Keeping It Figurative In Oslo

Being hugely popular for most of history, figurative art took a hit when the 20th century's abstraction took over the art world. 

Lately, there appears to be a major shift back towards representational art as figurative artists gaining increased appearances in major exhibitions. Are we looking at a renaissance? Perhaps the answer is found in how well contemporary figurative artists doing at auctions.

According to data provided by Art Analytics (based on a representative sample of US sales since 2000), the art market has experienced a dramatic increase in annual auction sales of figurative art. Since 2006 they never fell below $10 million-dollar mark and, except form 2008 recession, are constantly on a rise. It has to be said that much of the value created from sales come from a very few big-name, mostly male painters like Peter Doig and John Currin.

Yet for many figurative artists today, the reality today is to make a living in a middle of the most divisive art battle of the 20th century: a battle between abstract and figurative art. That is said, the dividing line between abstraction and figuration today is much more permeable then it was before, allowingartists to create figurative works belonging somewhere between the two.

So, besides from these few big figurative names with huge sales, how are the figurative artists keeping it up in that present climate? Being such an artist myself, I was curious to find it out to find out, and I've decided to have a look in Norway.

Why Norway? Besides from Oslo being my home turf, there is a couple of facts that my readers might not know. Norway, being a country with population ofjust 5.233 million (as compared to population of 8.788 in the city of London alone) has GDP of $391 billion, ranking it 23rd in the world - which is not too bad for a small country. 

Norway has also produced one of thegrand names of contemporary figurative painting - Odd Nerdrum. Love him or loathe him, there is no doubt about the value contribution to the revival of the figurative painting, although the opinions on that might differ.However, even after he has received an international recognition, his work has never been considered acceptable by the art establishment in his native country.

So, being in a capital of wealthy country with its special contribution to the legacy of figurative painting, I decided to visit a number of artists who combined both figurative and abstract elements in their work.

Lars Elling

The first one to come to my mind was Lars Elling, perhaps because he is one of the few figurative artists that has been purchased by the Norwegian National Gallery, Trondheim Kunstmuseum, the EU Commission, Arts Council Norway and gained representation with a leading contemporary gallery in Oslo that also exhibits Marina Abramovich.  Mind you, most contemporary leading galleries in Norway don't show figurative art at all.

I meet Lars Elling at his spacious studio in a very popular area of Oslo. It always fascinates me how the artist' studio tells a lot about his or hers personality. His studio has a feeling of a home with comfy chairs, chandeliers and isles of space clearly dedicated to other things than painting - including a piano and a complete music studio on a balcony under the ceiling. Turned out Lars is indeed an accomplished musician and a playwright with 19 year long experience.

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Lars shows around, talking about his work and creative process with openness and ease. He comes across as perfectly balanced, familyman who loves his books, his jazz and his work. The conversation turns to his his large scale paintings, intriguing as a flick of a movie og a fragment of a dream. The dreamlike quality comes through the way he seamlessly combines the figurative and abstract elements; some parts of the paintings are carefully rendered against the blurry areas.

His prefers to paint with egg tempera, and he never plans his paintings or makes sketches. The method is to approach canvas in go-with -the-flow fashion - which means that he has to rework the painting many times over. He finds the elusiveness of painting very difficult, and he learnt himself to trust his intuition and not to be afraid of doing the wrong thing.

The theme of the family dominates his work; his own childhood experiences and his family inspires him the most. His other source of inspiration is music and his experience of it; it is often reflected in titles of his paintings.

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Does he ever experienced artists block, and what does he do about it? 

He washes out his studio, cleans his palette and just makes a painting - any painting, not thinking about how it should be better or different; he just paints the same things in the same way.

Lars is the highly productive artist, with great number of exhibition on a go both at home and abroad. He continues to receive international recognition, with his works being included in prestigious public and private collections, and is certainly would be considered successfulfigurative artist. Still, even with his respectable level of prices, he would be surpassed by his equally successful colleagues within the conceptual art.

Lars himself doesn't seem to be bothered about this or other possible disadvantages of being figurative artist. Perhaps he is genuinely doesn't care as long as he gets to work, perhaps he doesn't have to because he has been lucky. 

Right now he is looking forward to his next exhibition - and to take possession of his second studio in Cape Town, South Africa.

Nico Widerberg

Next person I am visiting is a artist with a hereditary surname - Widerberg. While his late father was a highly renown Norwegian painter, Nico made his own name as a sculptor. 

Before I entered Nico's studio, I did expect it to be large, but the sheer scale of the place took my breath away. A wast industrial space filled with large blocks of granite, a crane, a large number of figures in every imaginable size, and then the next equally large room filled with painting and prints. I actually struggled to find the artists behind the multitude of the large-scale objects, until Nico found me. When I shared my impression of his place, he commented that he really needs it to be that big because he truly hates to travel. Light on his feet, he moves very quickly to show me around. He is somewhat shy to talk about himself, but when he talks about art, his mind runs quicker than his words as he is trying to catch with his thoughts.

