Free flight over the labyrinth

The Ole Jørgen Ness exhibition at Galleri Riis carries a palpably physical and organic presence. The result is a painterly condition at the very edge of the precipice.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Embracing Perplexity, installation photo, Galleri Riis 2011.

The somewhat mystic artist Ole Jørgen Ness, who possesses exceptionally high status in his period and generation, compares his own intricate artistic practice to wandering around in a labyrinth without any desire or ambition to find a way out. Characteristic of his work is that he throws himself into all the modalities of art, not just as a so-called creative artist but also as an independent and sovereign agent of the meaning of art, a privileged intermediary with a comprehensive vision of art history. His gallery Herslebsgate 10, which opened in 1992 when Ness was still an academy student, is part of this complex practice. Those varying roles are defined insofar as possible on his own premises, with an aversion to already established frameworks. The gallery, which set the tone for a generation in the 90s, was one of the first in a veritable avalanche of independent and artist-run galleries in Oslo, a situation our own time can only energetically try to match.

What is both evident and enigmatic about Ness’s complex artistic position creates an unclarified and destabilizing relation to the art we actually have in front of us, as is also true in Embracing Perplexity. The exhibition is presented as a grouping, with sculptures, paintings, and drawings, but it is held together by a particular intensity. In a document at Galleri Riis, Ness offers commentary on every work in the exhibition from the perspective of an internal universe. Thus the gallery becomes a host organism for a complex mental and bodily artistic phenomenon, which is emphasized in the comprehensive number of fictive artists here set in motion as parts of the Ness project.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Embracing Perplexity, installation photo, Galleri Riis 2011.

The heterogeneity that comes down into at least nine artistic identities of various nationalities, genders, artistic profiles, and media is carried out in an impressive and consistent way in an unpredictable and theatrical course across at least two decades. Among others one finds a surrealist, a minimalist, a modernist sculptor, and a spiritualist, all under separate names like Jøgen Jøgner Nexi, Urban Ghadtspa, and Yon Eigil Asgar. As is well known a group of these characters turned up together in an entertaining and schizophrenic video work Opus Osiris in 1994. Toward the end of the 90s the different identities began to cooperate in the working collective Nesstudio, which materialized in extensive environments.

This staging problematizes in a paradoxically refined and parodic way the clichéd pomposity and necessity of the artist’s role—without, it must be noted, advancing an unambiguous critique. The many voices and expressions run together and become something struggling, something that cannot be surveyed, so that the critical artillery seems aimed primarily against a reductive understanding of what the artist and art should be. Ness’s options thus become legion.

Ole Jørgen Ness, The Vapour of Arcana Coelestia, 2011.

In Embracing Perplexity the young painter Ambrosia Uhrmann, a relatively new sprout on the artistic trunk, plays one of the major roles. She is the sentimental creator of the monumental The Vapour of Arcana Coelestia, an almost monstrous 3×5-meter painting hung in the middle of the gallery’s main room. The title is intended to refer to the Swedish mystic Swedenborg’s main work, in which the mysteries of the heavens are compared to the human body. The observer takes a place on a bench set up for the occasion in front of the painting, such that the observer’s situation is purely clear. Almost overly so. The painting, on the other hand, is sensationally liberating in all of its brazenness. One finds associations with rococo painting’s pastel colorations—as for example in François Boucher’s pastoral fantasias. The picture’s space is so large that it becomes risky, and the use of rococo’s intimate world is experienced as heated and interesting. It is as if we are looking directly into a dynamic, potentially sublime heaven, and the references to the history of painting can link to a mystical ascent to the heavens one associates especially with the pictorial world of the baroque. Simultaneously this heaven is experienced as a body in full decomposition where everything solid perishes. The work’s combination of colored smoke, as a formulation in the spirit of an older style in which the colors flow over each other like waves, and a persistent organic decay create a fundamentally open situation. The purely painterly appears to be the main project, but Ness also seems to be commenting on the spirit of a time period that can be characterized as searching into the paralyzing and dystopian. The monumentality in itself and the art-historical references with sublime undertones might conventionally be seen as guaranteeing a definitive meaning. But with Ness the material weight and the motivic sublime resemble to a greater degree active trip cords rather than an assertion of substance and collective agreement.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Pandemonium Rex, 2009-2010.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Indian Ocean, 2010-2011.

There is an insistent beauty here, but also a nauseating organic decay, as contours disappear and an almost dangling and slimy formlessness arises. This two-sided element occurs again in Ness’s paintings—shown here is a selection from 1999-2011—all of which problematize access to painterly mythology. The fundamental abstraction is countered constantly by figurative signs, especially with references to high-dramatic and atmospheric Romantic painting. The forms can be indistinct; nevertheless a palpably physical and organic presence is equally suggested. The result is a vertiginous painterly situation, at the very edge of the precipice, both compositionally, where strongly contradictory forms and spaces collide, and stylistically, as if a wedge were driven into good taste. It is an interesting interplay between an intricately esthetized language of forms and a flirtation with something like New-Age poster art, as is in the multi-frame painting Pandemonium Rex.  Here a dense figuration of mystic eyes, Celtic borders, and half-profiles stirs up a speculative commercial tendency of our time. Simultaneously the precision of the work with materials makes it difficult not to take this seriously. The visual alertness and tolerance are tested without distinct admonitions based on taste.

So Ness works away in many directions, but it’s far from random. He demonstrates a virtuosic assuredness in his assembling of visual material. This is not least true of the drawing Indian Ocean, which covers a large wall. The work is ascribed to the identity NEMO, and is carried out with an even regularity in which blue drawing pens have laboriously filled the white sheets. The labor seems directed by the exhausting of possibilities, but this thought necessarily becomes quiet in the presence of the seemingly unbounded creative surplus.

One of Norvald Braathen’s so-called neovitalistic plaster-of-Paris sculptures has also found its way in. Huge white and bonelike shapes, not without a modernist family background, are set up on industrial shelves (Stored Hubbub). Again we experience a decomposition or more exactly a crumbling up of fixed form. Once more these are the remains of bones, and they tell fragments of a hidden story which in a double move is ascribed to the fictional and actual creator. The exhibition at Galleri Riis demonstrates this reticent narrative strategy, which imperiously sends questions back at the observer.

Ole Jørgen Ness, Stored Hubbub, 2008-2011, detail.