Famous Paintings

Ragnar Kjartansson – The Brooklyn Rail

Ragnar Kjartansson – The Brooklyn Rail
Written by Noah Roy

On View

GES-2 House Of Culture
Santa Barbara. How Not to Be Colonised? & To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!
December 4, 2021 – March 13, 2022

Ragnar Kjartansson’s work has always attached particular significance to the unhurriedly contemplative awareness of the moment and the durations embedded therein. In the artist’s eclectic inaugural show for Moscow’s GES-2, he presents a curated group exhibition as a piece of autobiography. Kjartansson has selected a wide-ranging assembly of works from a variety of artists alongside his own as an earnest laying bare of his artistic genealogy—a sort of open-hearted “Hello, My Name Is” of a presentation to a new public.

Floating high within the former electric station’s daunting space is the show’s banner piece, from which the exhibition’s title, To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, is derived. The work is Kjartansson’s Three Sisters (Remake of Jay Ranelli’s Lost Photo from ca. 1990) (2021), a drab restaging of a lost snapshot picturing a trio of young women in red uniforms stationed behind a cash register, their name tags reading Irina, Olgaand Masha. Kjartansson’s father is the theater director Kjartan Ragnarsson, and the artist’s life has always been steeped in Chekhov, so with his own embarkation “To Moscow” Kjartansson returned to the refrain from the Three Sisters, and the anecdote behind the photo’s conception: the old family friend, filmmaker Jay Ranelli’s serendipitous coming across a troika of Moscow McDonald’s employees sporting the nametags of Checkov’s heroines, and his subsequent arrival at Kjartansson’s childhood home with an announcement “They finally made it to Moscow!”—for better of worse… What has always been true of Kjartansson’s modus operandi is his insistence on the supremacy of the banal over the heroic theatricality of the epic. He is a theater kid in a literal way, and someone for whom the drama and the spectacle of the stage are inluctably prosaic and irrevocably disillusioned by the view from behind the curtain. For him, the very mundanity of that reality is all the more poetic for the virtue of being the only viable perspective, as showcased in the unavoidable staginess and low production values ​​of World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), which attempts to recreate the epic story of a poet’s search for greatness and meaning (based on Halldór Laxness’s eponymous four-volume opus) with hammy acting and flimsy paper sets liable to fall apart at any moment. In this way, he traces, parades, and interweaves his awareness of the past through the prism of proud myopia and jubilant provincialism.

Kjartansson’s mother, Gudrun, who is a theater actress as well, is in the show more explicitly still, re-appearing in person in a quinquennial series of laconic videos Me and My Mother (2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2020), in which Gudrun’s act of spitting in her son’s face is looped ad infinitum, each year’s iteration displaying new signs of time’s ravages to the faces in this act of ritual humiliation. It’s a family portrait in motion, with the behind-the-scenes set into overdrive and the solemn dignity of De Chirico and Jacques Stella’s mother-son tableaux revealed as a comedy in suspension.

Magnús Sigurðarson’s The Fall of Pedestal Sentience: Last Stand of the Fabulous, Terrific and Super! (2010) occupies the floor space around Me and My Mother, in an explicit recognition of ancestry in this humiliation of (self-) portraiture’s heroic premises. The piece juxtaposes the installation of 30 pedestals topped by inflated plastic bags emblazoned with the letters of the piece’s titular superlatives with a spare video of Sigurdarson making vacuously monotone declarations: “I am thinking about myself”; “Now, I’m thinking about the future”; “Now, I’m thinking about the tragedy.” “Magnus,” Kjartansson writes in the exhibition’s catalog, “has been my mentor since we first met […] He came onto the art scene with hilarious ideas about identity and a stark vision of the pathetic.”1 This pathetic cliché of the Heroic White Male resonates with Kjartansson’s own The End – Venezia (2009), that saturates the opposing wall with 144 painted portraits of a skinny young man lounging dejectedly around a spare and unfurnished, stone-clad interior of a booze-bottle strewn Venetian apartment. The paintings’ subject, the artist Páll Haukur Björnsson, is a source of great inspiration to Kjartansson too, and the former’s video Angst (thrill is gone) (2009), picturing the author sitting alone in an empty room with a Walkman playing Chet Baker’s “The Thrill is Gone” is displayed right in front of the paintings. In the adjoining gallery, the fetishistic sweetness of Elizabeth Peyton’s signature portraits rendered in tender strokes of pastel as if in retracing a hand’s caressing sweeps over a cherished snapshot reverberates across the room to the ironic deadpan of Kjartansson’s own Scenes from Western Culture (2015), as well as that of the glitter and delight of Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir’s pedestal of disposables What Do You Really Mean? (2020), composed of a stack of gold-beveled papers, stickers, and washers.

Kjartansson’s most famous piece to date remains 2012’s The Visitors, which fittingly closes the show. Taken as a whole, the exhibition itself, in fact, feels like a chorus of voices and tones of that work, where the kith and kin of legacy that echoes through its varied line-up (with additional works from Olga Chernysheva, Theaster Gates, Roni Horn, Una Björg Mannúsdóttir, Jason Moran, Ragnar Helgi Olafsson, Dick Page, Carolee Schneemann, Curver Thoroddsen, Emily Wardill, and Unnar Orn) seems to crescendo into a heteroglossic harmony of a kind of self-presence.

  1. Ragnar Kjartansson, “Magnus Sigurdarson”, in To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!, exhibition catalog (Moscow: VAC Press, 2021), p. 58.

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Noah Roy

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