21 December

Kunstkritikk’s Norwegian editor, Stian Gabrielsen, picks the three best exhibitions of the year.

Alice Neel, The Spanish Family, 1943. Oil on canvas, 86,4 × 71,1 cm.

Alice Neel, Every Person Is a New Universe, Munch Museum, Oslo

In the work of Alice Neel, the time spent producing the painting corresponds exactly to the time spent with the sitter(s). This imbues her portraits with a distinctly social quality. They are things that happen between painter and sitter during their time together, documenting events of sensory immediacy that run parallel to the act of conversation. The wall labels found in the exhibition at the Munch Museum quoted some of her sitters as saying what a wonderful chatterbox Neel was. But, of course, these are good paintings independent of her charming method – finely tuned symbioses of impression and medium. Look at her children’s hands and weep! See poet Frank O’Hara’s brown teeth and laugh (pityingly).

Harriet Backer, Communion in Stange Church, 1903. Oil on canvas, 100,5 x 131 cm.

Harriet Backer, Every Atom Is Colour, National Museum, Oslo

The interior is captured in elaborate detail in Harriet Backer’s Holy Communion in Stange Church (1903), while the churchgoers flow through the room like a shoal of roughly painted, dark backs. The oscillation between a timely impatience with detail and orthodox realism is typical of Backer’s questioning modernism. She somehow never commits to a signature gesture that then takes over her production, but keeps the dissolution of pictorial space at arm’s length. It is only allowed to enter on sufferance, as exception. Another fascinating image in the National Museum’s mustering of Backer’s oeuvre is a still life she tinkered with for twelve years until her death in 1932, known as Evighetsbildet (The Unending Picture). It practically hums with this appealing reluctance to let what had been handed down slip away.

Agder kunstakademi, Kunst som straff, 2023. Installasjonsbilde fra Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo. Foto: Vegard Kleven.

Art as Punishment, Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo

I am taking this opportunity to once again tip my hat to the public art project Agder Art Academy, which concludes this winter with an exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus open until mid-January. For the past three years, Thora Dolven Balke and Kristine Jærn Pilgaard (in collaboration with Solfrid Kjetså, Sverre Gullesen, Hege Nyborg, Dag Erik Elgin, and a number of guest teachers) have run an art academy for inmates in Agder prison. It is a piece of participatory art that neither loses sight of the intrinsic value of aesthetic work nor handles its participants as unconscious material. Well done!

For this year’s contributions to the Advent Calendar, see here.