Images for the Times
This must be a picture from the old days is a large painting by Linda Bjørnskov. The title’s statement adds self-reflective irony to the painting, setting up distance and opening up a space for critical reflection on the painting and its subject – and on central themes in Bjørnskov’s work. She is an artist who explores painting’s critical potential, often following the classic feminist strategy: the personal is political.
The painting is of a domestic scene, naivistically distorted yet figuratively clear: a large mother figure has her hands full, frying cutlets, cleaning and minding two brightly colored, open-mouthed children. The dark shadow of a male profile has been blocked in at one edge, while the rest of the picture gives way to a gaudy collage of glued- or stitched-on text elements – “martyr”, “sove”(sleep) and “so ist es immer” (so it always is). You might think this was a subject from the old days, yet, as statistics repeatedly show, it could just as well be a typical family scene from today’s Denmark.
Bjørnskov’s painting isn’t from the old days, of course. It’s from 2008. But it is a painting. And painting is a classic visual-art medium that over the last century time and again has been declared outdated as a critical art strategy. For several reasons. Certain values have been attributed to painting: in modern art, it’s primarily seen as expression of the creative imagination – the ultimate mark of the genius artist-subject – and as original esthetic objects, objects for private-esthetic engrossment ideally suited as a fetishized commodities, investment objects in a capitalist economy. Because of their unique character as hand-made, one-of-a-kind objects, paintings have an exclusive quality that’s a far cry from the mass media’s ubiquitous, highly communicative language in the modern world.
Painting, as we know, is alive and well: the medium is intensely explored and challenged, including with explicit and powerful politically critical intentions. Bjørnskov’s paintings strive to be critical and clearly communicate. They are stripped of pretense and excitable expressionistic discharges. Bjørnskov, in the main, opts for a naive, “childish” style, which she consciously employs as a drawing element alongside other formal vocabularies. Assiduously mixing up her materials, she combines bright acrylics and oils with awkwardly executed embroidery and photocopies of newspaper clippings, currency, photographs, etc.
An “irreverent” treatment of painting you might call it. Still, every technique, every material, weaves its meanings into the picture, giving it the ambiguity of collage while enabling it to communicate clearly – including the titles’ always active contributions. The figurative unfolding in often quite large formats is certain to instantly attract and sustain the viewer’s attention.
Bjørnskov has something to say. Her paintings are engaged in the society and times in and for which they were created. Often, they deal with current events – human rights issues in China and the debate on boycotting the Olympic Games, in Hurry-scurry socialist, 2008; the Kremlin’s long, liquidating arms under Putin, in Lidt gift Eller andet kan vi altid finde (A Little Poison or Other We Can Always Find), 2007; the exploitation of cheap Eastern European labor in Denmark, in Hold kæft-bolsje til rumænske avisbude M.A. Alexandr og A. Butca (Jawbreaker for Rumanian Paper Couriers M.A. Alexandr and A. Butca), 2009; the identity-threatening nature of joblessness in Denmark today, in Jobcentermonster, 2008, a beast that appears to be swallowing working artists raw. All might seem to be themes with no immediate appeal to fine arts treatment, yet Bjørnskov takes up and captures these and other current political issues with ribald humor, in the singular, naive figurative style she has been refining.
Depicting injustice and inequity is a thread in Bjørnskov’s colorful work. Recently, the changes wrought by globalization on individuals has become an increasingly pressing theme. Focusing on personal experiences, her own and others’, Bjørnskov investigates differences in development between Eastern and Western Europe, different economic societal orders. She has even, briefly, put down her brushes and her humorous style and picked up a camcorder to conduct interviews with two young women from Hungary and Poland. Her video, New Arrivals: Judith Toth and Elzbieta Rudzinska, 2008, gives voice to their personal experiences living in Eastern Europe before and after the Wall fell and later as students and workers in Denmark. For Bjørnskov, the personal is always political.