On ViewBlackston Gallery
September 12– October 31, 2015
Throughout her career, the Norwegian-born painter Hanneline Røgeberg has been moving from naturalistic depictions of bodies engaged in various sensuous activities (licking, hugging, and squeezing one another) to hazy portraits of faceless figures seen in mirror reflections to works based on images of animal hides, which were flayed out across diffuse, abstracted landscapes. In recent years, Røgeberg’s work has been concerned with the trauma of World War II, and the incorporation of photography into her works has made them increasingly abstract and melancholy. Yet Røgeberg’s continuous refusal of the photographic images she deploys as content recalls John Berger’s notion that “the photograph is more traumatic than most memories because it seems to confirm, prophetically, the discontinuity created by absence or death.” Abstraction serves a double function: it obscures the instant recognition of the photographic image but also demands that its viewer pay closer attention.
In Off the Bone Røgeberg confronts her family’s resistance to the Nazi occupation of Norway by using found photographs and news clippings as a compositional scaffold. Weather for February and October (all work 2015)shows a castle tower that leans slightly, its architecture sketched in only enough for one familiar with the infamous location to recognize the medieval courtyard—a site where Norwegian resistance soldiers (including the artist’s grandfather) were executed toward the end of World War II. The thickly painted trapezoidal wedge of ochre sky abuts, and, at times, bleeds into the steely gray architecture. Toward the lower left corner, a whitish oval appears like a burn-hole in the painting’s surface. One is reminded of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz (the text of which is augmented with found photographs of architectural ruins) where architecture is allegorical for historical trauma. Literary critic James Wood has described Austerlitz as a “broken, recessed enigma, whose meaning the reader must impossibly rescue […] the book represents the frustration of detection.” The way photographs puncture Sebald’s narrative functions similarly in Røgeberg’s work. One gathers visual clues as to the implied narrative without ever fully accessing it.
Loser’s Dig (2015)is based on a photograph of Nazi soldiers who were ordered to exhume the bodies of Norwegian prisoners of war in 1945. At the far right of the canvas, a figure wearing a cap is barely visible through heavy gray-brown glazes. The entire surface of the canvas is covered in rings and circles, which appear to have been made by dripping solvent onto the still-wet underpainting. In effect, the painting is a simulation of a badly damaged photograph. Røgeberg presents a sort of visual tautology: the digging in the photo is mirrored in the subtractive method of “carving” out the image, which is obscured again through still more layers of inky glazes of oil paint. In an essay on Titian’s The Rape of Europa (1560 – 62), Røgeberg writes that “by inviting the eye to toggle an optical seam over contradictions, paradoxes and wounds, the frivolous and distracting do the job of making the intolerable tolerable.” For Røgeberg, the digressions and imperfections of the painted surface are a tonic to the trauma depicted in the original image.
Inspired by Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1831), Lede (2015)takes Lady Liberty’s raised fist as a point of contact between the history of painting and the history of resistance. While Delacroix depicted in baroque drama an allegory of the July Revolution of 1830, Røgeberg employs cool violet, pink, and blue oil paint drips and clots in striations across the canvas. A trace of two flesh-colored, limb-like bent forms hover toward the center of the painting. In his catalogue essay, Glenn Ligon recounts visiting Røgeberg’s studio and seeing “pinned to a wall […] images of people with one arm raised.” Among the figures in these images are Mussolini, Hitler, Charlie Hebdo supporters, and reality TV personalities. Røgeberg identifies the slippages in the meaning of such gestures; the resulting abstraction becomes an allegory for symbol making.
The central question in Røgeberg’s work is how to paint images of historical violence. Røgeberg’s work suggests that systems of photography and representational painting are inadequate to confront trauma. Ultimately, Rogeberg does not want to show exactly what happened, so abstraction stands in for the discontinuity between the actual event and its representation. The visual digressions concealing the events’ depictions are, as Røgeberg has put it, “busy work for the brain against otherwise unbearable recognitions, a kind of mercy.”
ERIC SUTPHIN is a critic, artist and curator based in New York City. Publications include Art in America, Frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, and Artcritical, in addition to several exhibition catalogues and artists’ books. Eric has been a visiting critic at Delaware College of Art and Design, the School of Visual Arts, and Rutgers University. Rosemarie Beck: Letters to a Young Painter and Other Writings is scheduled for publication by Soberscove Press in 2017.