D30 Ragnar Þórisson: Human Disguise at Reykjavík Art Museum

Daily Serving

April 19, 2017

Ragnar Þórisson. Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas; 200 x 170 cm. Courtesy of Reykjavík Art Museum.

Ragnar Þórisson. Untitled, 2013; oil on canvas; 200 x 170 cm. Courtesy of Reykjavík Art Museum.

Ragnar’s work exhibits a clear influence from Expressionist artists while presenting something fresh and unique. The terror and anxiety present in certain iconic Expressionist works is mostly absent, but an aura of uncertainty persists. The hard lines of Egon Schiele and Erich Heckel are apparent, which at times also seems to be a nod toward printmaking. Many of Ragnar’s works, however, diverge from the relatively realistic subject matter of the Expressionists, approaching something that resembles folklore. Though anthropomorphic, the subjects in many paintings don’t seem fully human. The artist employs thin layers of paint to expose underdrawings, with only partial background areas blocked in. His paintings appear intentionally unfinished, resulting in an ambiguous psychological feeling.

The most striking painting (all works are untitled) is large enough to occupy an entire wall, and features an outdoor setting, unlike most of the other works, and a more colorful and varied palette. A single, robed figure stands in a forest, flanked by tall trees with persimmon-colored trunks. This work contains more detail than others, allowing viewers to establish a setting, but not enough detail to establish context. The gender—and even the species—of the figure is unclear, though they stand with a slight hunch. It’s unclear whether this individual reigns over this woodland sanctum, or if they are in a vulnerable state. The sober tones, and the centrality of the figure within the frame, create an atmosphere of importance—this is not a leisurely Sunday afternoon on La Grande Jatte—but the uncertainty persists, and the inability to settle on one of several opposing readings is unsettling.

Another painting depicts two amorphous figures who stand under a black sky. Their bodies, shrouded in gray-blue, are painted with a combination of both thick and thin layers of the same black ether that floats above them, but their faces are a deathly white. Both figures look toward the ground a distance in front of them and, though their mouths are barely painted on, their somberness is undeniable. The figures’ humanity is a little more apparent than the forest-wanderer, even though their forms are abstract in comparison. This work appears as both an allegory for death, and an earnest and poetic depiction of a life of mourning. Whether these figures are living or dead is an open question.

Other paintings more clearly depict human figures, such as several with men posing in formal attire. These works are the most straightforward in the exhibition, but they are still far from unambiguous. One painting is bare almost to the point of being a study. The man’s coat is nearly the identical drab color of the background, and his face is only a tad paler. His downcast, forlorn look resembles the two ghostly creatures from the other work, but with more detailed composition, including discernible lips, a nose, and cheekbones.

Works like this one—or another of an elliptically shaped man with the same straight long hair and receding hairline—provide a visual contrast to those that are more mythical. But they also act as a bridge between personal experience and allegory. The inclusion of these disparate works in the same body, titled Human Disguises nonetheless, indicates similarities between lived reality and how it can be represented or perceived in its extremes. These works translate a spectrum of human experiences, from mundane melancholy to those that cause us to question our own reality. With this reading, however, one painting begs the most questions. In it, a creature with a body like a grand piano and a head resembling a vulture skull glares nightmarishly at the viewer. I am left wondering what human experience this is a disguise for.