 1533. He showed them in all their glory standing on a tiled floor that can still be seen in Westminster Abbey with a curious table between them, laden with globes, navigational instruments, a watch and a lute with a broken string. Between the ambassadors, lower down in the foreground, Holbein painted an anamorphism of a skull, floating like an orb above the floor. The skull can be seen by looking at it from the side. It is said that the artist wanted to show that despite their riches, knowledge and influence, these gentlemen were are fleeting as their wealth.
Others say that Holbein had merely been amusing himself by painting his signature symbolically into the picture – the skull that is nothing but hollow bone: Hohl-bein – without any motive other than to add his tag to show that he had been there, just like his predecessor Jan van Eyck signed above the curved mirror between the Arnolfinis. The mirror reflects a face as an anamorphism. Anamorphisms of this type are rarely horizontal like Holbein’s skull, but rather perpendicular like the scanned faces. But however these phenomena lie, they belong to a different visual dimension than the one we perceive every day. Anamorphisms are the fourth dimension in art, the sensed dimension that lies beyond the second and third dimensions.
The dimension on which these images rest is always skewed to the viewer so that he can never quite look into the distant and self-absorbed gaze of the face, no matter how he may try to approach it.