To many, Per Kirkeby seems not of this era. One may wonder, then, what he has to offer his contemporary audiences. Part of this interest, of course, lies in that he may have nothing to say to us, that his paintings belong to another time, their mood not compatible with ours. One could begin where others have: consider Kirkeby part of some uber-history of Painting that unfolds at a distance from seasonal trends and changes of atmosphere. Using his own texts, one could find ways to link him to John Ruskin and Paul Gauguin. I think, however, that the best place to begin is with the paintings themselves, bracketing the works on view in Per Kirkeby: New Paintings within his artistic trajectory, the contexts he is usually inserted in (often among German painters), and what he says in his writings [Michael Werner Gallery; September 15- November 12, 2011].
First, we need to acknowledge that these paintings are landscapes. They're not timid about belonging to this genre. Simultaneously, however, these are landscapes bereft of both anecdotal content and mystified, Edenic timelessness. These are no elsewheres'neither idealized nor belonging to our quotidian poetics. The paintings are very much there in a roughneck kind of way'as assertively applied paint creating a variegated field of textures, a tapestry of traces of their own production. Rarely does the brushwork shy away from announcing its gesturality. Yet it does so with a delicate deployment of densities and opacities, refusing muscular application.
Landscape, in Kirkeby's hands, is an avatar for painting itself, a stand-in for its material qualities: its translucencies and its opacities, its evanescence and its meatiness, the contrasts that it can generate and the mutations of textures and densities it allows. It's landscape as a field of pigmented matter, and pigmented matter as a heterogeneous and unstable gathering of qualities. In this way, these paintings are very pragmatic: they propose an understanding of painting as a sum of effects, as a collection of consequences borne directly by decisions taken in front of the canvas. They forfeit any claim to an essential, immutable core to which we might want to return'including a core of codes and discursive positions that we Foucaultians like to unearth. Instead, they seem to propose that painting is an exercise in gradual gains, immanent in the risks that are taken in the very process of production.
Second observation: horizontal bands of paint suggesting the wooden planks of a fence form a recurring motif and organize these paintings. In front of these "fence planks," we are meant to consider both our position and the planarity of their support. One always looks at paintings from another side'or from many other sides, separated by representational space, cultural context, historical distance, thematic concerns, and the noise that creeps in between message and reception. But more powerful than these concerns is the strange dialectic that emerges within the painting itself. Here, the interruption or separateness of the bands and the variegated field of painterly densities suggest that the horizontal bands are "hiding" something, implying that there is a way to get the painting, to find it fully articulated, from a distance, or even in reproduction. These paintings are all about textural incident. The bands suggest that they may be about a position of viewing. The paintings tug in two different directions. Irresolution energizes them. The demand of full immersion, the swallowing of adjacent space by forcing the viewer to engage in an intimate and intense exploration of surface, makes these paintings feel at once depth less and deep. The negotiation that allows this double condition takes place on that thin and magical layer where pigmented matter sits but which it also constitutes. It's this tricky, paradoxically deep surface that Kirkeby pumps full of life.
So, in the final analysis, what does Kirkeby have to offer contemporary viewers? The question can only be answered tentatively. He offers ways to slow down looking; ways to find pleasure in the conceptual dissonances still possible in a medium that has supposedly exhausted itself as anything other than a rehearsal of its constituent codes and the networks through which it circulates; ways to continue to think of both abstraction and landscape as full of local possibilities; ways to understand the constitutions of objects as syntactic or molecular. He shows us that objects emerge from the relationships between their constituent parts rather than as total images, which are so easily incorporated into our impoverished infobahns.