Interview with Norwegian Artist Sverre Bjertnes

Sverre Bjertnes

Sverre Bjertnes is a Norwegian artist who works closely with New York-based Bjarne Melgaard – himself widely considered the most important Norwegian artist since Edvard Munch. Melgaard, a provocateur and polymath who works across all disciplines, is well known for his controversial and thought-provoking works. In 2013, he collaborated with designers Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler who dressed a series of fabric dolls for him, which the artist then crammed into a kind of House of Horrors full of toys and drug paraphernalia. At New York Fashion Week in February 2017, Melgaard set-up a very different kind of fashion pop up: visitors were encouraged to take his clothes away for free which were valued at half a million dollars; they included many vintage designer pieces by Issey Miyake and Martin Margiela, as well as new-fangled politically-slanted designs such as his now infamous ‘I Hate Rihanna’ tee-shirts.

By contrast, Sverre Bjertnes’ portraits, paintings and sculptures are less anarchic and borrow from a traditional Scandinavian style. Like Melgaard, Bjertnes refuses to be pigeonholed and often flits from one discipline to the other, self-consciously blurring the line between good and bad art. Bjertnes claims he isn’t concerned with consistency of style. He shuns the contemporary art world’s obsession with motivation and meaning; he makes art for art’s sake he says, and wants his paintings and exhibitions to be enjoyed foremostly from an emotional standpoint. Here we speak to the artist about his recent solo show at Beers Gallery in London.

Sverre Bjertnes

There’s a traditionalism to your work but you are also known for your collaborations. You often switch disciplines – from film to sculpture to oil painting – sometimes merging different mediums together. Would you say that you are trying to create a sense of displacement/disorientation in the viewer?

When I went to The Academy [the Norwegian National Academy of Fine Arts] the idea of making ‘signature’ works was questionable. It wasn’t the goal anymore to create your own handwriting. It influenced me to work in much broader fields. I let it flow much more. My work is sort of all over the place. I think also as an artist we often repeat the same three four ideas in our lifetime. This can be a good idea, but I’m impatient. I need to kick start it in a way; to keep it alive. So that’s why I like to work with other artists.

Can you tell me about your work with Bjarne Melgaard?

I have worked a great deal with Bjarne. It’s his lack of control that I like. We come up with a theme and he changes it or I change it and it develops into something new. We always start the same way: one will start to draw and the other will start to work on content. Bjarne has been very important to me as he curated my first solo show. I came out of a very traditional school in Norway. Even before [ I went to] The Academy, I started out very early. I had a highly classical training and Bjarne is on the other side of this art scene. He showed my works in another kind of environment and he changed things a lot for me.

I think it was the New York Times that surmised your work as leading its own path. Or in other words, it’s art for art’s sake. Does that ring true?

My narrative is ever changing. The idea of meaning in art is overrated. The meaning of art should, in my opinion, be in the viewer. I need a narrative to make the works but that doesn’t mean that the narrative is the goal for the viewer.

Some of your artworks seem to draw from mythological symbolism. I’d say certain forms are even quite sinister. Could you explain the content of your paintings a little?

I think good art should sort of makes you uneasy. It can work in all sorts of ways however. Bjarne has highly controversial angles to his works, so our collaborative works always end up getting really personal [hence the sinister mythology], My work is more on the quiet side – art works that are motivated by sentiment. I think that the emotional view on art is underrated. My problem with the current art scene is that [galleries] often tell people that they don’t really get it. I feel that the field is now getting smaller and smaller. I think that it’s okay to go in to a show and say, ‘That’s a nice colour blue.’ I think that art should be a more of an open experience.
Also, the higher up you get in the art system, the more branding qualities become important. For my work this is sort of a problem. I don’t have this band-like way to make art.

But isn’t recognisability important? If not vital to an artist today in terms of making sales?

I sabotage that in a way! My works now are completely different than those I made five years ago. I don’t really mind that. You can’t really escape what is important to you. There is still a thread linking my works, just it’d harder to detect. It’s perhaps harder to define than other artists.

