Master of Loneliness
~ Dr. Michael Glasmeier on Jon Oskars Friends and Lovers
Siksi no. 1/95. Nordic Arts Center, Helsinki Finland 1995.
If we assume – and in the first instance we have to do so – that we live in a „fragmented society” the we must very quickly face the issue of loneliness. Richard Sennet cites three forms of loneliness: „We know a loneliness enforced by power. This is the loneliness of isolation, of anomie. We know a loneliness which inspires fear in the mighty. This is the loneliness of the dreamer, the „homme revolté”, the loneliness of rebellion.And finally is the loneliness based on the idea that there is a distinction between being lonely and being alone.
This third form of loneliness is the sense of being one under many, of having an inner life which is more than a mirror of the life of others. It is the loneliness of difference.” All three forms can be fruitful for an artist. An artist is in a sense the master of loneliness. We know images of camps and mad houses, images of courageous protest and images of inner isolation. And we know images which express all three manifestations of loneliness. Such images are in the most part tragic ones.
A refreshing draught wafts through the museums and galleries whenever loneliness does not have in itself a target group, is not abnomally self-absorbed, whenever fanatics of loneliness get together with other fanatics of loneliness and swap notes. That produces a system of feedback, moral support which can truly be called friendly. There is friction, almost erotic contact, from which is born an art which is concerned not with painting the same picture over again in order to find the one universal formula for individual loneliness, but rather with revealing the many pictures in which inconspicuous gestures, stupidity and experimentation are just as much a part as are despair at isolation, politics or world-weariness. Dadaism, surrealism, cobra, fluxus, zero art & language are examples of such melting pot of loneliness. They do not draw their strength from a common assertation of ideas but from the „art” of managing certain sections of life in exchange with others. Then above all there is communal celebration, drinking and chatting, nominating each other for exhibitions, writing introductions to each other in the catalogue, publishing manifestos and otherwise feeling praiseworthy. That is called friendship which, although it often – and not just among artists – ends in hatred or indifference and does not last a lifetime,nevertheless...
In a talkshow last week the world-famous former German football star Uwe Seeler declared that football was changing more and more from being a friendly game for eleven men into being a kickabout for eleven individual celebrities. The same can be said of the field of art since the 1980s („fragmented society”). This is not to say that artists have become complete loners who have placed their ceelebrity status in the centre of their thinking and have no integrity. No, far worse than that. There is noticeable tendency to form transitory alliances, make friendships when there is something to be gained from them, to drink and chat with some underlying motive rather than for the fun of it. Officially there are no casualties in this, but alliances are made with a discernible motive and they can crumble once the purpose is achieved in the same way as footballers retreat to their villas to be alone or amongst family once the match is over. But even the novel The Confidence Man by Herman Melville discusses the not unimportant issue of whether it is wise to give credit to friends.
However, we are not talking about the tiresome busines of credit. Let us rather say that a discussion on friendship can emerge again now that the era of the ego-tripp appears, in the face of the changed social and political situation to be over. Furthermore, the terms „art of life” or „technologies of the self” which are slowly coming into debates on art revive friendship as a part of a strategy for living for an artist. With this revival of pre-Christian practices and customs, which have come into our consciousness through Michel Foucault amongst others, it has become clear that friendship is a task which serves to extend, stabilise, renew and open up the individual.
The Icelandis artist Jón Óskar has recently published a narrow volume with the title Vinir & elskendur. Friends & Lovers (Reykjavik 1994). The book is a collection of ninety untitled photographs on thin newssheet. The photographs are snapshots of varying quality from unfocussed snaps to documentary evidence mostly presented as clippings. They show friends an lovers in private and in public. They are an expression of „studium” and „punctum” (Roland Barthes), i.e. although they are directly linked to the life of Jón Óskar they can be of interrest to every one. So it is not a book about friends and lovers solely for friends and lovers. It is a work of art which speaks highly intensively and without commentary of existences, physiognomies, gestures an moments. Of course, the book could also be examined with the eye of a detective in order to discover who the artist has around him and whose company he avoids. It can also be taken as a guide to the Icelandis art scene. And readers can see if they recognise any of the people (I recognise only a few). But the essential point of this book in my opinion is that it represents an artistic introduction into the practical art of living. That is to say the photographs express a friendly and loving acceptance of what there is and how it is. It is not about beauty, personal interests or credit, but about an example of life. Nowhere is there the sense that debts are owing or that scores are being settled. Every person represented shows their autonomy, their self-sufficiency. And that is hoe it should be. For this reason, Jón Óskars book is so rich despite being put together so cheaply and so colourful despite being printed in black and white.
