In the early 1960s, as the ideologically determined criticism of capitalism was peaking, many artists attacked “the establishment” – institutions, culture, industry, burgeoning consumerism. Moreover, they questioned whether art – understood as individual, personal expression – still had any ethical reason to exist. Painting, especially, was rejected as done to death and reactionary, and new forms of expressions, such as happenings and actions, saw the light of day.
All the same, good old painting was, and continues to be, eminently able to juggle social and critical undertones, as Linda Bjørnskov’s works are vivid proof. Her paintings have circled around the feminist tradition in scenes of everyday life, their claustrophobic pictorial spaces inhabited by women and their often ironic titles submitting gender roles to seemingly interminable, all but futile negotiation (Lunch Box Lady (2006) is a good example). They have dealt with adjustment difficulties and the search for identity in offbeat scenarios. All this has been carried by a nervy, rambling and overpowering formal vocabulary of eye-popping colors, rough brushwork and naively drawn, almost caricatured figures. In Bjørnskov’s latest body of work, though, the observational visual narratives, as well as the protagonists of those compact, modern mythologies, have been toned down – in fact, they have nearly evaporated.
They have been replaced by – or, rather, condensed into – more lexical titles with real-life political and historical references that seem more matter of fact and descriptive than actually narrative. One example is Afghanistan before 1979, looking back to an earlier, oddly unreal Afghanistan, when women would rather tote books than wear burkas, before the Soviet invasion and the Mujahedeen liberation struggle, civil war and international intervention that followed. Another is Mikrorayon Housing Project, Kabul 1968-1971, referring to a Soviet-initiated apartment complex for civil servants – the Party’s extended arm – which today is home to an isolated and threatened Russian minority.
Nonetheless, you will look in vain for any real political messages, defining for us who the bad guys are (read: Western, white, masculine market culture – to judge from so much other contemporary art) and who to feel sorry for (read: everyone else). An open modeling of figures, planes and background confronts the viewer, establishing an at times almost playful distance to didactic political readings. The montage-like play of materials disarmingly appears both sharp and blurred, and this unpolished technique lends Bjørnskov’s works a vibrant character and an immediacy that inquisitively, investigatively points to the world itself without the crutch of an ideological apparatus.
These qualities – saturated color planes, the inclusive quirks of montage, illusionistic depth – are exactly what makes Bjørnskov’s works extend beyond the immediately political in their communication with the viewer. Bjørnskov is clearly a socially engaged painter, but she is a painter first – even when that includes embroidering the canvas or sewing on beads, in the classic style of a housewife’s hand-stitched throw pillows, or mixing in with the paint clippings and characters from the world’s more or less forgotten hotspots.
Wheat Field with Rising Sun shows two people lurching over empty bottles, wine glasses and an overstuffed ashtray – one, hirsute, smoke dangling from lip, the other drinking from a bottle represented as a white bottle-shaped “hole” in the planes of color. Behind them, we see a wheat field, style-consciously painted in van Gogh brushstrokes, with a thrasher at work in the early morning hours. The rural idyll and meaningful activity are offset by the odd pair that seems to exist in a separate world. Even so, the most captivating aspect of the work is not the unsettling, back-turned foreground figure but the fabric – the tablecloth and the clothes. Sprawling ornamental patterns pushed to the front of the picture plane seem to float detached from the rest of the scene in their almost collage-like effect and meticulous repetition. Gustav Klimt’s beautiful, earthy female figures, enticingly hidden behind grids of fantastical patterns, here find a more vernacular, alcoholic counterpoint.
Such art-historical quotes testify to Bjørnskov’s awareness of the painterly tradition. This is even more pronounced in her painting In the Beginning, which paraphrases a seminal work of the early Renaissance, Masaccio’s Expulsion (c. 1427) from the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. Rarely has human suffering been depicted as movingly as in Masaccio’s Adam and Eve, as they are driven from the gate of Paradise by the archangel Michael, never to return. In Bjørnskov’s paraphrase, Adam is entirely absent, however, and abject Eva, covering her breasts and genitals in shame, is painted on a lush green background that has virtually been “cut out of Paradise” and mounted outside the gate on an empty plane that gradually dissolves her. The title refers, of course, to the biblical “In the beginning was the word.” But Bjørnskov transposes the “beginning” of civilization from the creation of everything to mean the expulsion and isolation of women, actualizing the classical theme of expulsion as a critical statement on gender and employing the painterly means of plane, color and movement to support and articulate her subject.
In other words, a sense of gravity appears to be dawning in many of Bjørnskov’s new works – in terms of titles, figuration and a tighter formal relationship between plane and depth. Her paintings are still accommodating and communicative, but you get the impression that she is purposefully creating tensions in her art. Even so, she does not problematize in order to politicize, moralize or reform. To Bjørnskov, “problems” and tension seem to be an inherent part of any artistic expression – or creation mythology – as much a question of color, form and materials as a means for subjects and titles. Her visual universe is a dynamic proposition for how painting can maintain its relationship to society and history – without abandoning its singularity as art.