Diorama
Sannergata 25, 0557 Oslo, Norway
Open Saturdays 12 — 4 pm & by appointment
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10 Exhibition A 025: Jakob Weidemann


09 Exhibition Y 003: Multiples


08 Exhibition Y 009: International Photography & Conceptual Art


07 Calle Segelberg: Logo till 30-åriga kriget


06 Sanna Helena Berger: The edge must be scalloped


05 Lise Soskolne: Bethenny


04 Nils Rundgren: The Underbidder


03 Sigmund Skard: Plommer i egget


02 Axel Ekwall: Big Sur

Anders commented on how the car dealer had redone their facade: A huge window pane now opened on to a showroom that occupied the bottom two floors of the building. We were riding in his car on our way to visit Axel Ekwall, to see the works Ekwall was to show at Diorama. I sat in the back trying to work out what the relationship could be between Anders and the car dealer, why he saw fit to mention to Arild, who sat in the passenger seat, that it had been redone. Why had he even noticed? I didn’t realise till five minutes later, as we were getting out of the car, now parked outside the building that housed the dealer, that it also housed Anders and Axel’s shared studio—along with a few other businesses. We walked up a ramp and in through an open garage door. A heavy-set man with orange pants and a helmet on was milling about the cemented area inside the gate. He appeared strangely unoccupied for someone so dressed for work. A logical answer was that he was waiting for some kind of delivery. In the meantime it seemed he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. His thick arms hung uselessly down his side, at a slight angle from his shoulders due to the shear girth of his triceps. He reminded me of the NPCs (Non-player Characters) that you run across in computer games, who, if you refrain from engaging them with your player, will go on repeating a short sequence of movements, over and over. Their acts are designed to look sound and realistic, but more often it makes them look like they’re in the throes of a compulsive fit. I studied the man’s face for a moment—our eyes met and a mixture of confusion and suspicion crept across his brow. Even if his bewilderment probably had little to do with us, there was still a hint of hostility beaming from his dark-rimmed eyes, as he inspected us from under the shadow of his helmet.

Anders walked ahead. Twenty metres down the hall he stopped outside a door, knocked and paused. It opened, and Anders exchanged a few words with someone on the inside through the narrow crack, before entering. Arild and I followed. The room was rectangular, partitioned in the middle by a section of shelves. A soft, natural light fell in through three big windows on the far end, opposite the entrance. The space must have been close to fifty square metres in total. Axel occupied the area closest to the door. Strangely vacant for a painter’s studio, I thought. Next to us, a couple of flimsy pallets stood tilted on their sides, showing gaps where short pieces of plank had been sawed out. A low reclining chair with a dirt-specked white cushion—surrounded by an assortment of stacks of crusted, old paint buckets, and a clutter of small flasks containing industrial grade paint (Flüger)—laid claim to the corner just right of the entrance. Stretching along the wall on the long end to our right were more shelves, all of them empty save for three small horse figures, roughly hewn from wood blocks. Hung on nails and leaned up against the wall to our left Axel had arranged a jumbled display of his most recent works. I glanced over. Small and unassuming rectangles, dark in colour, but here and there patches of bright, raw wood shone from fissures carved through the paint.
 
Except for the white-cushioned chair and the abutting mishmash of buckets and flasks, the studio-floor was almost cleared. (You could fit a car in the middle of the room.) Axel and I shook hands—he introduced himself with a quick and careful smile. A faint aura of tobacco hung in the air. Anders asked Axel for permission to turn on the lights, which for some reason were off. A second later the dusk lifted. While the others chatted I walked over to Axel’s paintings. The “canvases” were all made from pieces of wood, stacked like log panels and glued to a supporting board, or, when the “logs” were deep enough to support themselves, they were just glued on top of each other like a log-wall. The arrangements looked as if Axel had taken a chainsaw to an old cabin (to make holes for windows, perhaps) and brought the sawed-out sections back with him.
 
Obviously these paintings were work-invested, but to varying degrees. It wasn’t hard to piece together how they’d been made; the selection offered a panoramic view of the process. Some sported only a thin layer of paint, others were caked with it. The state of the wood’s surface differed. In some you couldn’t tell in frontal view that they were constructed from planks at all; layers and layers of paint and frantic carving had rendered the surface both unpartitioned and uniformly chipped. From up-close you could gauge paint runs down the edges on all four sides—revealing that they’d been doused while lying flat on the floor. Spills aside, Heftische Malerei seemed an unfitting category for these subdued works. Ekwall had come out of that moment in the 80s, though, when the large, gestural canvas was de rigeur. His new works were expressive too, doubtless—dense and haptic—but the attitude was different, no flailing hands with paintbrushes attached. Instead there was a cramped chipping away at wood, as if Axel had been shrink-wrapped to the surface when he set to work. The abrasive texture spoke to a strained relation, but a focused one—time spent in a zoomed-in, burrowing mode. The traces from his engraving tool could be either pockets of air, or claw marks. 

