Odd Nerdrum at TRAC – One Year After

At some point during our Skype classes, Richard Thomas Scott mentioned a conference in California that dealt with representational painting — Odd Nerdrum would be a guest and he would be there too, and I might enjoy it. Really, I had no intention of flying to California, but on a whim I looked it up online and realized it would be the opportunity of a lifetime. And it was. Attending last year’s TRAC, The Representational Art Conference, in Ventura, California was an exhilarating experience.

Midway through the conference I tweeted, “Having so much fun I may pass out.” In fact, the whole event, being around so many brilliant and talented people, was so intoxicating I swear I got dizzy — it was like swimming in some heady philosophical/painting champagne soup! And the fun continued after I got home. I discovered the Representational Art Facebook group, and the Cecilia Beaux Forum, and the Post Contemporary group. Every day there are posts about painters, either dead or alive, I have never seen before. I’ve also read a number of excellent blog posts about TRAC, which have led to the discovery of more art blogs — just about every day I bookmark another one to read.

As soon as I walked into the hotel I knew I was in over my head. I have worked as an illustrator for over twenty years but am only in the process of learning to paint in oils, and here I was with many of the most well-known and successful painters in the world of portraits, representational painting and atelier teaching. For those outside this world their names might mean little, but for me it was overwhelming. When my husband and I checked in at the hotel desk, right next to us was Odd Nerdrum, hard to miss with his long tousled golden-white hair and clean white painter’s smock. In the hotel lobby I said hi to a young man sketching, and discovered he was a former Nerdrum student. Looking around I recognized Virgil Elliott and Juliette Aristides  (she was also a major guest speaker at TRAC), teachers at their own ateliers who had written books about painting — books I’d eagerly gobbled up. For a person trying to learn to paint out in the boonies, these books are lifelines, and I freely admit to being a bit star struck.

The first evening there was a meet-and-greet on the patio, and there was Nerdrum standing pretty much alone, staring off in a distracted manner with a glass of wine, so I summoned my courage and approached him. I said hello and told him that I had flown across the country just to see him. “I am deeply honored,” he intoned, bowing slightly in a courtly way. Then I tried to tell him that I had read “On Kitsch” and why it had meant so much to me, having most decidedly not been the apple of my abstract-expressionist painting teacher’s eye in college. He nodded sagely but said nothing. I tried to talk about his ideas about timelessness, but ran aground again.

At that point I panicked and attempted to excuse myself but that didn’t work either. “We came here to talk, so talk,” he said, not in an unfriendly way. *Crickets.* Mercifully for both of us, we were then joined by a striking young woman who wasn’t wearing a nametag, but Odd greeted her warmly and I soon figured out she was a former student. (It turned out to be the amazing Teresa Oaxaca. She was extremely gracious when I saw her later with her nametag and realized who she was!) But when I turned to her and asked, “You are an artist?” I found I had made a serious error! Odd sternly corrected me: “Painter,” he said very firmly. He is quite serious about his detestation of the word “artist,” and I had committed a faux pas, but I took the Master’s correction in good humor.

Me and Odd

Photograph by Brittany McGinley, with permission from Michael Pearce and TRAC.

A few weeks ago, Michael Pearce, the moderator of the Representational Art Group on Facebook and one of TRAC’s organizers, posted some photos of the conference, and there I was standing next to Nerdrum and Teresa Oaxaca, surely at that very moment! I think Teresa’s trying not to laugh, possibly at the international Clash of Accents going on between us — Odd’s son, Bork, thought I sounded like Forrest Gump, which I cannot completely deny.

Here’s another photo showing me as a giddy fangirl, with Roger Scruton, another featured guest, nearby.


Photo by Brittany McGinley, with permission from Michael Pearce and TRAC.

I will confess my fantasy: it was to have a deep conversation with Odd about his reported early interest in Anthroposophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, but of course that didn’t happen. Years ago, I read many of Steiner’s dense and horribly translated books, filled with mystical notions of spiritual lineage and influence. Nerdrum has often written and spoken of artistic influences from the past which guide him as a painter, and I wondered to what extent, if at all, he has integrated Steiner’s writings into his worldview. Is spiritual lineage merely a metaphor for inspiration or does he intend the meaning in an esoteric sense, as Steiner did? Nerdrum’s work seems to reflect some deep subterranean current that I cannot quite put my finger on, quite apart from technique.

