Odd Nerdrum at Forum Gallery

Odd Nerdrum, Egg Snatchers, oil on canvas, 67-1/3″ x 79-3/4″; courtesy Forum Gallery

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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

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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.

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  • R. Black  On April 24, 2012 at 12: 42 am

    If you can’t see the difference between Frank Frazetta and Odd Nerdrum, you are a real idiot who has no business writing about art.

  • czechmate1954  On April 24, 2012 at 7: 23 am

    Mario, you get it right sometimes, but often get it wrong. To even compare Nerdrum to Frazetta is like comparing Mahler to a jingle. If you’d learn to get off your high Trojan horse and just take time to look at things — and spend time with them, not seconds — you’d perhaps be a more incisive “critic”. Perhaps. You are writing to celebrate the sound of your voice and not the art that silences it.

  • Helen Kent  On April 30, 2012 at 8: 18 pm

    Have you become a little too jaded now to be an art critic? That you don’t like Nerdrum’s or Woodman’s art is one thing, but to stoop to personal insults is something else. You think Odd Nerdrum is pretentious? You feel that Francesca Woodman is theatrical and adolescent, ironically, while citing the highly theatrical Cindy Sherman’s work as an “exploration of identity.” Oh please. After all this time you are shocked, shocked that some painters are traditional realists. Perhaps, you are writing for a certain elder modernist elite, still fulminating about the inevitable change in art and aesthetics from the glory days of high Modernism. I don’t blame you, that certainly is what side your bread if buttered on–and it really doesn’t matter what critics think. Remember when Clement Greenberg was “god”?

  • vc  On May 2, 2012 at 3: 08 pm

    If I’m not mistaken, Nerdrum (or Donald Kuspit) embrace the word “kitsch” in relation to Nerdrum’s art, only he/they put a positive spin on it, using the term as something that can move, even agitate the viewer rather than placate or conform. Also, I just can’t look at Frazetta anymore without thinking of Picabia and Yuskavage. My own perspective of smug irony makes his work more tolerable, even charming, and I see it less as masturbatory fodder than a late manifestation of high-society domesticated romanticism ala Benjamin West’s Death on a Pale Horse or Bocklin’s fantasies. Mark my words–he’ll have a retro at the Guggenheim.

    Maybe it’s still the old modernist story–Nerdrum is more interesting because there lurks, somewhere under those wispy robes, some anxiety about the viability of the style. He’s no Bouguereau.

  • vc  On May 2, 2012 at 3: 10 pm

    P.S. “Redolent” does not mean “exactly like”.

  • Antonio Tirado  On July 29, 2012 at 12: 00 am

    I’ve noticed that Odd Nerdrum has quite a following among those who somewhat abashedly prefer fantasy illustration to, say, Kenneth Noland (or, if they were completely honest, to Rembrandt, even). It IS interesting, though, that none other than the late Hilton Kramer heaped praise upon Nerdrum’s Wagnerian, Grand-Mannered paintings. Barbara Rose, another critical apologist of Modernism, wrote a similarly uncharacteristic review in support of Anselm Kiefer’s apocalyptic, neo-romantic paintings back in the late 90’s. Perhaps both critics were interested in these artists in so far as they maintained a level of psychological depth in painting that was in danger of disappearing when content-charged formalism (a la Rothko) was reduced to mere material, color, & shape.

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