Shitty Feelings

From instagram fame to art world success. Norwegian Trude Viken’s show at Belenius in Stockholm returns us to a realm of childhood attachments.

Trude Viken, Double Portrait 10, 46 x 45 cm, oil on canvas, 2023.

Inside Out, the title of Trude Viken’s show currently on view at Belenius in Stockholm, succinctly sums up the self-taught painter’s artistic program. With her naïve neo-Expressionist style and ropey facture, she aims to genuinely portray subjective interiority, registering the tensions and contradictions between our interior lives and our outward appearances – or as she puts it on her website, “how we feel behind our facade.” She wants, in other words, to turn the inside out. 

This facile take on Expressionism drives what is perhaps Viken’s best known body of work, Diary Notes (2014–ongoing), a series of daily self-portraits depicting her changing moods. A selection from 2022 is on view here, grimacing at us with cartoonishly dead eyes and collagen-plumped lips.

Alienation feels shitty, of course. And that is the show’s dominant mood. Grids of small-scale portraits batter us with a range of negative affects like anger, resignation, disgust, and resentment, while nearby works depicting dolls and plush toys conjure scenes of girlish abjection (White Scene 10–11, both 2023). In an adjacent gallery, around two dozen portraits in graphite on paper predictably teem with existential angst. Beauty standards and the failure of women to achieve them are overarching themes, as seen in larger canvases such as Blue Scene 3 (2023), a pointless riff on Botticelli’s Venus. While these compositions are more visually complex, they are no less maudlin. Populated by gangs of misfits, mothers, and daughters with enormous eyes, animal features, and mitt-like paws, they have a touch of the late-Guston in places, but with more unstudied earnestness and less social antagonism.

To make a crudely Nietzschean distinction, Viken’s pictures are not made to be contemplated, but felt. We either feel them or we don’t. For those who don’t, her works might read less as genuine expressions of subjective interiority than minor symptoms of the art world’s latest efforts to recoup tradition and erstwhile ideals of authenticity, medium-specificity, and genius. (The artist’s record-breaking sales in her native Norway following her ‘discovery’ on Instagram in 2018 – by Richard Prince of all people – only seems to confirm it.) For those who do, however, the more interesting question is how Viken’s pictures make their particular affective demands. 

Trude Viken, Red Scene, 180 x 190 cm, oil on canvas, 2023.

The misshapen and doe-eyed characters that inhabit paintings like Red Scene II (2023) are pathetic and hostile at the same time: they seem desperate for our attention and care. In a word, they’re “cute” in Sianne Ngai’s sense of the term: commodities in search of a “mommy.” Like cute dolls, toys, or even pets, Viken’s pictures return us to a realm of childhood attachments and domestic use and consumption; they implore us not to look deeply into their eyes (they’re too shallow for that), but rather to look outward through them. What do we see through the eyes of these exemplary bourgeois objects? Is it the fantasy that we might recover their use-value, as Ngai suggests? Maybe, at least, for those who can afford them. But for most of us, it is more likely the fantasy that we too might someday be seen by the market so that we can realise our exchange value. 

A more deliberate exploration of this contradiction would probably make Viken’s paintings harder to dismiss. Who knows? It might even make them shittier.

Trude Viken, Inside Out, installation view, Belenius. Photo: Thomas Widerberg and Ellinor Hall.