Adjoining Axel’s studio, opposite where his new works hung, was a narrow storage. There was no door, so I could see inside; lining the back wall were a number of stretched canvases with their back to us. Old production? How far back did it go? (I didn’t ask.) Another question that formed was what the significance was of the gap—literally, since the studio was so vacuous—between the large, anonymised canvases in his storage and his current production, scattered on the wall. The centre of the room had been sucked empty by a surrounding magnetism, it seemed. A silencing was at work. Something had snuck up and begun to squeeze. Was that why Axel’s paintings had shrunk, hardened—had they been wrung? On the floor next to them was a primitive structure made from planks sawed at careless angles, put together to resemble a miniature shelter. In the middle of its sloping “roof” the builder had inexplicably left a gap—an intentional leak. When we came in this “sculpture” was covered with a T-shirt, which Axel removed on request. The decrepit shelter was proportionate to his horse-figures—a kind of stable, perhaps.
 
As I rejoined the conversation, I overheard Axel say that he was negotiating the terms for giving up the studio before his contract ran out. They—whoever they were—were nagging him to sign it over. There was talk of some form of compensation, but Axel didn’t know what to ask for—what was his absence worth? One of us observed that five-years-and-then-out is a kind of pattern in the life of the studio-bound artist. Lambretta came up—the artist group that Axel had been part of. They had formed out of a shared studio, the art academy’s old sculpture workshop in Lakkegata 79b, Oslo. This was 1982. In 87, when they lost their high ceiling and their 200 square metres, the group dissolved; the members re-embarked on their individual careers (or no-careers, whatever the case was). The group’s existence had been circumscribed by a lease. Lambretta was new to us, though we knew of the individual members—Axel, of course, and Edgar Ballo, Terje Uhrn, Ole Henrik Hagen, Erik Annar Evensen and Jon Arne Mogstad. At any rate, the mention of the group piqued our interest. Axel agreed to try and dig up some old catalogues and bring them to Diorama the following Monday, when he was scheduled to stop by with his work. “You want me to turn the lights off?” Anders asked as we left. Axel confirmed.

When we got to the car Anders couldn’t find his keys. Arild and I waited while he walked back in to look for them. Meanwhile the NPC-zombie came out and stood watching us, his ample figure leaned on a short segment of railing poised on the ledge of the ramp. Still no sign of his delivery.

The catalogues never materialised—Axel forgot to bring them. Luckily, Ole Henrik Hagen’s web page offered a selection of digitised documents that charted the group’s activities: news-clippings, documentation photos, letters etc. In addition, some fragments were sent me by e-mail— among them a Youtube-link to a scene from a film (“X”, 1983) where Lambretta had been tasked with the scenography. The scene shows the recording of a performance by the New Wave band Holy Toy surrounded by a “forest” of Lambretta’s trademark spruces. The band—which rehearsed in the same building that housed Lambretta’s studios—also played at the event, “Flyktig kunst” (1983), the second instalment in the series “Tidskonsept”, a moniker the group presented their collective, aggregated happenings under. Though often clunky and immoderate in scale, their works painlessly made the transition to backdrop for film and concerts, performing in a transient and unexclusive key even when they presumably had centre stage. In one exhibition (“Kulturen lever”, 1983) their canvases were suspended from the ceiling like banners high above the the floor-bound spectators. Another telling piece of information was a customs document from 1987 that listed “11 washing machine engines” and “23 spruces” as materials for a show in Berlin. Judging by the various written materials reproduced in the PDFs I found, the group’s program was of a hedonistic, affirmative bent. Their first show included a manifesto, even, where they proclaimed their existentialist sentiments in early 20th century avant garde prose, replete with random capitalisation and evocations of an art in the service of experience, nature and the cultish.

In the car on our way back after visiting Axel’s studio, Anders and Arild had told me how they at one point during their academy years had tried to get someone who had written a dissertation on Krisitiania-bohemen, to come and give a lecture at the academy. To their surprise he had been curt and told them off; he was done with the subject a long time ago, he said before abruptly hanging up. As I cycled through the Lambretta-material online—three-minute video streams, web-ready PDFs, and grainy JPGs—I was struck by a not unrelated feeling; these events were effectively sutured off, relegated to a past. What were the 80s really—a reservoir of a kind of energy that would be unthinkable now (when even off-venues are neurotically pristine). My overlaboured, thesaurus-augmented English is shrink-wrapped too. What used to be an expanse of 200 square metres has been reduced to a wriggle-room the size of your software. Ekwall’s light-devouring, contracting panels are anti-PDFs; his paintings are my computer-screen hated from the 80s.

—Axel Ekwall: Big Sur, 7 November - 7 December, 2014


01 Andreas Slominski: A Hunt for Optimism