Can you explain your film/video work?
I’m exploring a full length movie at the moment. My wife is an actor and thanks to her I am getting more into theatre. There is a risk involved there. When you work like me, every work cannot be equally good. I don’t mind that. I think that bad works are interesting also. At the end, the whole body of work becomes more like a life you know? You have high points, low points. Really meaningful stuff and stuff that didn’t do much! I don’t want work to be like the main point in the opera, I want it to live more. Good and bad and everything in between.

What is the theme, if any, that unites your work?

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I guess the main thing in almost all my work is the issue of identity. I always come back to that. I started exhibiting when I was 15 so I had to reinvent myself because you don’t have an identity when you are 15. I followed this group of teenagers when I was about 18 for five years and did huge portraits to illustrate this demographic that is at once ridiculed and revered. Forteen can be a ridiculous age. In some ways you are in a powerless group. I used to make these huge figurative paintings which were really about power. At the same time, I was trying to get my own identity out of it. I started with these in black and white paintings. So everything I do now] comes from that point.

Have your Norwegian roots influenced your art?

I hope so! I think that locality is always an underwritten quality of art. Fifty years ago, you could see quite a difference between a Norwegian painter and a Swedish painter. Then the Internet came along and people now look more or less the same. A young artist from Beijing and New York can be similar. I always fight for this connection to locality. A lot of the paintings here [at the gallery] really connect to the tradition of Norwegian painters, both in style and theme. Historically, in Norway, you have this line of painters that is really short, beginning only really in the 18th century; this line wasn’t broken until the 1970s really. Then everything became a lot more international. But it was really interesting to have that line and it’s something that I try to connect with. For example, I recently collaborated with this 87-year-old Norwegian painter who is very much part of the old tradition. The whole pressure of being international in the art world came from my generation – but if you look at Hockney, he still paints English landscapes which gives him a certain quality. A reinterpretation of his homeland’s tradition in landscape painting. I value this.

As well as this though, I like the parameters of good and bad painting. I play with it. Growing up I was very aware of this really traditional way of painting. I was painting Rembrandt style ‘brown’ portraits when I was 13 years old. I am happy to now be more free with my work.

You have included a fair amount of your mother’s work in this show. She is a ceramicist…

I do usually like to include her work in all my shows. She spent her life teaching as well as being a practising artist, so I can recognise my aesthetic standards from her. She built the house we live in in Norway. Her ceramics connect with me, which I like. My mother is more critical of my work [ than I am with her] but in a good way. If she likes it, I know she really likes it. We have worked in direct collaboration with ceramics in the past and Bjarne based many drawings on her ceramics. I would like to do a bigger projects with her at some stage.

You are a painter who moves within many genres, but in which one do you feel least comfortable?

Making movies. It is collective work usually evolving over 20 people which is harder but very rewarding. When I collaborate with people I let them do what they are good at; you have to push yourself to do that.

Can you tell me about your sculptures?

They are cast in bronze. I make some of my sculptures in Bulgaria. Actually in the same foundry where many of Paul McCarthy’s works are made. It is a very poor country. Bulgarian artists who have grown up with this really strict traditional propaganda art, which is totally useless now. They started working with western artists because their craftsmanship is so good. I made huge sculptures there and I included pieces of Bulgarian sculptures inside my own. They often make work for big international artists, so I like to include their stories in my work.

There is a particularly interesting dog cast in bronze…

The dog is a stray dog that lived in the foundry. He has one chicken leg, one skull leg and one human leg and a hand! It’s called ‘My Years as a Dog’. My career has also been divided in two: I stopped drinking 10 years ago and I had 15 years as a heavy drinker which influenced everything in my life. So this problematic thing is always included in my show in one way or another. It’s again to do with this idea of identity. There is also another sculpture in the show called Forest Retrieving – this sculpture is more of a release; more of ‘letting go’.

Sverre Bjertnes

Sverre Bjertnes Sverre Bjertnes Sverre Bjertnes