NEWS ANALYSIS: Celebrated but controversial, Bjarne Melgaard is today considered by many to be Norway’s most important living visual artist, and lately he’s been setting off some Olympic sparks. For more than two decades his work has spanned an array of disciplines including painting, sculpture, installation and film as well as forays into music and literature. His subject matter grapples unabashedly with themes of sexuality, race, and politics, so it was perhaps no surprise when he ventured right into the uproar around Russia’s anti-gay policies on the eve of the Olympics at Sochi.
Melgaard straddles a line between marginality and art world establishment. Behind the “outsider,” anti-academic style of his paintings rests a resumé crammed with elite art schools, blue chip galleries, trend-setting biennials and major museum exhibitions.
Born in Sydney in 1967 to Norwegian parents, Melgaard grew up in Oslo. In the early 1990s he received a fine arts education from a string of highly reputable institutions, including the Rijksacademie and Jan van Eyck Academie (both in the Netherlands), the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and Oslo’s own Academy of Fine Arts (KHiO), today located on the banks of Akerselva in the Norwegian capital’s trendy district of Grünerløkka. Major international galleries represent him and his work is shown in some of the world’s most important museums.
Yet despite an establishment record, Melgaard blazes new trails in contemporary art. Drawn to expressionism, he is all too content to turn away from the austere and minimal styles that are regularly in vogue. Rather than feigning detachment and academicism, his work is often autobiographical, self-critical, and deeply satirical. And he is not afraid to get his hands dirty.
Melgaard is no stranger to controversy. A few weeks ago, one of his art works was at the center of a highly charged debate in which cries of racism toward Melgaard spread fast around the Internet(external link). The controversy was sparked when Russian fashion editor and art collector Dasha Zhukova was pictured on the Russian website Buro 24/7 in late January sitting on Melgaard’s sculpture, a chair crafted from a contorted black female mannequin.
The peculiar timing of the image’s release, coinciding with national US holiday commemorating slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, and the optics of a white woman of privilege sitting on a restrained black female, proved perfect ingredients for viral condemnation. The firestorm pushed Zhukova and Buro 24/7 to retract the image and post a statement via Instagram apologizing for any offense (external link).
Melgaard’s sculpture itself was lost in the court of Twitter sensationalism, which quickly produced the now familiar din of foregone conclusions and flashy hashtags. The piece itself, according to the artist, had a “good reception” when it debuted some 18 months earlier and had already been shown in Paris, Rome, and New York without inciting much controversy. Reached in New York by Norwegian media, Melgaard himself reasserted people’s right to interpret things they want, offering only a simple defense: “Jeg er ikke noen rasist.” (I’m no racist.)
Far from being an outlier in his career, the now infamous chair is emblematic of the complex propositions posed by Melgaard’s work. And the imagery is not at all new for the artist. Manipulated black mannequins in racially charged contexts appear in his work as early as 1998, when he included them in an important early exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In discussing those figures at the time, one critic remarked on Melgaard’s ability to show familiar issues in ways “never quite seen or felt” before. This particular quality is native to nearly everything that Melgaard does. Deeper than his incessant penchant for explicit language or pornographic imagery, it is that ability that makes him an important artist today.
Olympics and ‘A house to die in’
While often labeled as “living and working in New York,” Melgaard maintains a close relationship with art and culture in Norway. Two collaborations are notable.
One, with Norwegian pop singer Annie, is a timely criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay posturing that has clouded the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. On February 7, coinciding with the Olympics’ opening ceremonies, the pair debuted a provocative song and video titled “Russian Kiss” which features scantily clad gay and lesbian couples (Melgaard among them) kissing and dancing while Annie sings “shake a fist for the Russian Kiss.” Melgaard is billed as the project’s “artistic director,” which, according to Annie’s website, received funding from Music Norway, a public grant making organization, and Norway’s Fritt Ord Foundation, dedicated to the right to freedom of expression. (See the video, external link)
Less topical but no less provocative is Melgaard’s ongoing collaboration with the renowned Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta (whose notable projects include the Oslo Opera House and the 9/11 memorial in downtown Manhattan). Dubbed “A house to die in,” the project’s aim is to build a house on the outskirts of Oslo in which Melgaard will live, work, and, yes, perhaps die.
Models for the dwelling show a swirling structure of black oak nestled into the landscape and adorned with Melgaard’s mask-like art brut figurines. The artist has described his vision as “narcotic architecture,” with an intentional drive toward dramatic color schemes and outlandish room structures (a bath tub in the dining room?) Early schematics of the project were presented as an exhibition at the ICA in London and showed a fascinating interplay between the technical processes of architecture and the psychological minefield of Melgaard’s work.
In a sense, “A house to die in” brings Melgaard full circle within the legacies of Norwegian modernism. Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), the visionary behind Oslo’s famed Frogner Park, struck a deal with the city in the 1920s to build a house for him to live and work in. The building today serves as the Vigeland Museum, where the artist’s ashes are still kept. On the other end of the spectrum, there is Edvard Munch, Norway’s most famous artistic export, whose devastating expressionism has clearly influenced Melgaard’s impulsive and affective aesthetics. The site for Melgaard’s house to die in, in the Ekely artist colony in Ullern, is also where Munch lived and worked, and where his studio still stands today.
A hundred years from now, perhaps visitors will trek to Ekely to visit the dwellings of not one but two of Norway’s greatest artists.
A mid-career retrospective of Bjarne Melgaard is currently on display at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo through April 16, 2014.
(The author is a doctoral candidate in art history, theory and criticism at the University of California, San Diego, where he has also taught. His writing has previously appeared in art ltd. magazine, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Afterimage Journal, Hyperallergic, and others. He currently lives and works in Oslo.)