"White" Tepid

At the opening of "White Noise," an exhibition of work by four Norwegian artists at the Art League Houston, people slowly began to realize Norwegian choreographer and dancer Øyvind Jørgensen was performing. He was sitting on a cube and staring into space. Well, he was either doing that or looking at the work of fellow Norwegian artist Lise Bjørne, whose mass of glittering needles hung from the ceiling. Clad in tan pants and white tunic shirt, Jørgensen sported the performance-art requisite -- bare feet. During what turned out to be long minutes of the sitting-and-staring-and-staring portion of the performance, an artist friend and I began to entertain ourselves by speculating on what would happen next. He wondered whether Jørgensen might actually run through the curtain of needles. Maybe that was why he was wearing white -- to highlight blood flecks.

Finally, Jørgensen stood up and veeeerrrry slooooowly walked to the wall behind him; facing it, he veeeerrrry slooooowly leaned his head against it. There wasn't going to be any bloodshed; this guy wasn't some Viennese Actionist self-mutilator like Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Jørgensen was apparently representing the Norwegian branch of the Association of Slow Moving and Expressionless Performance Artists.

He turned from the wall and veeeerrry slooooowly walked forward, then crouched down to lie stiffly on his side in a fetal-type position. This also continued for some time. At last he arose, and, lo and behold, smiled slightly! The smile was an unexpected twist. Maybe he was going to do something subversive. Maybe not. He veeerrry sloooooowly moved through the crowd, sometimes stopping a little too close to viewers. "Maybe it's going to be humorous?" my friend whispered hopefully. Sadly, his optimism was unfounded.

As Jørgensen continued to stand, my friend commented that he was certainly trying to make the gallery-goers aware of the passage of time. The silence was only broken by the ringing of people's cell phones -- I believe the Norwegian Consul General's was among them. In fact, the cell phones became a welcome respite, with the different ring tones providing a modicum of amusement. One woman let hers continue to ring as she strolled back to the bar to answer it. I think the Consul General's played a samba.

Eventually, Jørgensen wandered off around the corner to a smattering of applause that grew as everyone realized that, yes, the performance was actually over. To be fair, it wasn't the worst performance art I've ever seen -- it's just that it looked like about a thousand other mediocre examples.

Jørgensen was invited to participate in the show by visual artists Lise Bjørne and Janine Magelssen, whose work is also on view. They wanted him to "clarify the relatively abstract and complex aspect of their work." And would that aspect be pretentious tedium?

The non-performance art was marginally better. Bjørne's curtain of needles was pretty and sparkly, with spiky silver needles hanging at angles. You could imagine the sensation of veeerrry sloooooowly walking through it. But Bjørne's description of the work -- "22,867 used acupuncture needles knotted along fishing line" -- throws the whole thing off. The appeal of the piece lies in its delicate beauty contrasted with the piercing needles. The idea of used acupuncture needles seems to be about something else entirely -- in addition to being kind of icky.

Bjørne's other work is also based around ideas of delicacy. Her Breath Rayographs are made by blowing ash onto photographic paper and then exposing it to light. What she ends up with are black sheets of photo paper speckled with white. Using something as ephemeral as ash to make art is a nice idea, but the subtlety of the act is lost in the slick surface of the photographs. Her Whisper Drawing, made from ash blown onto a translucent sheet of Mylar, is slightly more successful, but the rectangular paper is too visually constraining. The ephemeral ashes would work much better on a huge expanse of paper, or maybe even directly on a wall.

Janine Magelssen has contributed her own subtle work. In what has to be a labor-intensive process, she mixes powdered chalk with glue and layers it onto Plexiglas panels, creating bas-relief geometric shapes -- circles, rectangles and angled lines -- on the white surfaces. At first glance, the work looks like generic modern home décor straight from Ikea, but if you take the time to walk up to it and really look at it, it gets a little better.

The surfaces look like they have a fairly high relief until you view them from the side. You realize the surface changes barely register, faintly protruding from or receding into the panels. Magelssen has painstakingly added shading to her forms to create an imaginary sense of depth. There's something slightly witty about that, but she needs to apply her technique more creatively. The large panels with circles or rectangular areas work okay, but the smaller-scale works with lines are pretty insipid.

Accompanying the visual work is a sound piece by audio artist Nils Olav Bøe that must be meant as a sort of soundtrack for the show. (He, too, was invited by Bjørne and Magelssen "to clarify the relatively abstract and complex aspects of their work.") You can perch on a plywood cube and don a set of headphones to listen to the electronically generated sound, which seems to rotate like a squeaking wheel as it slowly advances and recedes like the noise of passing cars on a highway. I guess it's supposed to create an atmosphere for viewing the work, but it would be more effective as a part of its own environment, its own installation. Like Jørgensen's contribution, it's competently mediocre.

But "competently mediocre" could summarize the whole show. The exhibition, funded primarily by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General and The American-Scandinavian Foundation, belongs to a certain genre of fair to middling European government-subsidized art. I think it's great to have government value and support art, but there should be a balance between the American model of "hardly any support ever" and the European phenomenon of artists who are well-educated but make mediocre art while being generously funded, supported and promoted by the government.

The American art scene is more Darwinian: We have plenty of our own lame artwork, but it's a lot harder for it to get made and make it out of the country; as my artist friend wickedly commented, it's "harder for it to do damage in a foreign land." This is not to say that there aren't great European contemporary artists; it's just that, as one Houston arts professional puts it, "In Europe, it's easier for a mediocre artist to have a career. People will keep making bad art because they are fully supported to do so."

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer