Odd Nerdrum, Egg Snatchers, oil on canvas, 67-1/3″ x 79-3/4″; courtesy Forum Gallery
* * *
A nagging question surrounding the paintings of Odd Nerdrum, on display at Forum Gallery, is: Can you still paint like that?
“Like that,” as if the past 400 years of Western art hadn’t transpired; to put brush to canvas, without irony or affectation, in the style of Rembrandt and Caravaggio. To create images without a hint of pop culture, mass media, Cézanne, Picasso and Pollock. Intimations of a post-industrial apocalypse betray some cognizance of contemporary life. Otherwise, Nerdrum’s paintings are suffused in golden light, soupy washes of umber and mythological portent. They’re Old Masterish.
For those skeptical of modernism and the excesses it set in motion, Nerdrum’s quixotic achievement would seem to answer a need for a return to principles. It’s hard not to be impressed with the operatic scope of his ambition and the dexterity of his touch. Nerdrum’s consistency as an imagist, with those barren landscapes, ritualistic narratives, theatrical flourishes and supple passages of skin and bone, betokens a sense that sheer force of will can right a culture overtaken by trivial diversions.
Frank Frazetta, Sun Goddess (1970), oil on board
* * *
But Nerdrum’s nightmarish scenarios are redolent of Frank Frazetta, the fantasy artist who specialized in pulpy depictions of otherworldly vistas, towering monsters, nubile maidens and Conan the Barbarian. Nerdrum is a more serious figure—more reactionary, too. At least Frazetta wasn’t pretentious.
In the end, Nerdrum’s peculiar kind of hokum isn’t all that different, better suited as cover illustrations for heavy metal CDs than for inclusion in The Grand Manner.
© 2012 Mario Naves
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of City Arts.