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Although Nico does a great deal of painting and prints, he is most famous for his sculptures. He prefersto work with granite and bronze - and the main theme of his work is depersonalised human body. Regardless whether his sculptures are monumental or just big enough to hold in one hand, there is always an ethereal quality about his work. His torsos bring the thought of the archaickouros in mind, as well as the influence by Giacometti and Moore. A very peculiar combination of something that has been seen and worked over many times, yet still remains untouched and undiscovered.

Growing up as a child of an artist has definitely influenced his choice of career, but what turned him to sculpture was his love for music, poetry and carpentry. In his mind, sculpting is the very synthesis of carpentry and music. Further still, he would rather see his work being present in every householdthan have a permanent placein a museum. 

He has never experienced artist's block. He compares inspiration to the flow of life, it never really stops as long as you are able to draw breath, so it is always there in one form or another.

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Humble as his professional goals might be, Nico is one of the most sought-after artists. Since the start of his career in 1984, he had 30 solo exhibitions, more than 40 group shows and countless commissions both from the state institutions and private. 

After the terror attack in 2011, it was Nico Widerberg that was asked to create 53 memorials for the victims to be spread all around the country.

In fact, commissioned work continues to be a substantial part of his income as an artist. His prints are very popular too, so much so that he has a permanent employee to manage the logistics.

Does he consider himself to be a successful figurative artist? That, he answers, is depending on how success is defined. If that means to be invited to exhibit at Art Biennale in Venice, then he doesn't see it happening anytime soon. How about ten years ahead?  Ten years ahead, Nico looking forward to doing exactly the same - to continue to expend his power of ability regardless of how success is defined in the future.

Camilla Grythe

When I try to meet Camilla at her studio in Oslo, it turns out to de difficult.  She is in a middle of process of selling the house/studio she had to move to a new one as she wanted a more central location. Also, she explains, she wouldn'thave any works to show at the studio because they are all at the current exhibition - and the paintings are not likely to come back. Because, ever since she had her debut 15 years ago, she sells almost everything she exhibits.

She always held the representational art closest to her heart, butat the time neither art schools nor Academy of Art in Norway offered the kind of figurative training she was after. To get her education she had to travel to San Fransisco.

When she traveled in US, she fell in love with big cities, specially New. Coming from a small town, it was a different reality for her - one she took back with her when she returned to Norway.

One can clearly see her affection Ina subject matter of her work: the interchange between large cityscapes and female figures, often clad in white. She free entry travels to NY with her camera to take the pictures of scenery; back in Oslo, she paints her cityscapes using her reference. It becomes something else - a memory and a desire, she explains. When she is alone at her studio, she prefers to work at nights - and that is when her female figures take over. 

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Her figures are either suspended or contemplating in an empty space, and she plays a lot with light and reflections to create an atmosphere of serenity in her work.

She says it is an expression of a hidden side of herself, and it must be - because on a surface she is highly energetic, loves snowboarding and seeks the outdoors as soon as she is finished yet another exhibition. She works fast and a highly productive artist with 2-3 solo shows a year.And yes, she sells everything. She considers herself to be lucky to be in high demand, because she just paints what she likes to paint - and somehow her work is connecting with the audience. She doesn't like to conceptualise her work, it comes as a pure visual idea, and she just paints how she sees it.

Artists block? She doesn't have time for it.

Does she consider herself to be a successful figurative artist? There are many that would say she is commercial success, but it also means that many would say that her art is tainted because of that. She says that she is aware of the way certain galleries look upon artists who make their own living. There is a theory in a art world that, in order to be accepted by a prestigious gallery, one need to make the art they like. That is not something she wants to pursue. For her, life is too short to wait for the accept of the establishment. Camilla - she wants to do it her way.

Andrew J. Barton

Andrew is a Norwegian-British artist who was just 1 year old when his family made a permanent move to Norway. As an artist, he is definitely born and bred by Norwegian art establishment, meaning an education heavily influenced by conceptual art. When he nevertheless chose to pursue figurative sculpture, he remembers his teachers and fellow students trying to convince him not to do it

They didn't succeed, because he met me at his studio that looks like a meeting between Camille Claudel and HR Giger. His studio is in a large basement that he shares with a rock band; there he works on smaller and medium size pieces that look like academical studies of busts and torsos. At the closer look, they are all different takes on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Putin and Gaddafi.  However, when he takes me to the part where he keeps his large works, it looks like a cargo room of a space ship, where aliens dwell in suspended animation. 

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Andrew combines figurative sculpture with abstract elements, often using materials like plastic, epoxy and even water. He likes to present himself like a figurative artist working with conceptual ideas. To him, the conceptis more important than the expression. The expression or the design works as a test for the idea; but when I comment that I find many of his works aesthetically pleasing, he tells me that the aesthetics are meant to draw the viewer in. The intention is to invite them to reflect over the idea he wants to present.

He is particularly attracted to explore big controversial topics like current political climate, social prejudice or religion. Pointing at the sculpture of prophetMuhammad with his two daughters, he talks about how he believesthe prophet was influenced and shaped by strong women; then turning my attention to the head of Jesus with slugs on his face, he talks about his opinions on how society changes the religion, and how money influence world politics.

