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“Das ist doch Kunst, und nicht nett!”

MACHEATH’S ANGRY ASSERTION—that Polly’s rendition of “Pirate Jenny” is art, and therefore “not nice”—highlights all the deep insecurities that plague our relations with art and beauty, at least since Modernism. Beautiful art, the feeling has it, fails to reach past the facile towards something more meaningful, and meaning, it seems, is inherently unsightly. 

There are historical routes to understanding the aversion to beauty, and they mostly have to do with power and its abuse. From the bride-poaching of Count Almaviva to the myth of the “trophy wife” who trades her looks for status; from the awe-inspiring power that once made the dangling Habsburg lip desirable to attractiveness surgically manufactured in exchange for cash, beauty has long maintained a suspect relationship with the establishment. 

Small wonder that artists who desired to challenge the status quo therefore chose to celebrate ugliness. Brecht’s libretto for “Pirate Jenny” recounts the disturbing confessions of a would-be mass murderer driven to hate by intolerable circumstances, and is consequently not, in fact, very nice—if by nice one means comforting. (It’s true that the song is melodious, but that was Weil’s doing.)

IN LIGHT OF THE FAILURE of the great social, political, or artistic movements of the 20th century to free society of the mechanisms of oppression, a focus on the internal power of the individual is deeply comprehensible, but Anne Siv Falkenberg Pedersen’s work needn’t be seen in that framework to be appreciated. It is, in fact, presented much more humbly: as private explorations in search of a personal satisfaction, the expression of which can then be shared with others. The artist is not shy about that goal, and herself says this show is one of “comforting” paintings designed to “strengthen your spirit”. The qualities of the work are therefore not to be sought in context, but on the canvas.

From the broad range of marks to the variations of colour, from their mix of open spaces and dense detail to their sense of movement and depth, Falkenberg Pedersen’s paintings offers viewers a bouquet of technical achievements that are not performed for their own sake, but for the purpose of creating the artist’s sought-after “strengthening” of spirit.

Strong, hard-edged straight lines are central to a good deal of her work, and provide much of the tension. Not only do these lines offer a natural contrast to the softer, often organic shapes that surround them, they also generate a sense of movement on the one hand and, combined with the careful use of negative space, a feeling of depth on the other. They are the horizon on which Falkenberg Pedersen’s glowing objects sit and in relation to which they move. It’s a clever sleight of hand to have created so much dynamism with so few elements, one that surely shows the painter’s skill. 

Tension also arises in the contrast between the use of simplified symbols—in my reading, they suggest a kind of primitivism—and a very sophisticated and painterly application of the media. Delicate layering has long been an important aspect of Falkenberg Pedersen’s work, a thread that runs through all her different investigations over the years. Whereas transparency previously provided atmospheric perspective, in “Wilderness Travels” it sits against the hard edges of the “grid” and creates local texture as well as colour. The result is a telescopic effect: whatever we are seeing is enlarged, exploded. The painter has seemingly brought it across the universe, directly to your eye.

The depth and motion of the lines gives a sense of space and freedom; the surfaces of the objects that meet us there are inviting, brimming with colour, voluminous, and therefore, despite their obvious lack of solidity, somehow “real” even as they are clearly imaginary. This is the realm of poetry: a place where the inconsistencies and fractures of imagination are expressed and shared. 

THE REVOLUTION EVENTUALLY BECOMES the establishment. When Kapitalistischer Realismus co-creator and anti-consumerist Sigmar Polke can have a MoMA retrospective sponsored by enormous multi-national corporations, it is clear that the defensive weapon of ugliness has been disarmed. Today is it “anti-art” that holds hands with power, which surely explains why, for many artists and critics, what is good is (must be!) an affront, if not to the visual senses, then to the understanding. Anything aesthetically pleasing must be made intellectually impenetrable. Read many an exhibition essay and you will be assaulted by quiddities and paradigms, synecdoches and signifiers, the very purpose of which would appear to be obfuscation and insulation, the promise of the occult: the gospel of a gnosticism in which the hated demiurge is, as often as not, beauty, frankness, or comprehensibility. 

Consciously or not, a generation of artists, Anne Siv Falkenberg Pedersen among them, is emerging in Europe that has rejected all of this, and returned to simple beauty, unencumbered by theory. They cannot be said to constitute a school—their work is too varied, sometimes abstract, sometimes figurative, sometimes brightly colourful, sometimes washed-out and dusky—but across their many variations, these artists share an interest in making art that accepts the artist’s need to experience the beautiful—an experience nice enough that it might just be art. 

