I’ve never cared much for comics. As a kid, I rarely watched cartoons. I didn’t read comic books in my teens. I seem to be amongst the few cultural scholars working today who don’t write about graphic novels. So I was surprised to find myself moved by the pictures of Gardar Eide Einarsson at Standard (Oslo) – more so, considering these pictures were not intended to stir the emotions. Indeed, quite the opposite.
Titled ‘Rawhide Down’, the exhibition initiates a dialogue between five works rendered in acrylic, gesso and graphite. Each of the pictures is a reproduction of a found cartoon or comic strip depicting a statesman. The statesmen – in order of appearance: Ronald Reagan, Yitzhak Rabin, Pope John Paul II, the former Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Theodore Roosevelt – vary in political ideology, cultural context and historical narrative. But they have one experience in common: the distinct displeasure of being shot at. In some cases, this assassination attempt would prove to be their last experience.
These statesmen were not attacked as the result of a particularly unfortunate twist of fate – a robbery, for instance, or some crime of passion. Rather, they found themselves staring down a barrel because they represented – indeed, embodied – a political group or ideology that at least one person took enough issue with to pick up a gun. This particular weapon is an abstraction, one that implies a closer physical proximity than, say, a bomb or drone attack, but also lacks the intimacy and immediacy of a knife or one’s own hands.
Einarsson’s paintings render this double remove by distancing his subjects from the viewer in three distinct ways. The first is that they are copies of copies: simulations which, while grounded in reality, associate with the world of fiction. The second distancing act is the artist’s choice of genre: the cartoon, the comic and, by extension, its historical appropriation in the name of pop art. Each image is less a portrait of a subject’s unique features than an assembly of Marvel tropes: square jaws and emphatic cheekbones, strong noses and slick hairdos, with wrinkles conveying character and eye-lines becoming a shorthand for emotion. The Pope, staring directly at us, his chin a straight line, looks ready to put on a cape and lycra, while Roosevelt’s heavy eyebrows and angular jaw resemble those of the mobster in the comic Punisher. The third distancing act comes in Einarsson’s decision to paint these fictional in a predominantly monochrome uniform, a limited palette of black, grey and white lines with very little gradation or depth, which deepens the rift between the work and the viewer. While founded in reality, the overall register of these characters is now one of flatness, depthlessness.
The distancing of ‘Rawhide Down’ is cleverly counteracted by two surprising stylistic choices: Einarsson zooms in on his figures, often working with close crops that see the faces cut at the chin, cheek or hairline, and then applies subtle patches of pale colour to the features that brings texture, materiality, even fleshiness. As a result, the viewer is placed, if only for a moment, in the obsessive mind of the assassin, for whom these characters have become overwhelming, almost disembodied hallucinations. But in light of these stylistic tweaks, Einarsson’s characters also become vulnerable, and their caricatured, impersonal strength is undercut by signs of fragility. Each of these men was shot at as a representation, an embodiment, of something else, but at the moment of impact, what the bullet hit was a body. This was a surprise, I feel, to them, just as it was to me, here, in the gallery.
Gardar Eide Einarsson, 'Rawhide Down' was on view at Standard (Oslo) from 28 September until 27 October 2018.
Main image: Gardar Eide Einarsson, I’ve Got to Convince the Indians. That Our Way of Justice Is Best (detail), 2018, acrylic, gesso and graphite on canvas, aluminum stretcher, 240 × 190 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artists and STANDARD (OSLO), Oslo; photographer: Vegard Kleven
Timotheus Vermeulen is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo and a regular contributor to frieze. His latest book, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, co-edited with Robin van den Akker and Alison Gibbons, is published with Rowman and Littlefield.