I’m still glad I talked to him. Nerdrum has a reputation as being a bit difficult, and some people have gone so far as to call him an out-and-out a**hole. A long time ago, however, I stopped avoiding difficult people and started seeking them out. They are rough, their edges sharp, but that is because you are making real contact, touching the “real them,” and sometimes our true selves are not smooth and silky, but more like sandpaper. Difficult people are alchemical corrosive, but sometimes there is gold in the end.

After the cocktail party on the patio, I spent the rest of the week scurrying from event to event, trying desperately to see and hear everything but utterly failing in spite of flat shoes and lots of coffee. But many of the panels have appeared on Youtube and many of the papers I missed are now out in print in Kitsch & Beauty, edited by Michael Pearce.

One of the happiest parts of the conference was meeting so many accomplished women artists and attending the “Women by Women” show at the Kwan Fong Gallery. (And now I shall revert to using the usual English terminology for people who make images. For although “artist” can sometimes mean a person who, say, makes tool sheds from hair and places them in museums, sometimes “painter” means the person who climbs on a ladder and puts opaque pigment on your house or barn.)

The very first person I met was Gezien Van de Riet, an artist who had flown all the way from the Netherlands. Her work (thank goodness for iPhones and websites!) consists of light-filled woodland landscapes, richly colored in pastels, with such jewel-like clarity that they could almost be scientific illustrations. I think we felt a natural affinity for one another.

It was also a real pleasure to meet Elana Hagler (now also resident in the Deep South) and attend her talk on “Apollo and Dionysus in the Representational Painting Family Feud.” I thought I was fairly familiar with most 20th Century painting schools, but when she told me that she was a “Perceptual Painter,” I had to Google it because it was completely new to me. Her exquisite portraits and still life works are carefully observed, every stroke considered and placed with Apollonian reserve, using a deliciously cool palette. These qualities are balanced by a distinct freshness and ease, seen also in her studies and plein air work, work that undoubtedly provides the Dionysian underpinnings for her more finished studio painting. I enjoyed her talk because it helped me understand my own journey as an artist. As a scientific illustrator, I’m just about on the far end of the Apollonian scale, but I’m trying to ease over to the middle in my painting.

Monday evening, my husband and I had dinner with Ryan Brooker, the young man whose remarkable self-portrait I had seen years ago when he worked with my son, and he shared a preview of his talk the next day on sacred geometry: “Beyond the Golden Ratio.” He is an undeniably brilliant young man. The next day I attended his talk, where a big crowd shared my enthusiasm and several people encouraged him to write an e-book and make it available.

I finally met Richard Thomas Scott, my Skype teacher, and listened to him present his paper, “Truth is only Skin Deep,” in which he spoke movingly about his experience of surviving a high school shooting and how that event fed his desire to make his life and work meaningful. This resonated with me because of similar events in my own life that led me to similar conclusions. His deeply felt talk brought tears to my eyes and I was not the only one. And there were other similar moments during the week.

The panel discussion “The Aesthetics of 21st Century Representational Art – (Odd Nerdrum’s Kitsch and Roger Scruton’s Beauty)” sounds pretty intellectual and cold, doesn’t it? But the speakers (I especially remember Julio Reyes, Alan Lawson, and Jan-Ove Tuv) talked about deeply emotional themes: the redemptive power of art, the importance of intention, what we as artists hand on to the next generation. When they spoke of what painting means and should mean and how it relates to their own lives, their words moved me greatly because I knew they understood that art is not a frivolous pursuit, but has meaning for us and for those who come after us.

On Tuesday afternoon, Odd Nerdrum and Roger Scruton spoke at length in a panel discussion on “Contemporary Representational Aesthetics.” Nerdrum expressed humor, but also touches of hurt and bitterness in his talk that afternoon, and flashes of genuine anger. “They are not nice people,” he said at one point, referring to the relentless arbiters of PostModern taste. He meant it, and who can blame him? His prison sentence has been reduced to one year, but he will not be allowed to paint in prison as things stand according to Norwegian law. Scruton, on the other hand, as fond as he truly seems of beautiful painting, sees the realist painting world as a niche where painters so inspired should retire without open rebellion against the status quo. He carefully remained aloof from reckless talk of any new movement in painting.

