Per Kirkeby at Michael Werner
Art in America
Joe Fyfe
March 2002

Per Kirkeby’s new multi-perspectival paintings are like images from a woodcutter’s talke, told at the edge of the dark forest. The Danish-born Kirkeby is probably the most literary painter of the generation of European artists that includes his German neighbors, Polke, Baselitz and Richter. But Kirkeby’s brand of expressionism is more personal (brooding, almost Heathcliffian), and he’s more willing to imply a narrative. 

The paintings in his most recent show (all works of oil on canvas, 1999-2000) feature fairy-tale like metamorphoses. Compared to the more abstract brushstrokes in Kirkeby’s earlier work, his gestures have begun to find identities as flower, rock and wood grain, but are still highly mutable. The wood grain looks as if it could disappear like smoke; the flower shapes, when they are placed in the foreground, as they are in several works, seem ready to float off the canvas like rafts. 

Nearly all of these light-absorbing, vertical rectangles (most of them around 6 ½ x 4 ½ feet)include images of wooden board, depicted with fluidly painted grain. Crossing the painting laterally, these plank images flatten up against the foreground plane. Visible as well are fragmentary landscape elements, including striated plateaulike shapes and a Noldeish sunflower form that sometimes looks like a tree stump seen from above or, elsewhere, the brushy tops of trees. In several painting, trunks of gnarly birches, sketched in paint, fall across the foreground. 

In Return from Egypt I (2000), the sunflower shapes appear in viridian, cobalt yellow and brown ochre, interrupted by a stony outcropping, rendered in bleached yellow and light green. This little promontory seems to rise up from the bottom of the painting, bisected by the fence-rail-like interruption of a painted plank and a palette-knifed “U” of green oil paint. Here, as elsewhere, disjunctive imagery accompanies constant shifts in surface variation. Kirkeby’s gamy color, which by turn can be pungent and muted, is semi-transparent when scraped or denser when applied with a palette knife or brush.

What is most notable in this body of work is how the brusqueness of Kirkeby’s execution reinforces the sense of the paintings’ narratives. Here, the customary raggedness and speed of the artist’s paint application lends itself to the overall feeling of being outdoors, of dusk and cold approaching, of tasks hurriedly finished.