I originally set out to interview Fredrik Værslev, this year’s featured artist at the Bergen International Festival, in a Google document. I envisioned the interview playing itself out like a slow-motion chat, sown into the fabric of our routine activities in front of the screen. But then a week had gone by without anything happening with the document. Værslev had gone to ground after I incautiously confronted him with his ranking on artrank.com – a service that analyses the market value of artists – and sought to tease out some reflections on “the quantification of art”.
The idea was to fold this theme back into our conversation about his painting, illuminating it with the bright light of supreme, cynical self-awareness. Now I was afraid that he had bailed out indignantly. Eventually I felt that I had to call him and suggest that we conduct our conversation face to face.
Even though it failed as an interview tool, the Google document may be useful as a metaphor for the Værslevian mode of painting: his works are often created under circumstances that he does not fully control, frequently involving co-operation in some form or other. In spite of this inviting attitude, this is not the kind of painting that loudly proclaims its own instability or translatability, the way that contemporary art is wont to do when it seeks to ally itself to social media. A 56-metre painting of a sunset, like the one Værslev is preparing for his festival exhibition, can hardly be said to prioritize the screen as interface. As was the case with the terrazzo and canopy he has painted on previous occasion, his model is architecture – only this time it does not serve as subject matter, but as a locus for spatial experience.
In addition to the sunset, the Bergen exhibition also gives you the opportunity to see new versions of the so-called “shelf paintings”, which have been a staple of Fredrik Værslev’s work since his days as a student with Staedelschule in Frankfurt, and which his first solo exhibition at the gallery Standard (Oslo) in 2009 was dedicated to. The basic premise is simple: Værslev creates a painting with a shelf mounted along its lower edge, and then invites someone else, whether artist or layman, to rework, modify or supplement the work. The shelf paintings shown in Bergen from 26 May have been created in collaboration with artists such as Allison Katz, Josh Smith, Stewart Uoo and Matias Faldbakken. But first was his mother:
– The shelf paintings took their starting point in an idea that my mother got after having ruined her CD player due to water condensation. She wanted a functional painting that she could hang above her stereo rack, allowing her to keep her flowerpots there without any risk of spilling water on her stereo. That’s the embarrassing truth. There was no point in giving my mother any of the art I was making at school; she was more interested in commissioned artworks: “I want something to go on that wall, and it has to be pink”. That kind of thing. I showed Willem de Rooij (professor at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, author’s note) some sketches for shelf paintings of this kind. He was greatly interested. Then I painted this commissioned piece for my mother. A faded pink background, rather like the backdrop used for the TV show Godmorgen Norge, with a shelf attached. Then I brought the painting and some of my mum’s vases with me to Frankfurt, put some flowers in them, and didn’t really think any more of it. When de Rooij saw my flowers, he thought they were poorly arranged, so we went out and got some other flowers, and then he arranged everything. That particular moment – I think I have thanked Willem for it already – that moment may have been the pivotal point; the reason why I am an artist today. He certainly opened up painting for me.
Is the visualisation of the social space in which the painting is created an important component of the work?
It may actually be the only component, if I’m being perfectly honest. The shelf painting conversations are always a bit awkward, and I dread them. But it’s fun when I know that my chosen partner has gotten started on the work; no matter what it turns out to be I always feel that something interesting has happened. The paintings manifest a kind of friendship, or a relationship that may in some cases be more than a friendship. Not like love, perhaps, but a close connection of a kind. The shelf paintings always end up good regardless. They are quite the definition of that, actually. When I look back at some of those works, they look absolutely insane: yellow, green, red. They almost look like vomit, with some horrible ceramics plonked down in front of them. But back then I thought they were perfect. And I still do.
You often involve others in your processes. They are not necessarily artists – sometimes they are not even human, like when you used your mother’s dog as a living brush or left the painting outside to be pecked by birds. Your paintings often seem to be created under unstable circumstances, with the aid of prosthetics that cause you to lose control. Can you say something about this method?
I have been, and still am, fundamentally interested in my own limitations as an artist and as a painter. This holds true for the execution of the works, the overall approach and gaze, and attitudes towards working with art. Of course, such matters can be resolved by direct or indirect forms of collaboration. You might call it a way of shirking responsibility, a detour. But I see it as a way of learning something from others that I can’t do myself. In a way, none of my projects are done just by me. I always use someone else; I have a cabinetmaker I use a lot, there’s my mother, a welder, my assistant, Pekka, who’s more of a life partner really, and a dog I’d give my life for. They aren’t prosthetics, they’re blessings.
You are painting a sunset for the festival?