And finally, at the show “Resonating Images III,” I got to see two of Nerdrum’s paintings up close.

On Wednesday night my husband and I got all dressed up and went upstairs for the banquet. Kelly Mellos, a lovely and very accomplished young portrait painter, and I spent the entire evening chattering away. (An equally charming woman from Texas, also a painter, sat with us too, but I drank way too much wine and lost her card in my luggage mess.)

Before the dinner began I looked up, and there walking right by our table was Odd, so close I could see him even without my glasses. Forgetting my shyness, I smiled and just waved hi to him! And he smiled with such a friendly and eager expression, like a happy schoolboy, and waved back at me as if he were glad that I recognized him! Well, right then and there I could understand why his students seem to love him so dearly.

Next morning we had to leave early and catch our plane (and miss Juliette Aristides, sadly). At breakfast in the hotel, we noticed Odd and some friends at another table. My husband, Ken, knew that I had brought On Kitsch with me and asked if I wanted him to run upstairs and get it so I could ask Odd and Jan-Ove Tuv for autographs. I said no, partly because I’m shy, partly because I hate to disturb people while they’re eating breakfast, and partly because autographs seem strangely impersonal after the fact. It’s the asking for them that’s real, isn’t it?

Then the thought occurred to me of asking Odd and Jan to just hold the book for a minute so I could take it home and keep it as a sort of painting talisman, silly, I know, but in the end I chickened out. Even though Odd had said to me, in his stiff and heavy Norwegian accent, I came here to talk, so talk. But perhaps the little moment at the banquet was enough.

Monica Cook’s “Milk Fruit” at the Cress

Last night I went back to UTC after work to hear Monica Cook talk about her painting, sculpture, and stop-motion animation as part of the Diane Marek visiting artist series. As usual, the artist is first-rate. MonicaCook1But I’d gotten the impression from reading about Cook in Juxtapoz that her painting was on an equal footing with her sculptural assemblages and animation. I was wrong — she seems to have stopped painting entirely. So my plan to ask her about being a figurative painter, and a woman, in the PoMo/Conceptual underbelly of the NYC art world fell through. I have no idea what is behind her decision to stop painting the large scale, surreal figurative works that she had become well-known for doing, but when I heard her speaking about her decision to stop painting and begin doing sculptural assemblages and animation her voice seemed to break a little.

I came away from her talk surprised and a little puzzled, although truly sympathetic. She is obviously phenomenally talented, but maybe she’s tired of hearing that. Ruth Grover, the curator at the Cress Gallery, spoke of Cook’s determination to learn to draw, driving from Dalton, GA., where she grew up, all the way to UTC as a high school student to attend Tuesday-night figure drawing class. That kind of determination to learn anatomy and drawing doesn’t just disappear, ever, in my experience. A quiet and soft-spoken woman, Cook said that painting in her studio alone, using reference taken in photo shoots, was something she preferred, so it hardly seemed that the sheer stress of painting was what got to her. She only said she “wasn’t happy with how she was painting.”

She spoke bravely of forging ahead in her own direction, not allowing critics to derail her. I asked her if her collectors had wanted her to paint the same thing over and over and over, and she thoughtfully nodded yes. It was “like a divorce,” she said, to be cut off from her gallery representation and to lose so many collectors at once. Having experienced a bit of the same thing on a smaller scale I can understand a little how she felt. But still her decision saddened me a little bit. She must have worked in her studio many long, lonely hours over many years to paint at such a level.

MilkFruit1On the other hand, perhaps creating an assemblage like “Milk Fruit” could be artistic therapy if one were just sick and tired of painting for a bunch of collectors and galleries continually demanding more of the same. Cook’s love for grotesquerie is given full rein here: it’s funny, charming, and even she called it “ugly.” In both her paintings and her assemblages, her obsessions seem to center around the body and its frightening needs vs. sacrifice and discipline. But there is redeeming humor amid this strung-together farm circus, and in her charmingly comical stop-action videos too.

