Death Becomes Him

Dag Erik Elgin’s copyist painting refuses to parade life as an economic resource.

Dag Erik Elgin, A Modernistic Endpoint, 2020. Installation view, The Vigeland Museum. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

The tactile procedures and sheer materiality of painting inevitably animate the end result. This automatic vitalism endows the medium with a pathos that probably contributes to its enduring popularity. One might think of the chromatic and formal reductionism of late modernism as an effort to purge painting of such fawning vibrancy, to de-vitalise it. But according to German critic Isabelle Graw, even the quasi-industrial facture of a strictly abstract painter like Frank Stella is not sufficient. Writing about his painting Getty Tomb (1958) in her book The Love of Painting (Sternberg, 2019), Graw observes how in spite of the quest for inexpressiveness, the repetitive composition gives the impression of a structure that “transcends the surface of the painting” and appears to have “created itself.” Painting not only represents life, it gives the impression of having life.

Dag Erik Elgin began this year with two solo shows in Oslo, one at the Vigeland Museum, the other at OSL Contemporary. A Modernistic Endpoint at the Vigeland Museum reopened recently after being closed since mid-March, while In Order of Appearance at OSL closed on 10 May. The two exhibitions, and Elgin’s painting in general, lend themselves well to being considered in light of the discussion concerning painting’s relationship with life – though not because of his reiteration of modernism’s geometric idiom. In a diary entry reproduced in a monograph published in connection with the exhibition at the Vigeland Museum, Elgin describes his method as motivated by “historical empathy,” and his works, which often take the form of copies or textual references, appear like footnotes to contemporary art’s institutionalised past. This referencing gesture forces painter and viewer alike on a detour through history to arrive at the canvas, and informs the painting with a distinctly unfashionable reverence for what preceded it.

Figuring centrally in A Modernistic Endpoint are a number of monochrome plaster casts of reliefs from Vigeland’s unfinished tomb monument (located on the museum’s top floor). Vigeland planned a total of eighteen reliefs, but only managed to complete eight before he died; Elgin reproduced the ten empty plates at the museum’s plaster workshop. The casts are arranged in a tight row on the wall. On the floor is a plaster cast of the urn itself, a cylinder with a sphere on top. In another part of the museum hangs a series of black-and-white photographs of quirky geometric figures, a stark contrast to the meaty vitalism for which Vigeland is known. One depicts a naked man straining against a cube in which he is enveloped. Others resemble architectural sketches. A selection of these models are on display in a row of glass cases traversing two of the exhibition rooms, where they are joined by a number of oil paintings from Elgin’s series Originals (1990–2020) and Originals Grisaille (2015–2016), both of which consist of copies of paintings by leading modernist figures such as Malevich, Léger, and Picasso. Grisaille consists of greyscale reproductions of paintings from Originals.

Elgin has also made work inside the museum. On two tables aligned flush with plinths supporting a group of Vigeland’s sculptures depicting trees shooting from the ground and hung with naked human figures, Elgin has modelled flat clay cubes whose surfaces mimic the ground from which Vigeland’s sculptures rise. Like his painting, Elgin’s sculpting is nimble-fingered imitation. This attentive gesture represents a literal preparing of the ground from which life springs.

Dag Erik Elgin, A Modernistic Endpoint, 2020. Installation view, The Vigeland Museum. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

While the exhibition at the Vigeland Museum is predominantly sculptural, In Order of Appearance at OSL recycled a more recognisable formula: sober oil paintings with typographic motifs. The point of reference this time was Marcel Proust’s monumental seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927). Elgin has reproduced the name of every artist Proust mentions: in red letters on vertical linen canvases with a yellow-white wash, they appear in groups of five in the same order as in the book: “Giotto / Giotto / Giotto / Bellini / Robert,” and so on. The vivid red lettering stands out crisply against the paper-white ground, giving the names the look of high-end brands. The colour’s expressive physicality is subdued by an obedient replication of canonical design codes. Elgin’s font is the same one used for the cover of Gallimard’s first edition of Proust’s novel. Its razor-sharp contours invoke the sophisticates’ horror of that which exceeds the authorised form.

