Per Kirkeby is an artist, a poet, a maker of cosmogonic maps. Walking into the exhibit of 1980’s paintings and bronzes at the Michael Werner Gallery is being transported into a world of lost relics. Unchartered lands set up shop in your psyche. Underlying structures organize an undecipherable language that speaks loudly and persistently. Layered marks crash, collide and build. A symphony climaxes as it disintegrates.
"Herbstbaum III (Autumn Tree III),” 1985, is the first painting to insist on attention. Two steles hold court in the foreground of a mystical forest by the side of the river. A few marks suggest this spacious surrounding outside the picture frame. The yellow totem stands erect while disintegrating, it’s unflappable partner solid in thick spackled strokes of brilliant light blue. The title suggests a portrait of a tree, the painting a signpost to another world.
In “Untitled,” 1981, a landscape becomes a world becomes a language of mystery. Charcoal marks render the construction, layer upon layer, then falter, losing their momentum. Deep bluish greens turn into dark umbers, thick slabs of white take the limelight and then bow to the surrounding darkness. Nearby layers of scrawls like underbrush, rise and fall, thick and thin, awaiting their moment in the dim, diffused light. The secrets of the universe are revealed and then gone. Memory has disintegrated in erased marks.
The bronzes are slabs that once marked sacred territories, forlorn yet stoic on their isolated pedestals. The heaviness of their material seems like knights in armor. Only when their forms are transported into the paintings in rich purples and greens and black blues do they become fluid. Animated and butting against each other, they are more expressive in brushstrokes and plays of light.
While Kirkeby, 79, began his career under the influence of Fluxus, Cubism and Pop Art, his early expeditions as a geologist are the impetus for these 1980s works. His underlying knowledge of stratification and sedimentation curates the orchestra of layers and motion. Outside current art movements, Kirkeby feels unique in this contemporary world; yet in the larger context of Danish art, the lineage to Edvard Munch, Asger Jorn, and the artists from their Golden Age are relevant and substantial in their subdued lighting and fluidity. What makes this show remarkable and timeless is Kirkeby’s foraging for an inner truth with clues from the outside world. In an interview with Tom Van de Voorde for Bozar Literature in 2012, Kirkeby says, “I have often had the feeling that there are moments when, with the aid of my own paint, I really see the world in all its reality.”