Bjarne Melgaard has been described as the most important and famous – or infamous – Norwegian artist since Edvard Munch, even though he is now based in New York. Known for his bold use of colour, pop culture references, visual provocations and the sculpture piece Chair – which caused Twitter outrage in 2014 with accusations of racism – Melgaard is unquestionably one of the most interesting current artists.
His work is currently on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London, as part of the Painters’ Painters exhibition (reviewed in our first issue). We caught up with him as the exhibition launched.
How did you come to be involved in the Painters’ Painters exhibition?
It is simply that Saatchi has a number of my paintings in his collection and he decided to show them. Besides that, I had really no involvement in planning the exhibition.
Do you think painting has become critically neglected with art critics and curators? Do they see it as too traditional a form?
No I don’t think so at all. I see that there are a lot of very successful painters getting a lot of attention, so I don’t know where that comes from.
If you were to describe your style to someone who hasn’t seen your work, how would you do that?
Your work has been confrontational, transgressive. Do you think that art needs to shock people out of their safety zone? Or is it simply that there should be no boundaries to personal expression?
I think there should be no boundaries to personal expression, that freedom of speech is a very important thing to fight for.
The piece Chair caused the predictable Twitter storm a couple of years ago. Twitter is often accused of shutting down the ‘wrong’ ideas and opinions through ‘twitch hunts’, forcing people to apologise for their supposedly incorrect ideas, words or artworks. How do you think this affects artists who want to pursue confrontational and challenging ideas?
I think we are moving now towards a more conformist art world where it’s getting harder and harder to even present controversial work or confrontational work for that matter. I think that’s a problem.
Can you tell us the idea behind that piece? Obviously, it references Allen Jones’ work and updates the shock value of that – but what inspired it?
The piece was part of a show I did at Venus Over Manhattan where I made copies of William N. Copley paintings but with black people instead. So they were directly referring to Copley’s women’s view and Allen Jones’ view of women. They were a critique of that kind of male, heterosexual gaze.
Is it the nature of BDSM imagery to terrify people who like to think of themselves as open-minded? And does that in turn make it an attractive subject to explore in art?
Yes, I would say so.
You were in Until The Light Takes Us. We have a fashion piece on Black Metal Couture in our first issue, so we’re interested in the whole black / death metal subculture. What do you make of black metal as both music and a determinedly underground culture? And what is it about Norway that has made it the spiritual home of the black metal scene?
Well, I think in its heyday Black Metal was on the same expressionist level as Edvard Munch’s The Scream and was a very important movement. But now it’s been totally commercialised and is literally dead.
Your work is described (by the Saatchi Gallery) as being “preoccupied with sex, death and angst”. These seem to me to be the classic obsessions of art through the ages. Do you think that the artist has a duty to confront us with the taboo? Or does art allow the artist to deal with their own fears?
I think both. It allows people to be confronted with their own fears and it allows the artist to confront his fears.
So what do you make of the current demand for ‘safe spaces’ and concerns about micro aggressions? How does art respond to a culture that increasingly doesn’t want to ever be challenged by ideas and which sees offence as an assault?
There’s a big difference between racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia etc. and the free exchange of ideas that provoke, challenge, offend and confront. Art has always been in your face. I think safe spaces are a bit like censorship in that they isolate and protect and deny people real engagement with difference. Micro aggressions are just some consultant’s explanation for ignorance and stupidity. People need to engage with each other…and with art…and have the balls to have an open dialogue about what they are feeling and seeing and thinking…without resorting to violence or aggression. It is possible to relate to someone or an idea that is different without being an asshole.