Fredrik Værslev “Tan Lines” at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen
Text by Antonio Scoccimarro
In August 1883, William Ashcroft, an artist and illustrator from Chelsea, began to capture the extraordinary (and absolutely anomalous) sunsets that were filling the skies of the British capital at the time with bright shades of purple and gold, creating a set of minor studies in pastel and tempera, which he would continue for five years following the event.
It is not clear whether Ashcroft was aware of what he was preserving—at a time when the widespread use of photography was in its infancy, and color photography was largely an area of study in some chemical laboratory—but in any case, most of the five hundred drawings produced by the artist are conserved today as a “photographic” testimony of the extraordinary effect of the eruption of a volcano thousands of kilometers away, in Indonesia—the famous Krakatoa—and the until then unthinkable effects on the climate and meteorology which that local event had had on a global scale.
A decade later, little over thirty years of age, the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch sketched the first of the four existing versions of his most famous work—The Scream (1893)—depicting a shrieking figure (“I felt that a great, endless scream pervaded nature,” in the words of the artist) along a rising path: the composition is almost sucked up by the vanishing point, creating a suffocating landscape, overcast by a sickly sky shot with blood-red lines. It has been hypothesized though never confirmed that the particular tones that define the sky in the painting are in fact the memory of the effects of the particulate released into the atmosphere by the volcano Krakatoa, i.e. the memory of red skies cutting across the rocky outline of some Norwegian fjord might have left their mark on the artist some years before.
In a 2016 exhibition, All Around Amateur, hosted firstly in the spaces of the Bergen Kunsthall and then in Le Consortium in Dijon, the also Norwegian Fredrik Vaerslev presented his series of “Sunset Paintings” for the first time: sets of canvases of monumental size, in which the artist, through the use of road markers (the same tools used to create the signal lines on roads or sports fields, curiously used also by Július Koller in his Time-Space Defining Psycho-Physical Activity of Material – Tennis [Antihappening], 1968) composed abstractions, or rather, chromatic memories, of the skies photographed by him on his various plane journeys “from and to” Oslo (Vaerslev lives and works in Vestfossen, a town near the Norwegian capital), creating what I see as the residues of the long wave that links Ashcroft to Munch, and the effects in the present of that major cataclysm that took place at the end of the 19th century.
Vaerslev has long worked strictly within the limits set by the painterly medium, adopting strategies that, while ironizing on its “apparent” state of death (on second thoughts, would you ever seriously talk to someone sentenced to death about his condition?), are the result of a continuous toing and froing between control and coincidence, detachment and care, abstraction and figuration. The canvases exposed to the elements, snow and the sun, but also the algae accumulated from being deposited in a harbor, create both a mathematical pattern in which to recognize an “abstract” composition, but also, strictly speaking, a “hyperreal” one: not reproductions of real life, but elements on which reality is physically deposited. Perhaps photography in its purest form, i.e. writing with light?
In his solo exhibition staged by the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Tan Lines—the residue of this “writing with light” on human skin in this case—Vaerslev presents two sets of works, dialoguing across the space: a group of freestanding canvases (suspended on cables from the ceiling, and coupled to become ‘double-sided’) which further articulate the Kunsthalle space, and a number of “benches” (as the artist defines them, but they could equally well be fencing or little tables) installed along the wall, almost perceivable as “sound” panels that modulate the volume—but also the light—of the spaces in which they are housed.
The canvases—the “Sail Paintings”—are a “mash-up” of elements from previous painting series and formal speculations on the world of seafaring and sailing, on the coordinated image of the museum—nonchalantly adopting the role of the institutional critique/r—and studies for the creation of a visual identity for the artist himself, which takes on the form of logos with his surname or elaborations on his year of birth “-79”, which is also the international dialing prefix for Norway. In the complete subjectivity of his painterly gesture—of which Vaerslev cannot but be aware—they are the pure result of the application of a system of rules (suggested by the context, and at times amusing) through which the painting is self-generated, and the artist may apply himself a little less anxiously. Structures similar to those self-imposed by Mark Grotjahn (I’m thinking here of Untitled (Poker Set Chicago, $10,000 Seed Money, 5 Days $45–80 Texas Hold’em, Commerce Casino Los Angeles, Total Loss $4,602), 2006, in which painting is the elaboration of the notes on the outcome of Texan-style hands of poker played by the artist (perhaps while drunk to boot?), but also the research applied to painting in Morgan Fischer’s structuralism. And it’s a short step from there to Louise Lawler: Untitled 1950-51” (1987): a Miró and its reflection is the key with which Vaerslev relates the pinewood benches on the wall—and their perfect sheen, “maritime” also in this case—to the paintings, the evident offsetting of the “sculptures on the ground/paintings on the wall” dichotomy, along with his warm invitation to assess a work in its reflection as well.
The exhibition will travel to the Bonner Kunstverein at the start of February and in the autumn to the Fondazione Giuliani in Rome.
.at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen
until 14 January 2018