I would love to see her go in the direction of the more recent 3-D work from 2014 that she showed in her talk. Delicate and beautifully finished, these translucent waxen figures and skeletal underpinnings dip beneath a surface reminiscent of still water — constructed from delicate veils of broken windshields. Yes, you heard me right, broken windshields. I thought I heard her tell someone she “made the bones herself.” These assemblages seemed to possess more of the weird luster of her paintings. I would love to see some of her animations with this level of lovely iridescent finish too.

I admit I was really looking forward to seeing some of her shimmering, fleshy, slimy figural paintings close up, even while feeling guilty for contributing one more voice to what is probably a cacophony of critical nagging. I asked her if she would ever paint again, and she said she probably would. I imagine she will, but on her own terms. You go girl, but please don’t stop doing the thing you do better than just about everyone else. At least not forever.

Postscript: I put a link to this post on my Facebook page, with Monica Cook’s painting above (which is not titled on her website or otherwise I’d credit it, but naturally it’s by Monica Cook), and was a bit taken aback by the response. Comments started with “Eeeeuw” to “Repulsive.” Wow. No one could see the beautiful painting because they were too wrapped up in their response to the subject matter, which is pomegranate seeds and feet, people. I thought surely that Cook stopped painting because some de-skilling critic shamed her for being “talented,” but now I wonder if it was prissy comments about her subject matter. Men make much, much ickier works of art and get paid bags of money for it. Why is it that women are expected to paint pretty, polite pictures that don’t offend on any level? I will have more to say about this later.

Death and Painting – Skyping in the Blank Spots

Writing these next few essays has felt like untangling a long skein of thread and then carefully knitting it together, making sense out of something that had been chaotic. For an artist, for all of us, life and work are connected, and so it is here.

As it fell out, mostly because of location, I was the “designated sibling” during the final illnesses of my parents. I almost stopped painting, except for my scientific illustration, and I stopped writing. One thing self-help experts will tell you about such times is to try to nurture oneself, and with that in mind I embarked upon a series of Skype classes with a painter named Richard Thomas Scott.How I ended up doing this begins with another painter originally from Norway named Odd Nerdrum.

ManwithHead-copyThe first time I heard of Odd Nerdrum was an article back in the mid-90’s (in ArtNews, perhaps) which included an image of a darkly stupendous painting called “Man Holding the Head of his Lover.” It appealed to my deeply ingrained Gothic sensibility – as a child, my mother had taken me and my sister on graveyard tours, seeking out moss-covered gravestones and speculating on the lives of the ancient dead — and reminded me a bit of some dark fantasy illustrators I’d seen (John Jude Palencar springs to mind) except with freer brushwork and on a scale too grand to fathom. The painting puzzled me too – this was one of the big art magazines from New York, and yet this painting looked almost like something by Rembrandt. I knew just enough about the New York art world in 1994 to know that ArtNews didn’t give the time of day to anyone who painted like Rembrandt, or John Jude Palencar either. What was going on?

On-KitschThen several years later I picked up a book, On Kitsch, vaguely recognizing the author’s name, and struggled through the rather dense philosophical essays. It seemed to be all about a new kind of painting called Kitsch, which was not hokey bad art; in fact, it was supposedly not art at all. This confused me yet again, in fact, I could hardly get my head around some of the ideas at first. Sunsets? Pretty girls? Sincerity? All of us products of 20th Century art education knew this would get us laughed out of any modern classroom and most galleries too.

A few more years passed, and I came across more references to this painter. One day my son, working at a bookstore after college, told me about a co-worker who was a painter, and showed me a photo of his amazingly mature self-portrait. His friend hoped one day to study painting in Norway, with a famous painter who had a very strange name . . . I had to find the book to remember the name on the tip of my tongue . . . Yes, it was that Nerdrum fellow again!

The more I saw of Nerdrum’s work the more he reminded me of some new Rembrandt, although I have to admit that Rembrandt was never my favorite Old Master painter. I remember disliking Rembrandt once, long ago, because I thought he painted heavy women with dimpled thighs. Ha! I shake my head now at my youthful folly. Nor did Nerdrum’s style, impasto laid on heavy linen, immediately appeal to me in that way I’m sure other painters recognize, like wanting to possess a new car or lover: Oh, I must paint like that someday!