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Andrew feels he belongs to both to conceptual and figurative world, and it seems that relaying heavily on concept indeed opens the doors to conceptual shows and galleries. Besides from exhibiting in Scandinavia, he was invited to show his works in Germany, US, China, Edinburgh Art Festival and Belgium. He has frequently received state grants, which is almost impossible to get for figurative artists in Norway. He feels it gets easier to show figurative work, although the change is happening gradually and it might take a long timefor him to be invited to Art Biennale in Venice.

Does he considers himself to be a successfulartist? The question brings forth a spontaneous outburst of laughter. He measures success by how well his work expresses his ideas, but at the same time he finds that his most successful work is more difficultto sell. In terms of income it can still be a periodical struggle, although he does well when he sells his work through auctions and to private collectors.

And that is exactly what I ended to be, as I bought one of his winged torsos on my way out.

Karoline Kaaber

Karoline is embodiment of self-made artist. Although she always loved art, she followed her family's recommendation and did the right thing to study economy at the university of Oslo. Then, she met her husband and had children and everything was exactly as it should be - besides the fact that she felt something very important was missing. She really wanted to study art, but living in a big house in rural area, with young children and lack of schools teaching figurative art didn't leave much of a possibility.

Yet she found that possibility. She rebuilt one of the houses on the property to a large art studio with all facilities, and then she picked up her phone and started to invite the figurative artists she wanted to learn from to teach at her new place.

She also invited everyone who wanted to learn too, and that is how since 2000, she trained for years in drawing and painting with the best figurative artists, Norwegian and from abroad. By running her small art school, she educated herself until she got her first solo exhibition with Gallery Ramfjord in 2013.

Although she continues to run workshops and art courses at her studio at Kragerø, she also has a second studio in Oslo. She has a gentle presence of someone who wears their heart on a sleeve, but despite her soothing voice andgracious movements, her determination shines through when she speaks about her paintings. 

I find her paintings the exact expression of how she is - she creates sensitive, atmospherical moods by applying paint with palette knife and roughbrushes. For all her admiration of precision of representational painting, her finds herself moving more towards use of abstraction. Images of empty city streets where people are absent and large portraits of pensive people are returning themes in her work. She tells me that she feels how she is constantly searching and experimenting with materials and techniques to find the right mood; she likes to work intuitively, without planning - just an idea that she hopes will develop and grow while she works with the painting.

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Does she feels the artist block and how she resolves it? She laughs and says that it helps to cry a little(artists are allowed to do that) and then she just picks up her brushes and soldier on. The most important thing is not to give up on yourself.  

Does she consider herself to be a successful figurative artist?

She tells me that she considers herself to be successful just because she managed to turn her live around and do what she loves to do. It has been a difficult path and a struggle involved, but it was all worth it. Yes, she was aware that choosing figurative expression wasn't the easiest way, but she is not easily intimidated. And of course she has big ambitions, she adds; receiving acknowledgment and recognition become all the more important because she feels she missed out on formal art education. However, lookingback on her relatively short career, I think she is doing just fine. In a few years, she had an astonishing number of successful group and solo exhibitions, she has exhibited in NY and Art Scope Miami with her gallery - and she is already busy working on her next show.

Elisabeth Ramfjord

There are always good figurative painters, but the good galleries for representational art is harder to come across. I want to mention one Oslo gallery - Galleri Ramfjord, who took up a challenge to make figurative art relevant again.

Galleri Ramfjord was founded in 1998 by Elisabeth Ramfjord.

Elisabeth Ramfjord, here with paintings of Henrik Aa. Uldalen og sculptures of Lene Kilde.

Elisabeth Ramfjord, here with paintings of Henrik Aa. Uldalen og sculptures of Lene Kilde.

Initially, she opened a gallery to promote young emerging artists, many of those were figurative. However, as the artists who joined the stable 17 years ago have made names for themselves, the gallery now also represents a number of well-established artists. She was the first one show the talent Wunderkind of figurative painting Henrik Uldalen, who currently doesn't seem to need a gallery now that he shows his talent directly to his Instagram's 616K followers.

Over the last few years, Galleri Ramfjord has raised to success on the international art scene, collaborating with partner venues in New York, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Since 2013, it has participated on the international art fair circuit, with great success and sold-out shows at Art Copenhagen, SCOPE Miami (Art Basel Miami), SCOPE New York (Armory Week 2015) and Scope Basel, during Art Basel in 2016 and 2017.

It does seem that figurative art is experiencing a revival, and it is coming through talented artists working today with interpreting and redefining the concept. 

It all might happen.

As one cheeky small town gallery owner said to a famous artist, while desperately trying to convince him to have a solo exhibition in his tiny place:

"Allow me to remind you that big things has happened in small places before".

Still utterlyunconvinced, the artist nevertheless asked, "Like what exactly?"

The gallery owner, having nothing to loose:"Like Jesus of Nazareth"