Looking at contemporary Norwegian painting in 2020, one doesn’t need to make much interpretative effort to find less restrained dealings with painting’s vitalistic potential: Urd Pedersen’s therapeutic naïveté; Audar Kantun’s hedonic tableaux; Liv Ertzeid’s pastose, visceral, and botanical figuration; Marianne Hurum’s ceaseless inventiveness; Ragna Bley’s intricate random compositions; Christian Tony Norum’s reanimation of the production modes of the historical avant-garde. Despite obvious differences, they all affirm painting as an intensity stripped of sombreness and stability. Ertzeid’s Jeg unngår så langt det er mulig å forholde meg til alvor (As Far as Possible I Avoid Relating to Anything Serious, 2019), on show at Unge inviterte (Young Invited) at the Norwegian Painters’ Association gallery (LNM) earlier this year, is emblematic: an intestine-like creature in neon yellow and blue accompanied by a fork. The statement of affinity with a meal confers on painting a sense of liquidity; it is energy ready to transform.

This lively gesture anticipates and accommodates a primary visual desire. It is non-authoritative and strives for both a horizontal relation and an instantaneous transaction with the viewer. Georges Bataille (1897–1962) saw this horizontality as a typical feature of painting in his time, opposite architecture, which he believed embodied a hierarchical and authoritarian, vertical principle. According to Bataille, the purpose of monumental architecture was to instill a sense of servitude to state and church in individuals, to subordinate them to the social order. By contrast, deformation expresses unstable and nonconformist psychological processes that would help painting rid itself of the “hidden architectural skeleton” it had lugged around until then. Once released from its authoritarian form, painting could guide humans towards a release from architecture’s oppressive reign.

Dag Erik Elgin, A Modernistic Endpoint, 2020. Installation view, The Vigeland Museum. Photo: Vegard Kleven.

Restituting the viewer’s demands on the image deprives the painter of her ecclesiastical status and returns painting to the realm of use. Symptomatically, horizontal painting inclines towards profane offerings of nutrition (Ertzeid) and therapy (Pedersen). These services are prosocial in that they recognise individuals’ physical and mental needs. At the same time, they indicate the medium’s assimilation into the market in a broad sense; responding to a demand, this forms something akin to a commercial compact with the viewer. Within this framework, formlessness does not primarily testify to the liberation of a desirous creativity that opposes power; rather, it turns into a display of sought-after properties like malleability, liquidity, and energy. In this sense, the dissolution of form responds to the contemporary economy’s demand for producers without defining characteristics beyond limitless adaptability. Spontaneity, speed, and ingenuity are signs of economic potential, and the expressive canvas is a symbol of an ideal capitalist subjectivity: a multipurpose battery.

Faced with the sovereignty of the market, unshackling desire is a politically ambivalent strategy. The hyperactive entrepreneurialism of Elgin’s contemporary Bjarne Melgaard, makes this insight manifest. Tellingly, Melgaard has made his attack on architecture explicit in his collaboration with famed architectural firm Snøhetta (A House to Die In, 2011 -), which is best interpreted as a dialogue piece where the architects act as permissive helpmates for a painter’s idiosyncratic and whimsical deformation of the concept of the private residence. Melgaard’s painting accepts no subservience to inherited structure; it is characterised by aggressive expansion and liquidity. No attempt is made to cover up painting’s symbiosis with capital. Melgaard stages a Faustian pact in which the individual, whom Bataillian expressionism casts as desire’s ally, is undermined by a deeper drive with no commitment to preserve the human form. Deformed painting here not only attacks a repressive social order, but ultimately also the liberated subject itself. The rituals of physical and social destruction that play out on Melgaard’s canvases are allusions to this pending obliteration of human subjectivity.