The book appears at a time when a few are becoming aware that artistic isolation has to be broken through once more, that we should accept, once more, more than what we have in our own minds. Precisely this – as Jón Óskars shows us – can also be a topic of art, not as art about art but as art together with art, that is, art as a life form. Michel de Montaigne:
„Moreover, what we generally call friends and friendship are nothing more than acquaintances an familiarities which are connected by occasion and convenience through which our souls converse. In the friendship of which I speak, both sides mix and unite, merging so completely into one another that they wrap up in each other and the seam which connects them can no longer be found. If anyone were to urge me to say why I loved him (my friend, the ed.) I would feel that it was impossible to say why and I would answer: because he was who he was; because I was who I was.”
Harvesters of Existence
~ Hannes Sigurðsson director of Akureyri Art Museum
“Les yeux de l’ombre jaune” Akureyri Art Museum, Iceland. 2007
Art lovers in Iceland are not known to be patrons of radical ideas. Traditionally, they have craved a settled, middle-class art, quiet and modest — something they can in good conscience call beautiful and admire in their living rooms. Provocateurs who rock the boat are seldom accepted by society unless a real change of paradigm occurs and it actually becomes conventional to adopt their perspective. The rocking subsides but the old radicals are soon replaced by new ones.The artistic career of the painter Finnur Jónsson provides an example of the victory of social convention over creative innovation. In 1925, still a young man, he returned to Iceland from Germany, where he had studied with Oskar Kokoschka and Kurt Switters. Finding that his fresh ideas were rejected by his fellow Icelanders as ‘misinterpretations’ of reality, Finnur resorted to painting realistic pictures of the landscape and of fishermen at work, paintings that were easily acceptable in Iceland at the time. For much of the twentieth century, this was the cultural context that young artists returned to after studying abroad.
Towards the end of World War II, the wave of Abstract painting finally made its mark on Icelandic visual arts, but almost thirty years more were to pass before this kind of art became generally accepted to decorate Icelandic parlours. By then, the Fluxus-based SÚM movement had begun to rock the boat with lyrical vehemence and eventually fell into the warm lap of public collections, though the market was still far from being persuaded by their work. A third artistic wave hit our frosty coastlines in the early 1980s with Punk and Neo-expressionist painting that was in vogue all over the Western world at that time. This wave, too, subsided and, with a few notable exceptions, left only some slick, academic copies of itself.
Jón Óskar is one of Iceland’s rebels. He has not received much acclaim at home, either from public collections or the general public. Not that Jón is altogether misunderstood or unappreciated, as evidenced by his nomination for the Carnegie Award 2006, but his works have probably been considered “too much” – too large for the living room, too unruly, too alien for Icelandic tastes. In 1980 Jón travelled to America and studied art in New York. There, he bathed in the strong currents of Postmodernism and the spirit of the metropolis, the point-of-view that regards the world as its own navel, accepts no boundaries and spills over every restrictive framework. Jón is in his way not unlike a metropolis: unbridled in spirit, alert, wide-ranging and aggressive — and his attitudes are not easily contained in the small context of Iceland.
A work of art is inseparable from its creator, bearing his likeness in one way or another, revolving around him and reflecting his own attitude to life and the Zeitgeist of his contemporaries. Jón Óskar’s paintings are no exception. Dark and brooding, colossal and foreboding as they tower above us, they are at once threatening and seductive. They hold the night, gloom and extinction, expressed with cool stoicism. Jón Óskar sometimes turns up in the guise of the worldly clown, clad in sheepskins, and we are suddenly alarmed and taken aback. He reveals to us the loneliness we all fear and shatters the hope that perhaps deep down inside something bright and sweet resides. Jón takes life black without sugar, preferring to face things as they are, not how we might wish them to be. This is the attitude we sense in the merciless beauty of his works. He does not distinguish between life and art but keeps all the doors of his perception open. He plumbs the depths and everything that is caught in his net is hauled on board and spread out on the canvas.
