24.06.2023 – 05.08.2023
The verb “min-max” originates from gaming and refers to minimizing weaknesses and maximizing strengths in the development of a character in a video or role-playing game. In this process, all technical and gameplay possibilities are exhausted, and the character’s backstory is changed to achieve the greatest effect with the least amount of energy and effort. Although this approach is mathematically efficient, the term is often used pejoratively because it implies something obsessive that contradicts the idea of playing games.
This obsession is what Nordal’s work is about – the rules of the game, the compulsion to win, control and loss of control. In this context, Nordal is interested in the subjectivity of historically grown rules and conventions on which societies and civilizations are based. They often seem unalterable, universal. Games, too, are based on rules – but they can be rewritten. In contrast to “reality”, countless worlds can be created in which different rules always prevail and determine the game.
In his often large-scale paintings, Nordal combines the aesthetics and mindset of gaming culture with influences from various epochs: late medieval painting, early Renaissance, Scandinavian symbolism, Gothic, dark metal, film history, Icelandic mythology and folklore. Like a melancholic version of the three witches from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the work “Trio in Landscape” features three dark metal fans in mask-like make-up, sitting in a mythical primaeval landscape, confronted with epic silence. A wind god blows his icy breath at people holding burning candles, while a hero faces him, holding his hand protectively in front of the quivering flame. Nordal’s painterly cosmos is populated by figures that seem anachronistic, as if they came from the early 20th century, the post-war period, or the 1960s or 1970s. The figures in “Aura” seem medieval, theatrical and expressive, like the actors in Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal” (1957). Bergman’s film is an allegory: a knight returning to Sweden from the Crusades plays chess with death in a time of plague and is confronted with existential emptiness and the absence of God.
Nordal’s barren landscapes and desolate spaces are at the same time reminiscent of the reduced, anti-illusionist stages of Brecht’s epic theatre or the existentialist end-times scenarios of Samuel Beckett. They can certainly be understood as allegories or mystery plays. With absurd, dark humour, but without any irony, Nordal reflects on the Conditio Humana in his paintings. In doing so, he always develops a clear reference to the present – to an increasingly uncertain and illusionary reality that threatens to shatter before our eyes as a result of political and ecological catastrophes and the progression of AI. Nordal’s surreal, psychologically charged portraits and landscapes often seem to be backdrops for role-playing games that have spiralled out of control. The settings are strangely placeless and timeless: “Visually, my paintings may seem mystical,” he says, “but I always want them to remain believable, like being in a dream. I want them to be neither one nor the other, somewhere in between, between times, in the present and in the past at the same time. Nordal is also inspired by magical realism, but not in the visual arts. Rather, it is the Magical Realism of Latin American literature, in which everyday life, popular culture, mythology, religion, history, politics, and geography merge into a single level of narrative, creating a “third reality,” a synthesis of different realities. The early novels of Isabel Allende were particularly formative for him.
Many motifs in Nordal’s paintings are reminiscent of the folk horror genre, which includes films such as Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” (2019) or the British classic “The Wickerman” (1973). Typical elements of folk horror are rural settings, themes
of isolation, pagan religion, and the power of nature. Usually, modern people find themselves in remote areas where festivals, local religious celebrations, or re-enactments take place. However, the pagan, Dionysian rituals and human sacrifices are not only re-enacted by the community but performed. The old gods return to the modern world. Even if these films are associated with the supernatural, their real horror lies in the collective break with the rules and values of the present. In the realization that one is in a game, that everything is a game, subjective, even the supposed “reality”. Not without schadenfreude, Nordal shows how historical or heroic stagings collapse. His tragicomic figures seem like ghosts transformed into the present. They are marked by horror, by moments in which they realize that their plans, their history, and their identity are elusive.
Nordal plays with mythologies, religious or historical narratives, with the genesis, without returning to an idealised or imagined past. The landscapes, the panoramas, the mythological references, and the narratives may seem grand, almost opera-like. But in fact, his paintings have the character of finely balanced chamber plays, of Kammerspiel: A car drives through a deserted landscape in the background, a child next to the king and queen wears glasses from the health insurance company, the mountain scene with the wind god could also be part of a theatrical production, a mysterious geometric form the climbing frame on a children’s playground. It is precisely this ambivalence that gives the images their power in terms of content and composition.
Nordal finds his formal resources in grisaille, a painting technique used mainly in medieval panel painting. The use of grey tones made it possible to establish the composition and spatial representation of the painting, light and shadow, before adding colour to add vividness to the work. This gives Nordal’s figures sculptural, theatrically elaborated facial features that reflect extreme states of emotion, similar to medieval portraits or church paintings: Fear, devotion, bitterness, melancholy, and existential doubt. This stylistic exaggeration of emotion, of extreme emotional states, is crucial to Nordal’s painting.
At the same time, he adopts other stylistic devices from the Gothic: Central perspective, which had already been used in rudimentary form in antiquity, fell into oblivion in the Middle Ages. Spatial thinking was forgotten and did not return until the Renaissance. Instead, in Gothic painting, figures and subjects were depicted according to their status in the picture. Saints, for example, were depicted largely in the centre of the picture, while donors were depicted smaller next to them, with no regard for spatial relationships or proportions. Echoes of the so-called “status perspective” can also be found in the slightly distorted proportions of the figures in Nordal. These proportions evoke the uncanny feeling that “something is not right”. This vague suspicion of a glitch in reality, a flaw in the game, is a basic principle in Nordal’s figurative painting, which breaks new and extremely contemporary ground with traditional techniques.
Bergur Nordal was born in 1995 in Reykjavík (Iceland). In 2019, he finished his BA in Fine Arts at the Iceland University of the Arts. He has studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Wien in the class of Kirsi Mikkola.
Text by: Oliver Koerner von Gustorf
23 June 2023
6 – 9 p.m.
Exhibition on view
24 June – 5 August 2023
For more information, please contact the gallery: firstname.lastname@example.org