NN-A NN-A NN-A – New Norwegian Abstraction

Written by Gunnar B. Kvaran

The first years of the new century have represented a strange period for international contemporary art. Many different artistic ideas have developed simultaneously and most of them have had clear connections with the past. Even though we can observe new artistic ideas related to the internet and to the use of digital media, most artists have worked with established art-historical references, so that most of the time we can add the prefix ‘neo’ or ‘post’ – post-conceptualism, post-appropriation, neo-modernism – to their research and preoccupations. Thus, being of one’s own time but still looking actively back in time is something that has characterized many of the artists of the last two decades and has reactivated artistic concepts and languages.

Among these artistic practices that are being rediscovered and reinvented is the phenomenon of abstraction. A century-long history of abstract art has been re-empowered by artists who have, through their learning and their own artistic experience, assimilated the different premises of various artistic genres and movements like Conceptual art, Fluxus and Land art. This has given them new tools with which to address and reinvent abstract art. At the beginning of new century we had artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Ernesto Neto, Sarah Morris and Liam Gillick, to name a few true heirs of modernism, who presented their works with a new kind of conceptual intention, but made clear visual references to the historical abstraction that had grown throughout the previous century as the supra sign of modernism. In the last years, with international artists such as Wade Guyton, Liu Wei, Tauba Auerbach, Oscar Murillo and Sergej Jensen, we have witnessed new abstraction gaining more space and attention worldwide, becoming one of the most dominant artistic movements of our time.

The rapidity of the development of this new vision of abstraction, and its acceptance by the art world, has been extraordinary, as was the swiftness of the consensus surrounding other ‘neo’ movements like neo-expressionism and neo-geo in the 1980s. This is largely due to the fact that these new abstract works, even though they have their own inherent qualities, look very much as artworks should, and gallerists, critics and the curators already have in place the fundamental vocabulary, the terminology and the theoretical discourse to explain the mechanisms of the artistic concepts behind the work and then to accompany them out into the marketplace.

Within the international art scene, increasing numbers of young and emerging Norwegian artists have adopted different strategies and languages of abstract art. This therefore seems the right moment to present some of their most interesting achievements, which have not yet been officially documented. Quite early in our research, we understood that most of these emerging Norwegian artists were preoccupied with experimenting with materials and materiality, using unusual equipment and inventing or appropriating tools to create new possibilities of writing and expression. Others are more interested in the construction and deconstruction of forms related to space and the notion of time.

Within the first group is Ida Ekblad, who uses a variety of pictorial languages, both figurative and abstract, and paints her large-scale paintings with great energy. Apparently chaotically, she mixes colors on the canvas and superimposes drawings sometimes made with the help of trolleys. Fredrik Værslev experiments with appropriated forms, materials and tools, such as the instruments used to trace lines on sport fields, to produce enigmatic drawings and abstract paintings that sometimes bear a strange resemblance to 1950s terrazzo floor motifs. Ivan Galuzin also has many different forms of expression at his disposal, but in this exhibition we have chosen his “monochrome paintings” where he lets the painting itself take over the creative/destructive process. Similarly, when Henrik Olai Kaarstein’s layers of painted plastic materials, which resemble leftovers from a construction site, are hung on the wall, they take on the shape and forms dictated by their own weight and position. Tiril Hasselknippe, who in the past has made sculptures based on the forms of furniture and of surfboards, also lets the forms of her works flow naturally, casting her sculptural objects in the sand, which they absorb to create strange and mysterious objects. Aurora Passero uses nylon materials, which she colors in nuanced shades and hangs from the ceiling, making floating architectural constructions. Similarly, Ann Iren Buan also colors her works in subtle hues, in this case masses of paper that become monumental installations. 

Amongst the artists preoccupied with the construction and deconstruction of forms in space is Marie Buskov, whose point of departure is the architecture of the museum building, which she decomposes and rearranges into constellations of forms that take on their own destiny. Also integrating and absorbing the presence of the existing architecture of the building is Camilla Løw, who employs transparent materials to construct primary forms and elements. Marianne Hurum works with newspaper clippings that she develops into abstract photograms, removing them from their original subject matter by playing with form and light, while Magnhild Øen Nordahl constructs and rearranges coloured panels, indicating sequences and the passing of time. Johanne Hestvold works around empty space using copper tubes and wires to create a delicate ambiguity between the work and the wall, as well as the environment in general. Anders Sletvold Moe transforms appropriations or quotations in terms of size, scale and colour, creating an installation that take the site into account, but also open up a meta-lecture on the history of abstract art. Proposing clear and elegant forms in wood or marble, Emma Ilija Wyller adds a drawing in gold or simply covers the surface with milk, while Marte Johnslien creates a nature-inspired field of meditation out of multi-coloured and multi-shaped forms. Olve Sande works with plaster boards, which he photographs and puts on stretchers showing their own image, while in his printed works Petter Buhagen dives into the depth of the pixels of figurative images converting them into abstract techno-images.

