For an artist, taking a gondola to a studio in a 14th-century Venetian palazzo sounds like a dream gig.
Throw in beer, cigarettes and a finished painting by day’s end, and you have a good idea how Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson spent his time at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
The problem was Kjartansson, as his country’s representative at the contemporary-art exhibition, had committed to repeating these actions every day except Mondays for the biennale’s entire June-November run. That’s 144 paintings and a lot of beer and butts for him and his model, a lanky man named Pall Haukur Bjornsson, who’s usually posing in a skimpy black swimsuit.
“We got a bit sick of the situation,” said Kjartansson, 34, when we recently met in New York. “The magic wore off after two weeks.” It didn’t help that the studio was open to the public, bringing a discomfiting scrutiny.
Tedium and anxiety are visible in many of the paintings, all of which can be seen in “The End-Venezia” installation that is part of the artist’s solo debut at Luhring Augustine gallery in New York’s Chelsea district.
Almost all the works depict a lone male figure set against a colorful background and often surrounded by empty beer bottles. The model leans, sits, looks at the Grand Canal, smokes, plays or holds a guitar, reads or holds a book. Both Kjartansson and Bjornsson seem to be going through the motions, role-playing the artist and his muse, and eventually running out of inspiration and ideas.
The paintings, which are arranged chronologically, appear to get sloppier and more brooding as time goes on. Yet collectively they present a charming blend of theatricality, humor, melancholy and stamina.
Lack of Privacy
The lack of privacy was the toughest challenge for Kjartansson, leading to anxiety attacks, he said in an interview. His model had another concern: he had to remain nearly naked as summer gave way to fall. In some paintings he wears a scarf around his neck, looking cold. In one gloomy painting he is missing altogether. One assumes that he took a sick day or played hooky.
Kjartansson continues to explore repetitiveness in a 49- minute video called “The Man.” It shows legendary blues pianist Pinetop Perkins, who was born in 1913, playing in a field outside Austin.
“This guy has been playing the same songs for 80 years,” said Kjartansson. “Yet he loves it. He’s like a Dalai Lama of cool.”
Theatricality and its repetitive nature are part of Kjartansson’s upbringing. His father is a theater director and his mother and sister are stage actresses who have to “repeat stuff all the time,” the artist said.
“They are as famous as can be in this little village of Iceland,” said Kjartansson, who resembled a Chekhovian character in a straw hat, blue seersucker suit, suspenders and white shirt.
Instead of pursuing a stage career like the rest of his family, he decided to channel theatricality into art. His earlier works included performing a gibberish Rococo opera for 10 straight days and singing blues while being buried waist-deep in the ground, recalling Beckett’s play “Happy Days.” A three- part video “Me and my mother” documents Kjartansson’s mother spitting on him every five years, starting in 2000.
Did his mother mind the task?
“She said, ‘I’d do anything for my boy,’” Kjartansson said.
“The End-Venezia” is offered as a single artwork for $250,000; “The Man” comes in an edition of six, each costing $35,000. The gallery’s summer hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The show runs through Aug. 13 at 531 W. 24th St. Information: +1-212-206-9100; http://www.luhringaugustine.com.
(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the reporter of this story: Katya Kazakina in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.