“He’s a very crazy man,” my Norwegian taxi driver, Viktor, told me on the way to the Munch Museum in Oslo. “Makes a lot of scandals.” He was speaking of Bjarne Melgaard, who is Norway’s most infamous living artist, like the notorious Edvard Munch before him. Following a glut of recent shows in Manhattan (intravenous-drug-use-orgy-themed dollhouses at Luxembourg & Dayan, a sprawling display of unprotected gay sex at Gavin Brown’s, the live white tiger at Ramekin Crucible gallery), Melgaard has returned to his native land to take part in a two-person show at the Munch Museum, curated by Lars Toft-Eriksen.
The show, titled “The End of It Has Already Happened,” brings together two artists—one historical, one contemporary—who can easily be compared by their provocative bios and subject matter. But it also makes a good case for the role contemporary curatorial practice can play in bringing verve to that often mausoleum-like of institutions, the monographic museum. Known for its collection of tens of thousands of Munchs and a high-profile 2004 theft of two paintings, the museum is presenting the show as the first in a series of curatorial pairings aimed at bringing new audiences—local and international—through its doors.
While explicit sex and glamorous nihilism may link the two artists on a superficial level, the curator and Melgaard push the comparisons with a hang which literally layers Munchs on Melgaards or, in a few cases, obscures Munchs by Melgarads. In one room there are seven Munch paintings on a Melgaard wallpaper backdrop. Yet it’s never difficult to tell one from the other. Munch looks great in his paintings and woodcuts—he’s a beautiful painter, with swirling colors and deft strokes capturing the pattern of a dress, or the Nordic ocean. Melgaard pushes politics harder, with a video interview with Leo Bersani on gay rights. His sculptures, life-size scarecrow-like dolls in fright wigs, read Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain; his paintings are more the skeiny, scribbly abstraction of Asger Jorn than the haunted landscapes of Munch.
While heavy-handed anachronistic curatorial gestures can certainly backfire, this show worked. It’s not just that, as the stronger artist, Munch has no trouble dealing with an influx of proximate Melgaards. Munch’s painting, in fact, looked great, and was represented both plentifully and lovingly. It was also that the show seemed to stage a confrontation between larger issues: history and the present, the dead and the living, art history and contemporary art. In the show’s final room, the curator placed the museum’s 1910 version of Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, in a double-thick frame behind a Melgaard. The photo visible in the frame is a Melgaard still of the grimacing mien of a man dying of autoeurotic asphyxiation. People clustered around. It’s Melgaard’s Erased De Kooning, a magnificent act of symbolic Oedipal patricide, and the symbolic heart of the exhibition.
Which is not to say the show is perfect. There’s a dumb entry gag in which the curator has put a rubber hose from the museum’s archives on display on a plinth in a Curating 101 (“What is a work of art?”) gesture. A room full of studio-fresh Melgaards unmixed with Munch, the fright-wig dolls now affixed to paintings (“I hate people,” reads one) felt like a mere advertisement for his upcoming show at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris. But overall, the exhibition, with its collision of the 19th- and 21st centuries, is largely both smart and subversive. Upcoming pairings feature Jasper Johns, Asger Jorn, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Vincent van Gogh, among others. At the opening, New York dealer Gavin Brown wandered, seemingly nonplussed, among the paintings on view. “Are they any good?” he asked of the Melgaards, which seemed like a fair question, but not one anyone else was asking that night.