The circularity of the Hirshhorn Museum building with its connecting galleries that bring you back to where you started is fitting for a Ragnar Kjartansson retrospective. His performance-based videos and paintings plumb the pathos, humor, and unexpected uplift to be derived from endless repetition and looping. The 40-year-old Icelandic artist, who, despite his international following, remains rooted in Reykjavik, has made playful melancholy his brand. He literally spells it out in the glowing neon sign “Scandinavian Pain” linking the museum’s first and last galleries. Inside the ring of rooms, visitors hear the wistful sound of the E-minor chord being struck on a guitar throughout the day, reverberating from the live performance piece Woman in E, featuring a bedazzled performer rotating slowly on a round pedestal encircled by gold tinsel.
This spectacle of glitz and sadness marking time is a vivid living sculpture but pales in comparison with the emotional range and wit of the video pieces in which Kjartansson plays master of ceremonies, often wearing a tuxedo in the retro guise of a big-band nightclub singer, crooning, for instance, “sorrow conquers happiness” in the 2007 video God. Or he may wear nothing at all, as in a 9-channel video installation The Visitors (2012) as he soaks in the bathtub while playing guitar and singing along with eight other performers on different instruments, each inhabiting a room of a gorgeously run-down mansion in portrait-like tableaux. The ensemble of musicians swells from fugue to full-on gospel choir leaving visitors eagerly awaiting what comes next even if it’s much like what came before. The son of a well-known actress in Iceland, Kjartansson was raised in the theater world watching scenes rehearsed repeatedly, with new meanings brought to the same words.
He enlisted his mother, Guorun Asmundsdottir, to spit in his face ferociously and repeatedly as he stands beside her in his serial video Me and My Mother. In the first, shot in 2000 when he was still a painting student in Reykjavik, mother and son occasionally break character and giggle at the absurdity. But in the three successive iterations, repeated every five years, both fully inhabit their roles. Gathered in the last gallery, the series speaks to time and aging, rising and falling stardom and the complexities of familial relationships.
On view simultaneously in New York at Luhring Augustine in Chelsea and Bushwick are shows that deal with contrasting geographies and concepts of home. On view in the front room at the gallery’s Chelsea space is the artist’s new painting series “Architecture and Morality,” executed this year in the West Bank during a residency with the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. Kjartansson employed his strategy of completing one painting a day, as he did over a six-month period during the 2009 Venice Biennale that helped catapult him to the international stage. Here, each of his quickly dashed off plein-air paintings depicts the facade of rather banal homes, plunked down in a desert landscape, with signifiers of normal suburban life, like a basketball net or bicycle out front. Only the flickers of the blue-on-white star of the Israeli flag, peaking through a window or festooning a banister, speak to the charged and contested nature of these domestic scenes.
In the back room, Kjartansson shows another kind of domesticity in his nine lush cinematic video vignettes called “Scenes from Western Culture” starring some of his illustrious friends. Each gives a view of tranquility and affluence. A dog waits for its master as a grandfather clock ticks in a beautifully appointed Scandinavian home; a woman (the artist Elizabeth Peyton) swims laps in a glinting pool; beautiful German children color and fly kites on a lawn; a well-heeled African American couple (the musicians Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran) play along with the formalities in an old-school French restaurant. In a way both ominous and humorous, Kjartansson suggests the existential threat looming over such idyllic scenes by including a burning house that slowly caves in over the duration of the video.
In Bushwick, Kjartansson brings the geography back to the provinces of Iceland. His four-channel video World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), based on a novel by the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness, tells the tale of a scoundrel poet who yearns for greatness beyond the isolating sea and glaciers but is dashed by setbacks. Staging it with his friends as a play with painted backdrops and costumes and narrated in a tongue-in-cheek manner by Kjartansson (in a white dinner jacket), the artist films both the on-set drama and backstage machinations in repeated takes that play simultaneously on four screens shuffling between 80 scenes. Nonlinear and cacophonous, it subverts the viewer’s ability to fully comprehend the story. Yet Kjartansson’s love of the apparatus of the theater and his abiding belief in the power—along with the futility—of art are the messages that come through, repeatedly.