Tadzio Koelb 2014

 

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ANNE SIV FALKENBERG PEDERSEN’S PAINTINGS pose questions that are simple yet bold: How can I live with my own duality, when I am thrown into my inner realm, exiled into a naked existence? How can this inside world look outside of itself when all the facades – the eternally polished youth of the world or the glittering, smiling TV shows – tell us that this space of the inside should not exist, is not needed, is extinct or soon will be?

The world appearing in Falkenberg’s paintings may seem unbearable because it encompasses both light and darkness, order and chaos, the historic and the new – a living organism immersed with fog and bones. The landscape of this world is not mapped out, but rather shaped by a kind of loneliness.

We see intense discharges – near catastrophes of freed energy where waves of black, blue and pink are pierced by red and white. The colours intersect, blend and sometimes tarnish the purity of colour. Good and evil might seem to mix incongruously. A clear light spreads in the darkness, but the energy of this light does not necessarily signify happiness as much as it may point to a spreading out of anxiety and fear. Throughout this darkness there might lay a potential for growth of the all-encompassing, moving through the mystical.

NOTHING IS QUITE CLASSIFIABLE HERE. Everything points to a different, expanded dimension. In the primal chaos – the primordial soup – things are being given form. We encounter a delicate border between life and death, order and chaos. This place can also be deeply tragic, as we are not led to a clear, gleaming destination. There are no references to the grandiosity of mankind, whether in religion, beauty or reason. 

It is rather a place of metamorphosis, in continual flux, a powerful place where certain shapes are allowed to develop – sometimes recognisably, sometimes not. If Falkenberg’s paintings occasionally approach the tragic, it is by way of an adult acknowledgment, an inner vision where we also are forced to assimilate the brutality of humankind. The British author AC Bradley talks about this in relation to Shakespeare’s tragedies:

Everywhere, from the crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery, because that greatness of soul which it exhibits, oppressed, conflicting and destroyed, is the highest existence in our view. It forces the mystery upon us, and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity.’

If these paintings also inherently carry the tragic, it is because of a mature feeling, the origin of which Falkenberg locates in her own inner cycles – in an almost perpetual Moebius strip, where good and evil alternate endlessly in surprising ways. In the painting True to you she promises a certain allegiance to this mystery of forces at play within herself. 

THERE IS NO CLEAR DESTINATION. But I would still claim that Falkenberg searches for something absolute, close to what the American expressionist Mark Rothko said about his own paintings: ‘I wish to create something which opens and closes at the same time” – i.e. some sort of “being”, perfect in itself.’ In the painting Ouroboros remembered we again find mutual life in darkness and light. As a gnostic symbol it appears as the snake biting its own tail, a figure often followed by the inscription Hen to pan – the one, the whole. In other versions the body of the snake is seen in semi-light, semi-darkness, an allusion to the balance of powers in opposition. This snake is also something that ‘passes through all things’, and a sign of Nietzsche`s eternal return.

Can we live with this, or to be more precise: is this political? Perhaps. From the last century’s belief in the absolute destination, we see an intimation of a new acknowledgment; that in light and darkness there runs a power we must come to terms with, be courageous enough to face the passage of the snake through those realms. This is also the maturity of Falkenberg – and through these paintings we might get some help in laying the foundation for our next step.

Erling Moestue Bugge
© 2013 Erling Moestue Bugge

In order to understand the fundamental significance and ambition of Anne Siv Falkenberg Pedersen’s paintings, one has to go deep into her works. Deeper than the incidental marks on her paintings. The works count of course, and if there is much to this work that is confined to simple acrylic paint on canvas, there is also, much that is not as well. We all know that when we go beyond a catalogue of surface qualities and appearances that words begin to fail us, to crumble apart in mystical confusions and cloudy, insubstantial metaphors. However, it is Anne Siv’s ability to explore this realm of what some call ‘the flame of being’, the ‘internal spark’, the ‘inner light of self-hood’ or the ‘fires of quiddity’, that is so fascinating. Her work draws on images of heat and illumination, and on that force, that essence of life we call the soul.

As I stare at her works, I feel an odd airy lightness in my head, a free-for-all of mixed signals and crossed mental wires. The world bounces and swims before my eyes, undulating like reflections in a wavy mirror, and whenever I try to look at just one thing, to isolate a single object from the gentle onrush of whirling forms – a pattern of red and white shapes, say, or white crosses – they seem to slowly break apart and dissolve, disappearing like a drop of dye in a glass of water. Everything shimmies and wobbles and wanders off in different directions. Studying the lean contours of her marks, the underlying structures of her compositions and their wonderful poise, I feel something akin to physical pleasure, a rush of sudden, incomprehensible well-being. I now realise that I am falling in love with Anne Siv’s paintings: with her innate understanding of the mystery of desire, with the sense of calm that envelops her work and the radiant silence burning within.

John M. Cunningham
Curator, Regional Cultural Centre
Letterkenny, Rep. Ireland