Pictures in Pictures
by Alice Godwin
The titan of post-war American art, Jasper Johns, scribbled a note to himself in 1964: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” These instructions, applied to a lexicon of targets, flags, numbers and letters, are words by which Asger Harbou Gjerdevik seems to live. Gjerdevik’s third solo exhibition at Alice Folker Gallery takes its title from the Johns monograph Pictures Within Pictures (2017), penned by Fiona Donovan. It’s a notion that perfectly suits the reverie of Gjerdevik’s painted landscapes, in which images metamorphose before our eyes, and nothing is fixed. Gjerdevik is a maker of worlds.
We might suppose Gjerdevik’s imagination to be filled with motifs, colours and textures – each like a spinning plate that is somehow held in perfect balance. Gjerdevik has the marvellous ability to keep the plates spinning and draw upon those that he requires. Images are gathered from memory and the world around him – the record sleeve of Brian Eno, the Spotify preview of Boy Harsher, the comedy horror TV show Riget (1994–2022), tendrils of trees, flames and cracked egg shells. A spectral figure, redolent of Johns’ own self-portrait shadow in his Seasons (1987), appears in a confident standing stance and then reclining, as if the river god of some ancient frieze. Is this Gjerdevik’s surrogate? Gjerdevik embraces a shifting ground of recurring motifs, where meanings are far from set. It’s an instinct that echoes Jasper Johns’ method of repeating and reframing images that are so familiar, they are almost invisible.
At times, graphic motifs are identifiable and at others they dissolve into the painterly haze. Gjerdevik is fascinated by the results of layering images as they rise above and plummet beneath the painted surface, disguising and revealing one another to enigmatic effect. Gjerdevik is equally drawn to the connections between unlikely things – different types of mark-making, colours and motifs, which have not necessarily been seen together before. He invites us to be curious, to be surprised by the connections we might discover amidst the painterly and printed layers.
Scrawls, splatters and strokes of paint, where pastels give way to inky blacks, and thin washes surrender to luxurious cascades reveal Gjerdevik’s joy in paint. Though Gjerdevik views this exhibition as a return to pure painting, there is an undeniable sculptural presence that speaks to the way Johns’ unravelled the boundary between painting and sculpture, words and images. Photographs of Gjerdevik’s sculptures and digital 3D models, like elemental building blocks, appear through the painterly tumult. Gjerdevik toys with the relationship between digital and analogue, revelling in the fluid transformation of sculptures into photographs into paintings through acrylic, oil and resin.
Traditional notions of perspective and three-dimensional space rear their heads only to be pressed back into the painted surface. The dotted line of an impossible road leads us nowhere; the ghostly silhouette of a ladder invites us to scale a canvas, only to highlight the impenetrable nature of the picture plane, aptly titled – The Dilemma (2023). Gjerdevik’s image cannot help but allude to Johns’ own iconic ladder in the Seasons, dismantled in Fall and Winter, and remade in Spring. The floating orbs of Day & Night (2023) are like the portholes of a ship, with a towering building from the harbour overhead. And yet this coastal scene cannot quite be reconciled. Gjerdevik’s motifs are at once markers in space as they are decorative tools that flatten space entirely.
A path of black squares in Something in the water (2023) guides the way across a gray and cerulean vista towards a sunset. These black shapes reappear in a composition that is sliced by diagonal lines, resembling a cracked pane of glass or a spider’s web. This underlying grid structure is a new element in Gjerdevik’s painterly universe. Created by hand, there is still a certain freedom and fluidity to the grid, even as it enforces its hard edges on the composition.
Gjerdevik severs the contract between image and meaning and invites disarray when it comes to the frontier between illusionistic and decorative space. Right Here Right Now, with its graphic text and printed image of a piece of paper tacked to a wall, is a painting filled with subterfuge. Elsewhere, recent experiments with monoprints are incorporated beside the traced projections of images on acetate. Such impishness recalls Johns’ play in paint with wood grain, the folds of paper and the fixings of masking tape and nails. Gjerdevik carefully balances this sense of trickery and playfulness with sincerity, conscious that to stray too far in one direction would be comic and too far in the other would be esoteric.
Through the shifting meanings and viewpoints of Gjerdevik’s painting there is an inherently human perspective. These are collages of internal and external experience, which speak to another great American painter of the post-war era: Philip Guston. Gjerdevik refers to Guston’s notion of working the artist out of the image with the help of a transcendent “third hand” when it comes to knowing when a painting is complete. Guston once described a “flow of energy” in painting where time and the self are no longer present. Gjerdevik surrenders to this flow, diving headfirst before pulling back – unpicking motifs and removing paint to reveal what lies underneath. It’s a process that echoes the rhythm of music in the studio, beginning with a pulsing beat that slows over time.
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