The Ferryman

“The most dangerous that can happen to an artist is to believe that a scientifico-philosophic lingo can give grounds to his inexcusable daubs” (1)

We fully live this era of literalness. Any human activity – and art is unfortunately part of it – must present immediate efficiency, and especially set a definitive monoseny for fear that the abundance of interpretations might disturb the amateur’s judgement. But when you are told what to look at, what is left to be seen ? Reviewing this current climate of effortless art probably causes a thrill of intoxication and communion. But it also subconsciously leads to unfortunate side effects such as poorer judgment and sluggish tastes.

In the prevailing clarity, Per Kirkeby’s paintings contrast with the opacity of their intriguing enigmas. And if we don’t immediately apprehend what is unravelled, we implicitly understand that a particular drama is underlying. Colours, forms … Maybe some patterns arise but in any case they are not obvious. The many writings of the artist, far from providing precise iconographic clues are more inclined to define an atmosphere.

In these texts the foremost issues are mainly method and poetry. Kirkeby often comes back to the idea that a price needs to be paid for the piece to befall. This sacrifice is Byzantine since it is similar to the passionate and paradoxical behaviour of the iconoclaste, who according to Marie-Josée Mondzain, destroys what he likes most: the face of the son of God that he intends to save from the iconodulist. Kirkeby’s perception of the act of creation has effectively a price.

“I look outside and I see the trees and the light. That’s what I see first. Then I start looking for a kind of system. “ (2)

For Kirkeby, the act of seeing remains the founding aspect, practically a discipline in itself. He may cover his garden in Laseø or the frozen territories of Greenland, but still attempts to detect a hidden structure in the landscape. This requires a type of state of double consciousness, the use of this « decoding device called painting » (3) « One of the most important reasons – probably the main engine – that [the artist] is driven to do something as desperate and useless as a painting is « contemplation »: the experience of seeing where others merely assumed. Assumed that reality is a simple code, common and linguistic … (4) « says Kirkeby. It is basically to look « differently »; all the great painters have created their own visual tools.
Kirkeby works his paintings according to the method of all-over, whilst starting on the sides. Sometimes he rubs his brush against the canvas to obtain a type of « pulp ». From then on the game consists of becoming the master, alternating premeditated and accidental actions. Each form creates another. The more established areas thus generate less clearly defined zones, more magmatic hence provide a rhythmic counterpoint.

The compositions are subject to a long cycle of transformations. The artist is wary of « false good ideas » which are attractive in the evening but lacking in structure the following morning. « It takes courage to leave behind the safety net of intelligence (5), » he confesses. Just as it is sometimes necessary to fight against his own virtuosity: risk-taking reveals his true nature.

Hence the continual and successive re-coverings. So much so that in the process of each work there are several paintings that are virtual. The flesh can only definitively set, if the skeleton is robust. However, the entire enterprise is precisely to make emerge the structure we glimpsed at initially. But before achieving this, the painting must comply with destruction.

« Suddenly I perceived geology as a conception of life, like a vision of the world going far beyond professional and technocratic knowledge. A huge stream of energy and materials, that, from time to time, join together in crystalline structures, a mountain, a church, a brief moment, a breath, a morning mist above the river’s eternal course (6).”

It is likely that the destruction plays a greater part of the DNA of Kirkeby’s painting. To determine the finishing touch of the completion of the painting is not without reasoning with the fragile balance of vertical landscapes rising. These appear sliced, as if violently cut, revealing the fault lines, granitic veins and clays, but also the fallen tree trunks or proudly erect, doomsday’s meadows and skies. Faced with rocky stacks and the organic, we imagine that everything could suddenly collapse and return to primordial chaos, as a result of the same forces that once established order, now precarious.

What is shown in Per Kirkeby’s paintings is the omnipotence of geological time. They reveal a common structure, as in beings, things built by humans and so-called natural creations, all innervated by the same vitalistic energy. But this creative time is also devouring, he presides over the same destiny of mountains, be they ancient millenial architectures, through erosion, their ruin, their disappearance.

Dust you were, to dust you shall return …

It is therefore not insignificant that Kirkeby has been even more orientated towards religious painting in recent years, sometimes inspired by it’s subjects (the Descent from the Cross) and borrowing from certain icons, such as the pattern of the cracked rocks of Golgotha. With a closer look, the vertical compositions of his paintings, mixing minerals, vegetation and the skies evoke some representations of the Last Judgment, where the three registers of hell, earth / purgatory and paradise coexist. The difference with Kirkeby, is that the three orders are proven to be so interlinked to the pictorial textures and it’s coverings, that we cannot imagine the possibility of redemption, nor any heavenly escape, nor evade the inevitable ticking of the geological clock.

“Landscapes are buried pictures. As in still life, the pots, the glasses and distressed old cheeses”.

A motif taken from the Dutch painter Willem Claesz Heda’s vanities haunts Kirkeby’s work : an overturned chalice. It’s a fallen Grail, the blood of the covenant split to no avail, the decapitated promise of eternal life. Once again, a fall. There is in Kirkeby’s painting a dimension of memento mori that crystallizes the idea of painful impermanence.

What is ultimately the tribute an artist must pay? He remains relatively secretive on this point. But we can more or less imagine that to carry this role as a revealer or ferryman, has a cost. From the spectator’s point of view, and because an encounter with real art never leaves one intact, some melancholy is the obol we must acquit. However it is a joy to awaken in this way one’s conscience.

Richard Leydier


(1) Pers Metode, filmed dialogue with Poul Erik Tøjner, éd. Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk

(2) Per Kirkeby, Manuel, 1998, Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris/Paris Musées, p.162.

(3) Manuel, op. cit., p.159.

(4) Manuel, op. cit., p.136.

(5) Manuel, op. cit., p.138.

(6) Manuel, op. cit., p.167.

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