Painting’s architectural skeleton is a safety-system or bulwark against this anti-humanist charge. Elgin renounces the monstrous licence of painting in favour of hierarchical subordination. He is the poised Apollonian to Melgaard’s form-defying antics; his brush is disciplined by humility before the canon, understood as that which precedes and gives form. The subordination is underscored by the chant-like repetition of the illustrious names that extended across the walls at OSL, in the manner of an invocation. Elgin doesn’t seem blind to the comedy of his reverent pose. Admitting to the ridiculous anachronism of the copyist’s function, the exhibition at OSL also included a self-portrait by the French baroque painter Pierre Mignard – purportedly from Elgin’s own collection. (On a side note, Pierre Mignard sounds suspiciously similar to Pierre Menard, the protagonist of Borges’s short story about the author who re-wrote Cervantes’s Don Quixote as a test of the creative possibilities of repetition – a quiet subversion, practically invisible.)

Dag Erik Elgin, In Order of Appearance, 2020. Installation view, OSL Contemporary. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen.

Although Elgin seeks the company of geniuses like Proust and Vigeland, he doesn’t strive to appear their equal. Instead, he offers his services as copyist. This submissive (one might say anti-genius) staging of the painter disrupts any approach to these canvases as vessels of life. Copying is the hallmark of the student, and the student is, in a sense, not yet born. With no examination in sight, Elgin has made a virtue of working in the master’s shadow and rejects the assumed purpose of study: to become a sovereign giver of form. In vitalistic terms, one might say that he refuses to become or to arise. He attends to the foundations (the base of sculpture), the historical and material premises (the canon, the empty canvas), the institutional framework (the museum, the gallery), the paratext (the title plates), but shies away from art’s (self-)expressive potential. Even so, it is important that he wields the brush himself, like a medieval monk bent over his calligraphy. The subordination to history and technique require physical sacrifice in the form of time invested.

This physical investment is traceable in the image as marks from the painter’s hand. At OSL, the horizontal application had cut stripes into the thick paint. This relief effect also appears in Elgin’s other typographical series, such as La Collection Moderne (2009–ongoing), in which he paints the title plates of paintings from the history of modernism, and Balance of Painters (2011), which refers to the seventeenth-century French critic Roger de Piles’s curious numerical evaluation system for paintings. A related display of labour occurs when Elgin strays from the colour scheme of a Picasso in his Originals series, or allows tiny irregularities in the composition. The brush marks and the compositional and chromatic deviations attest to the manual effort made and soften the copyist’s task. The objective has been achieved, the result is close enough; the painting was never intended as a forgery. This ‘enough’ testifies to a limit to the disciplining of eye and hand, a necessary resignation that springs from an often undervalued self-care. The question seems to be: is there room in painting for a minor desire?

For Elgin, painting is first and foremost its inherited technical conditions. His investment of life is measured by time spent in front of the canvas. Although he accepts and occasionally operates with an elastic definition of the medium, he mainly devotes his energy to the activity of copying, and hence not expanding. A reverence for metier seems imperative. The creative expression of life that painting affords is restrained so he can dedicate himself to its technical execution. Through meticulous study of what has gone before, he signals that we have prematurely abandoned a vertical relation to the past. Importantly, however, there is an ambivalence in how the authority Elgin bows to is “modernism,” an era that historically marks a break with verticality – that is servitude – as a principle of artistic practice. Thus, the verticality he reinstates is one that is immanent to art as a differentiated discipline. Elgin’s painter kneels before the historical preconditions of his own autonomy, so to speak. His historical briefing of the brush resists the injunction that painting (and the subject) parade its vital forces and reaches out for the possibility of an uneconomic management of one’s own life. The dialogue with Vigeland’s vitalism gives Elgin an opportunity to perform this flirtation with death with greater drama than ever.

Dag Erik Elgin, In Order of Appearance, 2020. Installation view, OSL Contemporary. Photo: Øystein Thorvaldsen.

Translated from Norwegian.