Jón Óskar’s exhibition at the Akureyri Art Museum is not a traditional retrospective; it is not based on selected works, or on a particular theme or period. Everything is given equal weight and levelled out, with one work following on another as if by chance, covering the walls from floor to ceiling all around the two main galleries of the museum, so that in comparison, even the old outsider Stefán from Möðrudalur could have been accused of wasting wall space.
The exhibition flows over into the west wing where U.S. artist Adam Bateman has mounted a huge stack of books, a veritable Tower of Babel, like a pylon in the sea to save our senses from drowning. Books contain the whole world as symbolic meaning, but words are merely signifiers that usually prove insufficient when ‘the shit hits the fan’. Words are only sound-bites in the void, vibrations of the air, and written characters are merely symbolic units, devoid of content, which can be arranged in different ways, dissoluble ink, dried liquid. To underline this, Bateman sometimes treats letter types like sand that can be shovelled this way and that to no discernible purpose, or they appear as flies that have dropped dead in piles from the pages of history, empty shells of their former characters. In other cases, Bateman has found it necessary to disinfect the written word, throwing books into the washing machine and setting the spin to ‘delete brainwash’. In one video, we glimpse the title Modern Drama through the glass front of the washing machine, soon to be turned into a wet paper mass, a pulp fiction that can take on a new post-dramatic meaning.
Jón Óskar himself has designed the exhibition catalogue, in which the words and images that these two artists have used to express their world views have been collated into a pastiche reminiscent of pulp magazines about the rich and famous. Jón has had a profound influence on the layout and design of books, magazines and web pages in Iceland through the paid work he has done in these fields when his art did not support him. Everything crowds together on these pages, photographs of artworks, all sorts of advertisements and texts by Icelandic and foreign writers and old friends who discuss him and his art. Jón Óskar incorporates all these eclectic materials into his realm and publishes his own mouthpiece on whatever comes his way. His method is not necessarily any less objective or monotonous than what is practised in the so-called free and independent media, where everything seems to come from the same source, the stinking mouth of hell. If the bulk of the ‘magazine’ revolves around the ‘hard news’ from Jón Óskar’s world, then the coverage of Bateman can be seen as a curious item from distant lands. Whether in Icelandic or English, the interpretation of the works rises from the field of ink where the characters — these ‘black beans’, as Buddhists often refer to text — have been carefully planted in hope of a fruitful harvest.
Jón Óskar’s exhibition is likely to close itself over the viewer’s senses like a plastic bag over one’s head. This feeling of suffocation brings to mind the Death of Sardanapalus, which Delacroix painted in 1827–1828 from Lord Byron’s eponymous tragedy. The painting depicts the Assyrian king and hedonist Sardanapalus sometime in the seventh century before Christ, reclining on his death-bed as his enemies’ army is about to gain the upper hand after a two-year siege. Sardanapalus has had his most precious things brought in, as well as his favourite concubines, horses and slaves, all to be slaughtered in his sight so that they may accompany him to the land of the dead. His treasures are to follow him to the grave so that no one else can embrace the fairest maiden or ride the most magnificent stallion. Sensuality shines from every brush stroke, stifling the horrific panic and pain that has been staged in the painting. Objects and lecherous flesh melt into a Baroque-like pattern that writhes up the canvas in a frantic visual ode.
Human lives are often sacrificed for ideas (usually bad ones). Artistically speaking, Jón does not seem to have any compunction about such sacrifices; on the canvas at least, he has taken part in one of the most famous battles of the United States, with his exhibition in 2005 called George Washington Crosses the Delaware, based on the painting of that name by Emanuel Leutze from 1849. Jón Óskar’s pictures seethe with historical and personal references. In his book, Friends & Lovers (1994), Jón, like the ancient Sardanapalus in his tomb, gathers together his favourite people, in roughly printed photographs taken on different occasions. He himself is nowhere seen except perhaps as a cut-off arm laid across a shoulder, the heavy paw of friendship, the pointed index finger of the Almighty. (This pyramid is still under construction, for he intends to publish another volume.) Of course, this is not to suggest that Jón Óskar would destroy what is most dear to him, but in this collage of portraits, the lives of these people are treated as his own. And wherever the hand of God is at work, we can always expect an act of either creation or destruction.
