A Touch Of Mysticism Out Of The North

Posted: October 29, 1999

The most prominent Norwegian artist today is probably Odd Nerdrum, a figurative painter known for his quasi-mystical themes. "The Norwegian Figurative School," an exhibition at Claire Oliver Fine Art, presents three other Norwegians who paint in a similar style.

One of them, Natalie Holland, studied with Nerdrum. Surprisingly, her paintings are a bit less Nerdrumesque - that is, intense and moody - than those of her partners in this show, Harald Kolderup and Even Richardson.

Figuration is their game, but it would be misleading to describe these painters as realists. They, like Nerdrum, are more northern neo-Romantics who attempt to express a mystical dimension in human experience.

This is apparent, for instance, in Holland's painting Reliquary, which depicts an elderly woman in a black cloak and headband who holds a feather as she stands pensively on the shore of a barren fjord.

A similar spirit pervades Richardson's The Death of Pan, a male nude crowned with a laurel wreath lying on the ground, and Kolderup's The Torch, a man sitting on a rock in the middle of a small waterfall and touching a burning stick to the torrent.

All three painters are fastidious technicians devoted to a high degree of finish reminiscent of Old Masters or 19th-century academic artists. They also have a gift for inventing striking images, like the man with the burning stick, or Kolderup's picture of a man in a loincloth using artillery-shell casings as gongs.

These artists handle paint with considerable skill, as evidenced by the soft gray tonalities and crystalline light of Reliquary and the expression of personality that Kolderup captures in self-portraits.

What they lack, though, is the ability to consistently invest their paintings with a spark of life. Their images tend to be static; this frozen-in-time quality makes their artifice excessively precious.

Claire Oliver Fine Art, 1912 Rittenhouse Square. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Through Nov. 16. Phone: 215-546-9936.

Green thoughts. In his newest paintings at Mangel Gallery, Bill Scott moves a step away from the animated gesture that had become a hallmark of his abstraction toward a type of mark-making that's closer to abstracting from nature.

Scott isn't painting flowers and garden greenery so much as painting the idea of them, particularly as expressed through juxtapositions and concentrations of sparkling color

The new paintings feature knotted brushstrokes laid down in patches. These patches make the open spaces in the pictures more prominent. Spatial rhythm emerges not just from the linear strokes but from the push-pull of color, particularly greens and reds, against the voids.

Scott has been working this territory for some time now, but in each new batch of paintings he produces a new variation on his basic scheme. It's not always a giant step, but it's enough to indicate that he's still thinking about how to make color create form and content.

Scott is exhibiting with another painter, Daniel Heyman, who follows a more obviously postmodern game plan. Heyman's gouaches on paper are just as bright and lively, but they're also narrative and historically referenced.

The largest one, Nancy: A Hero for Right Now! is a contemporary, tongue-in-cheek history painting - it's based on the incident involving figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding - that mixes past and present. It includes a couple of in-line skaters under a bridge, one of whom is a man wearing a tutu, a castle, a riverboat and a figure that might be an American Indian.

The conflation of centuries is cheeky, dizzying and accentuated by the exaggerated two-point perspective, which recalls the deep recessional space of northern Renaissance art.

Nancy, the second large painting of this type Heyman has exhibited, is an impressively challenging blend of art history, American history and current events, executed in a breezy, up-tempo style.

Heyman's show also includes a number of small etchings an drypoints that are quite different in character. They're light-hearted but realist reminiscences of good times with friends that appear to describe personal experiences.

Mangel Gallery, 1714 Rittenhouse Square. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Through Nov. 5. Phone: 215-545-4343.

Wide angles. "Close Ups: The Discriminating Lens" at Cheltenham Center for the Arts is a photography exhibition involving seven artists who represent a wide spectrum of methods, from sculptural constructions to conventional documentary.

The show's variety is its major virtue, but it's also a drawback, because the work is too diverse for the show to cohere.

It's difficult, for instance, to find any common ground between Joseph Nettis, a polished documentary photographer, and Franc Palaia, fabricator of sculptural assemblages. Nettis gives us upbeat "Family of Man" images from all over the world, while Palaia offers beat-up trunks and suitcases fitted out with color transparencies of tall structures such as smokestacks.

If the show as a whole lacks a clear pathway, some of the work is engaging, particularly Jesse Vasquez's unusual "light paintings" of nudes and Terry C. Boddie's mixed-media meditations on slavery. The other artists are Martha Madigan and Ron Tarver, both familiar exhibitors locally, and Harvey Finkle.

Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, also 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Through Nov. 6. Phone: 215-379-4660.

Soon to close. If you're out and about this weekend, two exhibitions that will close tomorrow are worth a peek.

One is "Defining Their Times," a show of self-taught artists at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. Most of the artists, such as Bill Traylor and Martin Ramirez, are acknowledged and familiar masters of this genre.

However, the show also includes work by a few lesser-known people such as Ellis Ruley, Charles A.A. Dellschau and Peter Besharo. Their inclusion adds spice to a familiar lineup and helps to round out a splendid capsule introduction to this field of art.

Locks Gallery has put up another exhibition of work by the late Louise Nevelson, this time mostly sculpture from the 1960s and '70s. Intricate wall constructions, some black and others all-white, are the major attractions.

Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, 211 S. 17th St. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. tomorrow. Phone: 215-545-7562.

Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and tomorrow. Phone: 215-629-1000.

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