On the first level of our reading, the works of these artists seem to confirm that they are the great-grand-children of modernism, a period and a vision of the world that gained its position during the  late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a movement, it was the dominant ideological force between 1850 to 1970 within social, political, philosophical and aesthetic practices, with a special emphasis on the notion of social progress. Of course, technical progress, translated through the mechanisation of the means of production, often referred to as ‘rationalisation’, was important in the rise of modernism, but first and foremost was the political progress of democracy and the will to promote the rights of the rational modern citizen. Norwegian society today is very much a result of this long process of modernism, as an aesthetic enterprise and not least as a rational and democratic process. Thus the centre of gravity for these young artists is their relationship to modernism.

It is quite obvious, however, that it is not only historical abstraction that has a presence within the works of these young artists. Minimalism and Conceptualism are clearly also factors. One can see and understand this more clearly within their working process, and expressed through their texts, than in the final works themselves. And more than ever before, the titles of the works play an interesting role, revealing the artists’ intentions and the close connection between language and abstraction, a connection that is of course intellectual and rational, underlying and fundamental, language being a symbolic system. One can also see in these works the shadow of postmodernism, which has been extremely influential in the last decades. Of course, this is in a way a contradiction, but one that demonstrates the strangeness of the situation for many international artists, including Norwegians, when it comes to their relationship with historical references. Is it about finding a new means of expression, inventing and opening up new possibilities, rather than working with displaced and eternally returning references, ideas as images, where the origins are often long gone or have ceased to matter?

Many of these young Norwegian artists, like their international colleagues, talk about art history as an archive. They know their history and are aware of the fact that ever since the late 1940s and the 50s, abstract art, including geometrical abstraction and lyrical abstraction, has held a strong position in Norway and in Scandinavia in general. The Danish artist Richard Mortensen and the Swedish artist Olle Bärtling played a key role in the development of European constructive geometrical abstraction, while the Danish artist Asger Jorn was one of the front figures of the CoBrA movement, and in their visual solutions, the young Norwegian artists come quite close to their historical referents. But their works are not born from the same intentions as those of fifty or sixty years ago. The recitation of history and its successive ruptures have seen to that. In the last ten years, young artists have included art-historical references in their flow of found objects without any qualms, seeing them simply as raw materials for the making of art. Often this brings their works close to the “image-as-abstraction” approach, in which images are considered as excerpts of a whole, which raises the question of representation and abstraction, or simply the representation of abstraction. The widespread and ongoing recapitulation of abstract forms in sculptures and paintings that frequently reveals itself in the new media, means that disrupting the linearity of history becomes the inherent subject of these works. The artists’ relationship with history is quite relaxed, and they have no problem in acknowledging their art-historical references or influences. In fact, as children of the internet (and not only the great-grand-children of modernism), they have broken away from the linearity of history, and are simultaneously in the past and the present, helping themselves to art-historical imagery from the abundant sources of information on the internet, without making judgment and simply creating their own work and space. Being knowledgeable about the mechanisms of different art practices and mastering their intellectual and conceptual tools, these artists can permit themselves to take a distance and enjoy the creative process. This real sense of pleasure is palpable in the intelligence, inventiveness and experimental energy of the works.

So to ask if their work is a continuation, a new opening within the grand tradition of modernism, or a sign of progress in terms of Art History, is irrelevant. What we can say is that these artists represent a new chapter in the narrative of the history of abstraction.

The title NN-A NN-A NN-A is an abstract abbreviation of New Norwegian Abstraction, like concrete poetry, intended to convey the playful musicality that is very much the tone of the exhibition. On behalf of the Astrup Fearnley Museet, I would like to thank the artists for their engagement and inspiring collaboration. I would also like to thank the lenders of the few works that have not come direct from the artists’ studios, as well as the authors of the texts included in the printed and web catalogue, who have thrown fresh and interesting light on the new abstraction.

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© Astrup Fearnley Museet