And some of his work puzzled me (for the umpteenth time) in light of his writings about lack of irony and sincerity. Surely an exquisite rendering of a row of women defecating in the woods is a joke – right? Or a self-portrait spotlighting the painter’s slightly crooked erection? At the time, I could only imagine these paintings to be sly and contemptuous visual statements: “Art critics, suck on this.” “You won’t look at a nice sunset? How about this?” Perhaps they were simply disingenuous ways to succeed in the Post Modernist art world, that monstrous maw always seeking the next shocking image. Nerdrum seemed in some ways a deeply flawed and vulnerable man, but his best paintings radiated a profound dignity, and a deep mystery too.

I was obsessed for a while with this Odd mystery, bundling it up with my obsession with Renaissance painting techniques, and I discovered there were other people out in cyberspace who were obsessed too.  A lot of them seemed to be artists like me who grew up during the latter part of the 20th century wanting badly to paint “real”, but who missed out on the requisite training.

At the state university where I got my degree in 1984, my oil painting instruction consisted of Fly free, little bird! What I’d wanted to learn to do was paint people, people who looked at least passably real, and not just lying around but flying, jumping, wearing costumes, preferably set in elaborate backgrounds, like the SF and fantasy illustrators who were the only living illusionistic painters I knew. How do I make things look like that? Where do I even start? After graduation, when my children were young, I’d taught myself to paint in egg tempera from a Dover book, and applied what I’d learned to paint well enough in acrylics to get some illustration free-lance work. I could always draw, and finally ended up working as a scientific illustrator, very happy that I’d found a niche. But still I longed to paint in oils and do it well.

After graduation I haunted the stacks in the university library, where I had discovered a whole shelf of forgotten books on the painting techniques of the Old Masters.  My favorite was The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, by Jacques Maroger. I don’t know how long it had been in the library but I was the only person who had ever checked it out, and I suspect I still am. I actually ordered powdered white lead when it was still available and came this close to boiling it with linseed oil until it turned black and transparent, in an iron pot over a fire in my back yard. This was supposed to be the magic medium of the Old Masters that made their paint flow like dark honey from the brush! Odd Nerdrum actually did it, and it ruined some of his pictures, melted them right off the canvas. He had to paint pictures over again, pictures he had already sold, and this led to his terrible tax problems with Norway. So it’s probably for the best I never boiled linseed oil and lead in my back yard, although in my case it would only have resulted in poisoning myself and the rest of the neighborhood.

Like a painting technique porn junky, I ended up cruising the internet for articles about Nerdrum and his fabled technique. These articles had the tone of Maroger’s book – Here is the secret! The final secret of painting! In online forums people talked about Odd Nerdrum’s palette, mediums, and the precise sort of herringbone linen he uses. I knew the information was flimsy, but still my heart beat faster!

Along the way I began running across names of his students here and there.  I would write them down on bits of paper, Google them and bookmark their websites, and then carefully study their work. Nerdrum’s students — and there are a lot of them, both men and women — were representational painters of course, but very much individuals, sharing a hint of the fantastic coupled with a grandeur I’d not found elsewhere. By the way, I hope this doesn’t sound as if I were cyberstalking Nerdrum students. If you are or were a student of Odd Nerdrum, I promise I won’t show up at your house — although it’s possible I might crash your next gallery opening but only if it’s in a city within easy driving distance. Hint: there might be some nice galleries in Atlanta!

I finally stumbled upon ArtBabel, a blog full of juicy information-rich articles, many written by someone named Richard Thomas Scott, a real live student of Odd Nerdrum. He was quite a wonderful painter himself, because there was one of his paintings with very real-looking naked people floating in the ether! Jackpot! I emailed him because there was contact information on the website and an invitation to join something, I wasn’t sure what, but I must have kept dogging him until he finally emailed me back.

At some point Skype classes were mentioned. The classes consisted of me and a few other people in various parts of the world watching Richard paint somewhere in Paris, I think from Odd Nerdrum’s house in exile, while he talked about the philosophical underpinnings of Nerdrum’s “Kitsch painting.” The connection went bad sometimes, but it was great fun, I learned a lot, and watching Richard paint was more useful than anything. We could ask Richard any questions we wanted about mediums, stretching linen, underpainting, and how to pronounce grisaille – mispronunciation being, of course, the awful curse of the Southern painting autodidact.