Adam Bateman plays on a decidedly more minimal note, as befits his Mormon origins. He was born in Utah, where Laxness set his novel Paradise Regained and where Bateman runs his own art centre and artist’s residency. Like Jón Óskar, he studied in New York and returned with grand ideas to his home state, which has little in common with the skyscrapers and speed of the big city. The amassed knowledge of books is like the mass of people in the skyscrapers that writhe with emotions and opinions, though little of this thought and feeling will ever be expressed in writing. We are the fragments of loose type that compose the ever-changing social structure of meaning, garrulousness incarnate.
It is fun to be a fat fly on the wall among Jón Óskar’s and Bateman’s works and to try to make sense of their dialogue. They are both harvesters from the vast sea of experience, drawing in their nets laden with dying fish – and of course, as flies on the wall, we are also the bait. In this encounter, as we say in Icelandic, the devil has probably met his grandmother — and that is bound to be a joyful reunion despite the rather sulphurous atmosphere.
Correspondentia: Jon Oskar
~ Timo Valjakka Art Critic
Cataloque Correspondentia, The Nordic Arts Center, Helsinki, Finland 1992.
Winter. We spend the evening together, my friend and I. The sharp contrast of the soothing warmth of the red wine with the threatening cold outside leads our conversation to the comforts of life. Soon we are searching for what is most beautiful.
My mind goes over images and experiences like postcards: works of art, buildings, landscapes in the north and south. None of them raises its wings to soar over the others. Each of them has its own aesthetic value, but on their own they are not enough.
With the positive effects of the wine helping us along, we finally arrive at an answer that satisfies us: the greatest beauty is found in the moment of pure experience, of which Peter Handke has written, the ephemeral passing moment, in which the world or a part of the world suddenly seems as if illuminated. Such a moment is timeless, but it ends as soon as consciousness begins to analyze what is happening. Neither can it be repeated, or forced; it comes when it comes.
I return to art. Could it be possible that the very best paintings have captured those moments, that the moments have materialized in paint and canvas? Is one of the secrets of art precisely its ability to freeze the transitory second and present it again, as if for the first time?
I am thinking of the angels in Wim Wenders’ film, who gave up their immortality and descended to earth, because they longed for colour, scents, and the touch of a human hand. Are paintings moments which have grown tired of floating aimlessly in the unsubstantial world of ideas, and decide to become attached to the canvas in their longing for a corporeal existence and a longer life?
Spring. I look out at the grey walls of Suomenlinna Fortress in the rain, the rough, severe granite surface, which the pale light sets delicately alive. The character of the wall, unresponsive and warm at one and the same time, makes me think of the works of the Icelander, Jón Óskar, which I have just seen in his exhibition.
I also think of the highly probable possibility that Jón Óskar has succeeded in his works in capturing an entire crowd of such moments. Because in his art, the essence of painting is clearly not in what it represents. Those monumental faces, the ornamentation thar resembles the wallpaper of a ramshackle hotel, and the black holes that pierce the surface of the image, what they all have in common is their significance as a motive. They are an alibi for the creation of the painting itself. They are also the traps needed to catch the fleeting moment.
The sense of beauty and intense presence which radiates from beneath the rough surface of Jón Óskar’s paintings, and which immediately catches my attention, is undoubtedly linked to his vigilance when faced with the canvas. He has the ability, and the daring, to stop work and step aside at the precise moment when the painting is finished, that fleeting second when the unique moment reveals itself and is fastened to the canvas as if it were film.
This enchants me. Everthing else in Jón Óskar’s paintings, such as the allusions to Iceland’s forbidding landscape, the topography of lava and ice, or the wallpaper decorations that awaken memories of Raymond Chandler’s smoke-filled novels, simply enriches this first, and strongest, experience.
The Poet of the City
~ Halldór Björn Runólfsson director of The National Gallery of Iceland
Cataloque Jón Óskar, Galleria Krista Mikkola, Helsinki, and Gallery Fahl, Stockholm.
These paintings are bound to impress and depress in equal proportions:
impress, because they are executed in such powerful and explicit way; depress, because their aspect doesn’t incite joy. These are paintings that deal with modernity; the world we live in, whether we like it or not.
Describing a world burdened with pessimistic outlook is a sheer toil. In spite of its future possibilities, the artist must avoid all optimistic Weltansicht in order to eschew banality. If he choses to represent his melancholic Weltschmerz, he is, conversely, in danger of being considered insipid. So, armed with his technique he sets out to do the impossible; render all these interdictions without ever depicting them.
Jón Óskar started off by eliminating colour; the thing considered essential to the art of painting. Instead he introduced non-colour; neither black nor white, but something in between, akin to the hues of a dreary newspaper. By using encaustic he also reduced his technical possibilities, and so, emphasized the effort to the detriment of a flowing and flexible virtuosity.
All easy gains he would either remove by scraping or cancel with a new layer of vax and paint.
As an artist of culture, Jón Óskar is a poet of the city. Like a modern Baudelaire, he is a flaneur who observes his fellow-men, his semblables, strolling somber and empty-eyed along the streets amid huge architectural constructions, ornated with reified motifs from the past. Dusk is the chosen hour; hence, the crepuscular colouring and glimmering scratches; a vain attempt to freeze the last rays of the setting sun. It is the faint representation of twilight; the between day and night; the ideal and the spleen; the dream and the drear; love and spite. It recalls the hour when the city; ‘this charming and ever rejuvenated hell’, transforms its modern buildings into illuminated basalt caves with gigantic arcades and gleaming pillars, reminding us of our ‘anterior life’; thus, arousing with its empty promises our longing for a real and authentic present.
Jon Oskar in Galleri Laang
~ Halldór Björn Runólfsson director of The National Gallery of Iceland
Cataloque Correspondentia, The Nordic Arts Center, Helsinki, Finland 1992.
Entering the sumptuous Christina Laang gallery and seeing Jón Óskar’s new works on the walls obviously surprised the public and provoked mixed feelings. When an artist drastically changes course, the first question is always: ‘What happened to the old style?’ Usually, the question is asked in a tone betraying slight disappointment. Changes in art are seldom welcomed.
In Jón Óskar’s case the question was wrongly put, since what has changed is the subject-matter, not the style. As before, the artist uses encoustic and black on unprepared canvas or paper, layering and scratching, or using a variety of other methods to achieve a satisfying result. But the heads and figures that used to dominate, have suddenly disappeared. They have been replaced by an all-over pattern created by the decorative flora that used to fill the background of many of his ‘portraits’. The works now look like wall-paper, sometimes endowed with emblematic insignia. Thus, the first thing to be noted is that the foreground has disappeared from the background.
In classical Renaissance painting, the foreground was used to display scenes from myths and legends, while the background was filled with architectural motifs or landscape. But, with the advent of the great Venetian painters, the foreground began to recede into the background. When the classical tradition culminated and ended in Impressionism, the background had become virtually omnipresent. It seems that with the disappearance of his monumental faces, Jón Óskar has cleared his pictures of all narrative. What is left is an artificially patterned impressionism, filled with the most sensual nuances, a feature not easy to find in his earlier works.
The kingdom of Jón Óskar is definitely younger. It has come after the Deluge, when, as Hegel stated, naïvety is of little help to the artist. The sole answer to the Flood is to depict its continuous and colourless rainfall, and that Jón Óskar does admirably with the help of his deluged and dusky technique of encaustic. As Baudelaire in his Fusées, he experiences the centralization and evaporation of the self, which may account for the sudden melting of his monumental portraits and self-portraits.
The integral, monumental self cannot withstand modern dismantling forces which split our experience and turn the mind into a snapshot camera, ceaselessly trying to recapture the fragments into a net of corresponding signs. Since, by retaining a few images of the fading symbols of meaning, there is a chance that a piece or two of the cake could be withheld as a material of reconstitution. The symbolic allegories that have appeared from beneath the monumental figures in Jón Óskar’s paintings are suggestive of that hope. Like tapestries of correspondences they prefigure the recondensation of the self.