A Bouquet of Browns

In Steinar Haga Kristensen’s solo show at Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo the characters haul art and art history around as if they were both a burden and a source of nourishment.

Steinar Haga Kristensen, Owl Boquet, 2017. Photo: Kunstnerforbundet.

Steinar Haga Kristensen’s exhibition Brun Periode – (Heimat) (Brown Period – (Homeland)) in the skylight hall at Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo comprises 74 works, all presented in a crowded salon-style format. It feels as if the works follow you around; they’re breathing down your neck no matter how you position yourself – in the space or aesthetically.

According to Eirik Senje, who has written an essay about his fellow artist, it is possible to see signs of a “brown” period in Haga Kristensen’s work as far back as 2008. Even so, all works featured at this exhibition are dated 2017. Variants of the works have also been exhibited at the project space 1646 in The Hague and at Centre d’art Contemporain Passerelle in Brest, on those occasions bearing the titles Bruine Periode – Liegen en opscheppen and La Période brune (Origines moqueuses et scepticisme du doute).

The concept of a “brown period” can encompass many things. It obviously engages in intertextual play with Picasso and his “blue period”. One speaks of “brown politics”. But the quite literal sense of the term takes centre stage here. Brown as a colour, as a sensory experience. Not dominant red or brilliant blue, but a mixture of all colours, giving rise to something indistinct, intangible. Indeed, the works featured in this exhibition form a whole, a brown unity arising out of a complicated mixture of simultaneous, yet disparate meanings.

Steinar Haga Kristensen, Brun Periode – (Heimat), 2017. Photo: Kunstnerforbundet.

The overwhelming quantity of works featured in Brun Periode – (Heimat) were created using an equally overwhelming number of different techniques: painting, fresco, ceramics, weaving, reliefs, mosaics, assemblage and 3D animation. The joyful, yet also anxiety-laden aspects of the act of creation are depicted through figures that paint and hands that shape materials. The “sick prophet”, a recurring theme in the artist’s production, is prominently represented here. So too are the Rauschenbergian doubles where “identical” works are presented in pairs.

Steinar Haga Kristensen, Abstraction Hug #1 (Spiritualization of Self-empowerment #04), 2017. Photo: Kunstnerforbundet.

One of the first things you see upon entering the labyrinthine exhibition is the group Family, which includes a picture of an abstracted woman nursing a child or small person. Behind Family we find La chaire, a children’s chair painted in bright colours. In an exhibition infused by an explosive productivity and plenty of aggression, such tender correspondences between works are very effective. The use of the child figure introduces a simultaneously personal and universal level where something important is at stake.

Like many other works in this exhibition, the wall-based work Liegen en opscheppen (Lying and Bragging) consists of various images and techniques bound together to form a whole. Set within a single frame, we see a pastel-coloured human figure holding two small sculptures above its head. Above the figure, which was painted using the traditional fresco technique (watercolour on wet plaster), is an expanse of ceramics painted a light monochrome colour. The almost identical Desperate Figure Beneath Out Stretched Hand shows a similar figure holding almost identical sculptures above its head. This time the piece above the figure is not monochrome, but depicts a suited arm with its palm extended. The colours have changed from light pastels into dark green and earth-like hues. The work Hidden Advocacy on Self-embrace shows a shirt-clad man smiling as he cradles a small terracotta man in his arms – presumably an artist. The terracotta figure protrudes from the two-dimensional painting, holding sculptures in its hands.

Several figures clasp modernist-looking sculptures in their hands, embrace them with their entire torso or hide them behind their back like concealed treasures or weapons. Haga Kristensen has worked with this subject before. In Konsensusbilde (Consensus Image), a monumental mural painted at the city hall of Oslo from 2013 to 2015, flayed figures carry art history around in their hands with palpable desperation. These scenes bring to mind the Swedish painter Dick Bengtsson and his self-critical investigations of the modern project and its horrors. He painted scenes of hikers carrying modernist sculptures on their backs instead of rucksacks; holidaymakers working on their tan underneath a sky where a vast, modernist motif blocks the horizon; or children on the diving boards in a swimming pool – below the five-metre tower, a black rectangle awaits. The water has gone, leaving only a geometric abstraction behind. Another artist who springs to mind is German painter Jörg Immendorff. Especially his angular figures engaging in political agitation with bulging eyes. Haga Kristensen has an unusually close kinship with fellow artists from different art historical epochs.