The Skype classes were during bright day in Tennessee, but the windows in the Paris studio on my computer screen were dark. Richard glanced at himself reflected in the dark window glass with the lights of some Parisian suburb shining in the darkness behind him, and painted his image twice on the canvas. He painted with astonishing facility, without a sketch as far as I could see. Whenever I do this I paint myself off the canvas or make somebody’s head too big. Richard never knew it, but as the weekly classes evolved, the lights in his studio window and his painting began to resemble the night view from the winding road up the mountain where we had moved in with my father during his final illness. I had begun having a panic attack every time I had to drive that road at night, even though I had done it hundreds of times over the years. There was no guard rail and the lights of the city twinkling in the black void a thousand feet below had suddenly begun to terrify me. It was all about dying, I know, the terrible fear of falling into the abyss myself before I had a chance to paint the pictures inside me.

Here is the painting Richard did while he talked to us:


I’m not sure if this was the first time Richard had students, but when I saw the title he gave the painting, “The Blind Leading the Blind,” I wondered if that was how he felt, because I remembered feeling that way myself when I first taught painting years ago. My friend Neil Robinson knew I needed a job and offered me a position teaching oil painting to people at the Senior Neighbors center downtown where he was art director. I told him I didn’t know enough — in fact, I knew almost nothing beyond what I’d learned in college. He said, “You know more than they do.” I’ve never forgotten that. Then he said, “And you’ll learn more than they do.”

The second time I took Skype classes from Richard, I watched him paint “The House on the River Lethe.”


When I saw the “floating” chair, hanging by a rope from some invisible ceiling hook in the studio behind him, I laughed and said, “That looks like something I would do.” I love surreal painted illusions when they’re done really well. Once again, without a sketch, he rapidly painted the light reflecting on the polished wooden floor of his studio. In Greek mythology, the River Lethe is where souls forget their past lives; and in Dante’s Inferno, he is washed in the River Lethe to forget his past sins and complete his atonement. The painting reminded me of how I felt when I started getting rid of things that weren’t working in my life, letting things go one by one. Empty.

I would have loved to buy “The Blind Leading the Blind,” but it was beyond my budget.  But then early this year Richard had a Kickstarter campaign to support him doing some insane number of small paintings in a month.  I bought a share to get an 8×10, and ended up with this little jewel, “The Gloaming.”

the-gloamingThe first thing I noticed about the painting when it arrived was the facility of the execution, because I am above all else an admirer of beautiful painting. The swift little highlight on her nose caught my eye, done in a second, I am sure. I have seldom been able to paint with that assurance – except, for some reason, when I’m doing a demonstration for students.

But I have a confession: after admiring the lovely technique, for reasons I could not quite fathom, I carefully put the painting away in a cupboard. Every time I walked by, I would see it in the shadows and ask myself why I didn’t take it out and have it framed. I finally realized that her downturned face and hands (has she been twisting them? Could she be clutching a damp handkerchief?) subtly conveyed some mix of raw emotions — loss, regret, resignation — with such intensity that it almost broke my heart. Having received many well-meaning suggestions to “paint more cute stuff” over the years, I don’t believe the mood of a painter’s work can be changed, or should be. Being largely unconscious, deliberate efforts to lighten mood risk losing that connection with spirit that make a painting truly powerful. I’m stunned by Richard’s ability to convey deep feeling so delicately, so economically, in such a small painting. She is alive.

In fact, even more than skills, this is the single most important lesson I learned from Richard: Painting in the 21st Century may now legitimately embody human concerns and sincere emotional connection with the subject. Richard was a wonderful teacher and a fascinating person, and I’m thankful to him for filling in almost all the blank spots in my oil painting education. I finally stopped obsessing about Odd Nerdrum and his painting technique and realized that there is no magical formula for oil painting. Oh, there are mediums and recipes, and some work, or they don’t. In the end, you just have to do it.

A lot of people are talking about a new movement in representational painting, asking if it’s real and if it is what to call it, whether Kitsch, NovoRealism, or Post Contemporary. I can tell you that even here a fresh breeze is blowing through the open windows of my studio. Change is in the air.