Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

Odd Nerdrum, Gretna Campbell, Bill Scott

Odd Nerdrum: New Paintings at Forum Gallery (745 Fifth Avenue, 212. 355.4547) June 4 to July 30

Gretna Campbell (1922 – 1987) at Tibor de Nagy (724 Fifth Aveune, 212.262.5050) June 3 to July 3

Bill Scott: Process and Continuity at Hollis Taggart Galleries (48 East 73 Street, 212.628.4000) May 18 to July 9, 2004

This article first appeared in the New York Sun, 10 June 2004

Odd Nerdrum Five Singing Women 2004 oil on canvas, 79-7/8 x 147-5/8 inches Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York
Odd Nerdrum, Five Singing Women 2004 oil on canvas, 79-7/8 x 147-5/8 inches Courtesy Forum Gallery, New York

An Odd Nerdrum exhibition is like a pastiche of old B-movies. Remember Louis L’Amour’s “Heller in Pink Tights:” A rag-tag theatrical troupe wanders the frontier struggling to survive. So too, the cast of Mr. Nerdrum’s costume epics. His generic post-catastrophe landscape conjures up “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.” Every day is The Day After Tomorrow in Nerdrumland.

Oscar Wilde said it took a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell. It takes lights lowered to catacomb wattage to discourage merriment in front of Mr. Nerdrum’s special effects: that histrionic nosebleed, wolf-skin wardrobes from George Caitlin’s Indian gallery, the ghosts of Paintings Past and omens of artistic anguish.

His stock role of The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer takes its cue this year from Mel Gibson. “Second Birth” (2004) presents the Second Coming of himself as Christ. Antonello da Messina’s haunting bust-length image of Christ crowned with thorns, a 15th century panel, is stamped with Mr. Nerdrum’s features and set to resurrect from a lunar tundra.

Seabiscuit drew crowds recently, so expect a horse. “Horse Bath” (2004) gives us a white one, homage to Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider.” Head held at an unnatural angle, the goofy rider looks to be mimicking Balthus’ portrait of Baroness Rothschild. “Flock” (2004) has five naked men and a boy in a simian crouch, like chimps posing for Jane Goodall. The crown of thorns on each head is a portentous absurdity that lends credence to Mr. Nerdrum’s claim to have studied with Joseph Beuys.

“Five Singing Women” (2004) arranges five females on their backs, suggesting notes on a staff that ends with a half-note: another naked boy. All mouths are open, in song or rigor mortis? The women’s coverings-part sleeping bag, part shroud-slip off at just the right places. Breasts and beaver shots carry the day. “On The Boat” (2004) teases us with a threadbare couple, straight from some sagebrush saga, watching the distant approach of a phantom boat. The ark of salvation? The lifeboat from a lost starship seeking The Big Trail? Analogies are mixed but that happens with Odd.

His repertory of New Old Master showmanship camps in full feather past the footlights. Nothing here supports its own publicity as a Rembrandtian critique of modernity. Mr. Nerdrum is a parodist. That his parodies are mistaken for prophecies is a testament to P.T. Barnum’s grasp of public credulity and appetite for spectacle. In the end, failed prophecy is a form of nostalgia. It is dispiriting to see fine technique lavished on an art running on empty.

Gretna Campbell Gravel Pit, Stillwater 1980 oil on canvas, 32 x 46 inches Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
Gretna Campbell, Gravel Pit, Stillwater 1980 oil on canvas, 32 x 46 inches Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Gretna Campbell’s plein-air paintings are a gracious antidote to sham solemnities around town. They are on display in New York for the first time in eight years. It is a welcome event. Concentrating on work from the 1970s and ’80s, the exhibition features landscapes of the Maine coast, rural New Jersey and the south of France.

Ms. Campbell came of age among a generation of painters respectful of the achievements of Abstract Expressionism but confident that depictions of the natural world remained timely and significant. She was a realist in the best sense, faithful to the physical pulse of what she observed yet not subservient to appearances.

The apparent spontaneity of the work belies the rigorous studio preparation that preceded outdoor painting. Ms. Campbell drew on site, mapping details of the locale: the juncture of planes, the nodal points of her composition. Transferred to canvas, this initial linear schema was painted over in the studio with broad expanses of color chosen for chromatic interaction with the final paint layers improvised on the spot.

The pleasure of her work is in the variety and complexity of its color and the lush, textural weave of brushstrokes. Details of the local scene-a rocky shoreline, the slope of a field or angle of a trellis- are the raw material for a pictorial architecture built on the reciprocal effects of one color upon another. She worked boldly with brush and palette knife but the result is fastidious and transparent. The gestural energy of action painting enlivens an intimate sympathy for natural settings.

Specific shapes are loosely rendered while the sense of light and air is vividly realized. A snow bank resonates with touches of blue, delicate pinks and ochres. That distant haze, where sky and hill tops meet, reveals gentle modulations of viridian, cerulean, violet and yellow. “Along the Banks of Cranberry Cove” (1984) is a riveting dance of variegated greens interknit with supporting mauves, tender browns and golds.

The eye has work to do in these subtle, sophisticated paintings.

Bill Scott Ranuculus & Poppies 2003 oil on canvas, 35 x 50 inches  Courtesy Hollis Taggart Galleries
Bill Scott, Ranuculus & Poppies 2003 oil on canvas, 35 x 50 inches Courtesy Hollis Taggart Galleries

Bill Scott has no garden; so he invents his own. And what a high time he has in it.

Mr. Scott is an abstract painter working withing the Philadelphia colorist tradition that follows the lead of Arthur B. Carles, one of the most spirited of the early American modsernists. This is hs first exhibiton with Hollis Taggart.

With vivacity and a crazy quilt inventiveness, he evokes the retinal sensation of flower fields in a rambunctious patchwork of color segments. Depositing paint in abstract, lozenge-like shapes, Mr. Scott makes deft use of the see-through capacities and textures of oil paint. Pale tones are glazed over with darker ones; contrasting colors appear beneath the surface of each seemingly nonchalant swatch. Desultory dark lines traipse over the canvas, unifying disparate patches, much like the overstitching on traditional quilts.

Emotional range is keyed to the coloristic one. With the exception of “Night Garden,” Mr. Scott’s chromatic scale emphasizes smiling colors. Candied pinks pushing toward fuschia, ingratiating yellows and spring greens predominate. The work is unapologetically decorative, delightfully so. It would be cranky to wish for more metal amid the charm. Seduction is enough.