Steinar Haga Kristensen, Brun Periode – (Heimat), 2017. Photo: Kunstnerforbundet.

It seems as if the exhibition pokes fun at the mechanisms which determine that some visual modes of expression are accepted as art, while others are deemed to be banal decor. To Haga Kristensen, aspects of Norwegian traditions such as floral shapes on “krumkake” waffle biscuits, the rose patterns of folk art, and domestic tapestries are as natural points of reference as Fauvisme or the Neue Wilde. This might suggest that the artist believes that art history is not just about the canon, but about a given culture’s total body of visual production. The exhibition features techniques that most visitors will be familiar with from school: woodworking, ceramics, painting, and various textile-based crafts. These things constitute aesthetic experiences too, and they too are addressed in this exhibition. The levelling inclusion of modes of expressions from the spheres of the trivial and amateurish makes these works feel intimate, close to lived life. The polite distance you usually experience when facing modes of expression from the past shrivels and shrinks. The artist oscillates between the positions as underdog and suave salon sophisticate, alternating between humour and severity, sadism and vulnerability.

The painting Abstraction Hug #03 and the ceramics/fresco work Self Embrace have an affectionate quality even as they seem to protest against advertising tropes and their promotion of uncritical self-care. In other works the figures are depicted as heroically pathetic and tortured. The characters drag art and art history around as if they were both a burden and a source of nourishment. But there is also a duality at play here, sometimes quite literally. Seen from one angle, the work Période brune (Brown Period) #06 depicts a disproportioned bust, but as you move around it you discover that the head is hollow and that a small figure stands in the back of it, admiring a fresco decorating the inside of the skull.

Steinar Haga Kristensen, Traders and Abstraction, 2017. Photo: Kunstnerforbundet.

In Haga Kristensen the artist and the body of work never stand still; they are always contrarian, multifaceted and bellicose. On the one hand, the choice of subject matter and the sheer quantity of works on display have an intense presence and immediate appeal. The titles are communicative, almost conversational. On the other hand there is a kind of rejection inherent in the artist’s display of headstrong aesthetic stubbornness. He is his own monoculture. The paintings resemble the ceramics, the weavings look like the reliefs, the performances are reminiscent of the casts – even the smooth 3D animations are sucked in and assimilated in the artist’s curious cosmology. In other words, he makes everything his own. Even the air in the room is included in this sweeping embrace: it smells strongly of tar. This entire universe illustrates a sense of turmoil that is not limited to the paranoid among us, but an ingrained part of how individuals and institutions speak and act today. What should be preserved? How? And at the expense of what? A glut of images, meme-like repetition and affective communication strategies are used for serious purposes by a strict polemic. I cannot think of many contemporary artists who are similar. One of the things that make Steinar Haga Kristensen unique is the way in which he does not use art history as a reference, but as a reservoir, and the extent to which he possesses the various modes of expression he employs. In Brun periode (Heimat) art history remains unfinished, insistently present.

But there is also a social project going on here, even though this aspect is more difficult to grasp. It would seem that the aesthetic position is complemented by an ethical position which focuses on issues of pressure, education, society, community and the solitary individual. In Haga Kristensen’s exhibitions, art emerges as something that it is crucial for us to put to use, here and now. And I’d think that it’s possible for anyone, without instructive knowledge, to step into this exhibition and be struck by its sheer richness and concentration.

Steinar Haga Kristensen, Brun Periode – (Heimat), 2017. Photo: Kunstnerforbundet.