Is the Hottest New Art Coming from Chilly Nordic Countries?

“Scandinavian Pain” burns crimson in the night in one photo by Ragnar Kjartansson featured in the new exhibition North by New York: New Nordic Art in celebration of the centenary of the creation of The American-Scandinavian Foundation. That phrase could serve as the motto for much of the work that appears in this choice selection of contemporary Nordic art curated by Robert Storr and Francesca Pietropaolo. This cross-section of modern angst from the territory of Munch, Ibsen, and Sibelius updates that Nordic sensibility for a new age and shows how these artists use new media to convey that old message. As Mieskuoro Huutajat, also known as the Screaming Men’s Choir (image above), prove, this new wave of hot art from a cold climate is something to shout about.

In their catalogue essay, Storr, renowned art critic and dean of the Yale School of Art since 2006, and Pietropaolo, independent scholar and curator, disdain the idea of “globalism” in their approach to the exhibition, feeling that it “does nothing less than blur or erase the subtle distinctions that render it possible for us to discern and appreciate crucial differences among cultures and individual creators.” Instead, they maintain sharp focus on the five Nordic countries—Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—and the fifteen artists—eight women and seven men. Giving up all hope of comprehensiveness, Storr and Pietropaolo instead aim at saying something intelligible about the often incomprehensible world of contemporary art—“a working index… and an open invitation to add to what [they] have gathered together” to represent the Scandinavian slice of today’s art.

At 73 years of age, Dane Per Kirkeby ranks as the oldest artist featured. His expressionist paintings beautifully hint at natural beauty while balancing the human gesture in the depiction. Swede Cecilia Edefalk ranks at the top of a trio of Swedish women painting in a figurative style. Haunted by the works of August Strindberg, Edefalk contributes two hazy, ghostly portraits to the exhibition. Karin Mamma Andersson and Sara-Vide Ericson—the two younger Swedish women appearing—stick in the memory in different ways. Andersson takes everyday scenes, such as a young man sprawled on a bed, and “translates information in such seemingly casual images into atmospheric scenes of another order,” the curators write, to the point that the young man becomes “a clothed, crash-pad male version of one of Delacroix’s or Matisse’s female odalisques.” Ericson similarly transforms the quotidian, but with a much more sinister feel. In Detail II (Liar), a woman bares her throat to what feels has to be a blade just beyond the frame—an image fraught with all the eroticism and violent passions of Man Ray’s iconic photo of Lee Miller’s neck. Another woman from the Swedish contingent, Gunnel Wåhlstrand, works in ink and wash to produce obsessively detailed drawings that hint at nostalgia on the surface but tremble with Ingmar Bergman’s brand of cinematic cruelty and tension beneath.

Several other artists in the exhibit work in video, but it is Mieskuoro Huutajat, the Screaming Men’s Choir singing arrangements by composer and conductor Petri Sirviö, that steals the show. “[A]dapt[ing] the texts of famous songs, national anthems, international treaties, lullabies, and folktales into a polyphony of shouts, howls, screams, and cries,” the curators write of the choir, the group “brilliantly explores the range of the human voice as it subverts the context of its ‘librettos’ and textual materials.” In this age of overabundant verbage too often signifying nothing, the Screaming Men’s Choir sings a new tune for us all—a cathartic, barbaric yawp in four-part harmony. After the initial shock of hearing them for the first time, you’ll smile, and then you’ll want to join in.

What makes North by New York: New Nordic Art so compelling is how familiar it all feels. At the risk of going “global,” it seems as if we’re all Scandinavians now, looking for answers or at least some relief from modern anxiety. The flux of contemporary art perfectly mirrors the flux of contemporary art, especially in the Nordic region. “Sometimes this flux is expressed as muffled disquiet, sometimes as carnival raucousness, sometimes as rage, sometimes as hilarity,” Storr and Pietropaolo conclude, “and sometimes there are intimations of inexplicable loveliness and peace.” North by New York: New Nordic Art in a small space with a small number of artists covers this spectrum of emotions and responses like a rainbow rising above an ice-covered plain.

[Image: Petri Sirviö featuring Mieskuoro Huutajat (Screaming Men’s Choir), Sorry Speech, 2010. Video stills—4 images total; 3-channel video installation, 3 min. synchronized loops, sound. Courtesy of the artist.]

[Many thanks to The American-Scandinavian Foundation for providing the image above from and a review copy of the catalog to North by New York: New Nordic Art, which runs through August 19, 2011.]

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