Fresh views of Nerdrum and Woodman
A nagging question surrounding the paintings of Odd Nerdrum, on display at Forum Gallery, is: Can you still paint like that?
“Like that,” as if the past 400 years of Western art hadn’t transpired; to put brush to canvas, without irony or affectation, in the style of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. To create images without a hint of pop culture, mass media, Cézanne, Picasso and Pollock.
Intimations of a post-industrial apocalypse betray some cognizance of contemporary life. Otherwise, Nerdrum’s paintings are suffused in golden light, soupy washes of umber and mythological portent. They’re Old Masterish.
For those skeptical of modernism and the excesses it set in motion, Nerdrum’s quixotic achievement would seem to answer a need for a return to principles. It’s hard not to be impressed with the operatic scope of his ambition and the dexterity of his touch. Nerdrum’s consistency as an imagist, with those barren landscapes, ritualistic narratives, theatrical flourishes and supple passages of skin and bone, betokens a sense that sheer force of will can right a culture overtaken by trivial diversions.
But Nerdrum’s nightmarish scenarios are redolent of Frank Frazetta, the fantasy artist who specialized in pulpy depictions of otherworldly vistas, towering monsters, nubile maidens and Conan the Barbarian. Nerdrum is a more serious figure—more reactionary, too. At least Frazetta wasn’t pretentious.
In the end, Nerdrum’s peculiar kind of hokum isn’t all that different, better suited as cover illustrations for heavy metal CDs than for inclusion in The Grand Manner.
For 30-some years, Cindy Sherman has played dress-up in front of the camera in pursuit of “mortification of the self” and “the exploration of identity.” The photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), who died by her own hand at the age of 22, took a lot of self-portraits as well, and for related reasons: “female subjectivity” and “photography’s relationship to both literature and performance.” That the Guggenheim overview of Woodman’s oeuvre is running concurrently with MoMA’s Sherman retrospective is a fortuitous opportunity to compare and contrast.
To Sherman’s detriment, you can’t help but conclude. True, Woodman was no less prone to theatricality and adolescent notions of self-expression. Depending on one’s taste for melodrama, her weakness for the picturesque—dilapidated buildings served as backdrop for many of the photos—and pat religious allusions are likely to strike one as precocious rather than earned.
But Woodman knew how to take photographs—photographs that are rich with texture, isolated blurs of movement, ghostly sweeps of light and rare moments of washed-out period color. Sherman? She doesn’t know a photograph from a deconstructionist hole in the ground.
An early, tragic death is an all but insurmountable hurdle for aesthetic contemplation. Anyone who has seen The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis’ devastating documentary of a family rendered dysfunctional by art, knows how inextricably Woodman’s vision is tied to biographical particulars. We do the artist no favors by overinflating a flawed but diverting achievement.
The Guggenheim, to its credit, does right by Woodman in setting out the work with jewel-like sobriety. Any serious artist would welcome such an approach. Viewers should welcome it, too.
Through May 5, Forum Gallery, 730 Fifth Ave., 212-3554545, www.forumgallery.com.
Through June 13, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave., 212-423-3500,
This article first appeared in the April 18 issue of CityArts. For more from New York’s Review of Culture, visit www.cityartsnyc.com.
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