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Sidsel Paaske

Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, Norway

‘On the Verge’, a posthumous overview of Sidsel Paaske’s work, goes further than most retrospectives, providing not merely a historical context for the artist’s interdisciplinary practice but also evoking the restless energy that drove her constant improvisation. Capturing the unifying spirit of Paaske’s approach is particularly significant, as the diverse and unclassifiable nature of her output is surely one reason why the late Norwegian artist has been largely overlooked since her death in 1980 at the age of 43.

During her brief career, Paaske worked across media ranging from enamel painting to poetry to performance. Having been forced to leave art school in 1956, after falling pregnant, she went on, six years later, to gain a vocational qualification in textiles and art education – work seen as more appropriate for women. Abandoning textile design because she felt it was too laborious, Paaske initially gravitated towards abstract painting and printmaking, before exploring pop art, craft, jazz music and non-Western cultural customs. Throughout her career, she engaged with ‘women’s work’ – making jewellery, for instance, from feathers and metals that, according to the folk traditions she studied, possess magical properties. By the early 1970s, Paaske’s various interests began to coalesce through her engagement in feminist politics. ‘Folk art [and] women’s art […] are concerned with, and characterized by, ornamentation and hence rhythm, which is related in turn to music,’ she wrote in 1975.

Sidsel Paaske, Blue Letter (detail), 1979, felt-tip pen and water colour. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo; photograph: Jazzcode

Sidsel Paaske, Blue Letter (detail), 1979, felt-tip pen and water colour. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo; photograph: Jazzcode

Paaske strove throughout her life to upend the divisions between art and craft, referring to her abstract expressionist enamel paintings, for example, as ‘wall jewellery’. Also featured in the retrospective are her individually stencilled, spray-painted and handwritten exhibition posters from the 1960s and ’70s. These are displayed on a wall specially constructed to resemble the building exteriors on which she might originally have posted them – one of the many clever elements of exhibition design used throughout the show. Amongst her most important sculptures, On the Verge (1966) – from which the exhibition takes its title – nods to Paaske’s later musical collaborations with the likes of trumpeter Don Cherry. Consisting of an apartment block entry buzzer, flipped on its side and painted white, with the tenants’ names obscured by milky Perspex rectangles and drips of black paint, the assemblage looks like a kind of keyboard. Musical motifs recur in those works explicitly concerned with gender, such as in the drawing Klang (Sound, 1977) in which a pink, clitoral form surges toward a keyboard, the labia wrapped around a blue phallus.

This retrospective aims to underscore Paaske’s importance within an art history from which she has often been omitted. Through a display of photographs, sketches and finished works, the curator argues for the artist’s possible influence on Claes Oldenburg: Paaske’s oversized sculpture Brent fyrstikk (Extinguished Match, 1966) anticipates Oldenburg’s 1987 Extinguished Match by two decades, while her cigarette butt piece (an element of the installation Vi och Provie och sophögen [We and Provie and the Rubbish Heap], 1966) also predates his Fagend study (1968/1976) by two years (though Paaske’s is distinguished by lipstick marks made with pink paint). The exhibition even suggests that the two artists might have met in the late 1960s, while working on a number of exhibitions in Scandinavia, although this remains unconfirmed.

Sidsel Paaske, Extinguished Match, 1966, wood, textiles and sequins. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo; photograph: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

Sidsel Paaske, Extinguished Match, 1966, wood, textiles and sequins. Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo; photograph: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland

At the time of her death in 1980, Paaske was gathering materials for Norafjølsen, a Perspex case painted with poems and filled with Norwegian grass. Here, the box is installed next to a natural fibre rug, from which radiate eight charcoal-coloured bands that extend onto the gallery walls. Hung across each band is a portrait of a female artist from the National Museum’s collection, including Ole Rinnan’s likeness of Paaske herself. Beneath the portraits, a slideshow cycles through documentation of ‘Kvinnen og kunsten’ (Women and Art), an exhibition that Paaske co-curated at Oslo’s Kunstnernes Hus in 1975. This elegiac mise-en-scène re-creates not only the elation of second-wave feminist organizing but Paaske’s endless curiosity.  

Wendy Vogel is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn, New York.

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