It extends through three rooms, is 56 metres long and consists of twenty-six individual paintings that are quite large, a kind of victorious, Olav Christopher Jenssen-style size. All of them have been painted with the type of machine you use to paint parking lots or touch up football fields. Over the course of the last six or seven years I have been on quite a lot of flights, and ever since I got my first Iphone I have photographed the sunsets and sunrises whenever I’ve been lucky enough to fly in the evening or at dawn. I’ve probably got a couple of thousand pictures of this kind, and I’ve been wanting to use them for something. So I wanted to try to paint a life-sized sunset, or at least get as close to that as I can.
The painting will extend through three out of four rooms at Bergen Kunsthall. What are your thoughts on a painting-object of this kind, so large that you literally have to go on a walk to take it all in?
It is not intended as a relational work in which the experience of the work consists in the walk you take, as in Hamish Fulton, but I am interested in the modernist history of Bergen Kunsthall, particularly as an arena for painting, and it would be wrong to claim anything other than that the method of installation, and to some extent the format, evinces a modernist attitude.
Are you parodying the sublime here?
I am in no way poking fun of painting. I may be generally sarcastic and interested in humour – in life and in my paintings. And the act of painting a canopy – the first ones were appropriations of the canopies on my mother’s house in Drøbak – may be parodic, but I wanted the finished painting to be a good painting. I am a painter, I am interested in painting well, in a conservative sense. I believe in “the good painting”, like Pablo Picasso.
Historically, painting as a medium is associated with some strict limitations. One of the things that attract me about painting now is the absurd plasticity revealed by this original schema. With the digitisation of its processes and distribution, painting seems, as a category, to have set itself free from its historical material preconditions. Is it even possible to assert anything about what we call painting on a general level?
Are you thinking about alternatives to painting on wooden panels, or two-dimensional paintings on canvas? That paintings are made on computers now? Some seventy years have passed since Burri began working with “shaped canvases”, and there is little news value in the fact that yet another artist starts painting on bed linen forty-five years after Sigmar Polke did it. The discussion about painting is always topical and relevant to those who are interested in painting. Isn’t it really that simple? Regardless of whether it takes the form of a photograph, paint on canvas or a text by David Joselit? To me, painting is all about material preconditions, “absurd plasticity” or no.
In an essay published in Artforum a few years back, “2011: Art and Transmission”, Michael Sanchez claims that your terrazzo paintings represent visual experiences optimised for consumption while scrolling on a screen. Do you have any thoughts about how your painting is influenced by or relates to digital media?
Sanchez is good, but his point in “Art and Transmission” only stands up because my works fit in well with his “analysis” of painting as an object circulating on the Internet after the 2008 credit crunch. It is not up to me to say whether my painting is influenced by digital media technology. My paintings are very much pre-Internet; I am interested in painterly qualities that you should ideally observe at a distance of ten centimetres.
Your canvases may tilt out from the wall, mime terrazzo or canopies, or be stretched across oddly shaped stretchers, but they always clearly engage with the history of painting. Do you have any thoughts about the question of quotation? Is it possible to paint today without using history as a palette?
I am not afraid of using history as a palette. Doesn’t everyone, in some form or other? Name one artist who doesn’t, and we’ll begin a 600-page ping pong match. I very much like the idea that a terrazzo-like painting of mine looks like a Pollock to someone working at Astrup Fearnley, or that my canopies can look like a Daniel Buren or a Barnett Newman or an Agnes Martin. But that isn’t my project. I paint what I see, what concerns me in my own life: my mother’s canopies in Drøbak, the terrazzo staircase in a Malmö housing co-operative, the wooden balcony in Drøbak where my father spilled paint while tipsily painting the house, or the three-dimensional forms hanging on the building next to my house in Drammen while it’s being renovated. It is quite uncomplicated, and not tactical at all.
In recent years, accusations of tailoring their art to the market have rained down on artists who work with abstract painting. Does anything other than the market’s ceaseless demand make abstract expressionism an interesting conversation partner today?
There can be no doubt that many have, if not tailored their art, then certainly utilised the seemingly bottomless pit of money, wall space and storage space made available for this kind of art. At the same time there are plenty of serious painters who deal with abstraction. What the market wants will get overproduced, and that also holds true for surges in popularity of things like photography, relational aesthetics or sculpture. And by “market” I mean curators, museums, critics and academies just as much as I mean commercial galleries and collectors. I am convinced that some amazingly great painting has come out in recent years precisely due to demand. The flip side of this is tons of bad abstraction, but in time it will be consigned to the scrap heap, and hopefully the best stuff will be kept hanging in the museums.
According to recent auction results, you appear to be the highest-priced living Norwegian artist. In what way does this affect your process, if at all?
These things go up and down. It doesn’t affect me except for the fact that auction house results certainly affect demand. I work at Vestfossen, I live in Drammen, and I have my Saturday night dinner at Peppes Pizza at the Drammen train station with the latest edition of Vi Menn in one hand and a pint in the other. There is no talk about the auction market there.