Odd Nerdrum, one of the most influential painters of our time, will share his newest work in the exhibition “Pupils of Apelles,” opening Saturday, November 15th at Copro Gallery in Santa Monica. Nerdrum is exhibiting with three of his former students on the common ground that all four painters draw inspiration from the legendary works of the great Hellenistic painter Apelles.
Odd Nerdrum has been the torch bearer for the old-master European tradition since the 60’s. With an insatiable appetite for philosophy, history, and the humanities, Nerdrum forged an education of secret knowledges. While still in his teens, he made a sanctuary in his studio for others on similar quests. His mentorship has grown into the Nerdrum School, attracting young talent from around the globe.
There is a lineage of sorts, threading 2400 years through painters like Albrecht Durer, Botticelli, and now Nerdrum and his disciples that traces back to a god-like figure whose work only exists in our imagination. Probably the most curious thing about Apelles is that not a single example of his work exists today. The iconoclasts efficiently destroyed it all, most of it consumed in the fire that destroyed Alexander’s library. All that remains are a few ancient texts and a few examples of works attributed to his influenced contemporaries that were preserved and unearthed in the ashes of Vesuvius.
Nerdrum’s oeuvre follows a similar evolutionary path as Rembrandt and Titian. These three story tellers in paint were, in their earlier periods, focused on tightly rendering the entire composition, a horror vacui if you will. As the masters aged and mellowed with wisdom, a mysterious atmosphere began to encompass the work and detail became selective, orchestrating a certain rhythm followed by our visual perception.
Luke Hillestad lives in Minneapolis, MN and began studying with Nerdrum in 2008. Finding value in the principals of Mimesis, Luke paints large format narratives in the Apelles palette. David Molesky, who now divides his time between North Carolina and New York, apprenticed with Nerdrum from 2006-2008 and has recently been painting rebellions in atmospheres of fire and smoke. Caleb Knodell, Odd’s apprentice from 2010-2012, is currently pursuing an MFA at Indiana University. Caleb’s paintings emerge out of his interests for the magical and occult.
Luke Hillestad, David Molesky, and Caleb Knodell got together to each ask Odd Nerdrum a question and further discussed their inspirations from both the enigmatic Greek artist and the living Norwegian master.
Luke Hillestad: Apelles said "I paint for eternity" and yet all of his works were destroyed by the iconoclasts. Is there anything we painters can learn from this?
Odd Nerdrum: We cannot care about Arabic religions, as for example christianity. They are enemies of the human body.
Caleb Knodell: Will you discuss the value of striving, is this what you believe life is or should be comprised of?
Odd Nerdrum: Yes, because to strive can result in revealing things in ones own work that one did not know about. That is the great happiness.
David Molesky: How do the qualities of Apelles migrate across the boarders of time and arrive to the dedicated painter, despite there only being a few shreds of evidence that he even existed?
Odd Nedrum: I have penetrated many ages of man, but there is no age I feel more home in than in the age of Apelles. Aristotle was probably a close friend of his. They had related theories on colour, that nature is it's own mixer of colour for you lucky painter. Rembrandt was Titians greatest apprentice, even though he lived a hundred years later. But after having studied Plinius the elder, I understood that Titian was just as much a student of Apelles as was Rembrandt and Velasquez. We are not alone.
Perhaps art historians now should start studying Aristotle once more and forget Kant and Hegel for a while.
DM: Luke and Caleb, it’s as if we are back in Odd’s fireplace room for one of those occasional evening chats; memories of Odd passing around books, pointing out how the paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum were copies upon copies of Apelles' original works.
CK: Apelles for me represents somewhat the epitome of the old master, something to strive for; someone the greatest known painters looked up to. The kind of painter who had such work ethic that he would paint multiple layers of the same painting so when one layer fell another would emerge. The stories written by Pliny definitely give you the impression that this painter was an enigma, a powerful figure with uncanny ability.
LH: Pliny’s “Natural History” is a crazy series, it goes through all of the "natural" substances and what they are used for. He talks about the painters in "Earth" and the sculptors in "Stone". Earth was about minerals and stuff "oozing" up from the ground and what humans used this stuff for, one thing being painting. I think there were even more stories about Apelles carried by the grand oral tradition into the 19th century only to be completely lost around the world wars.
CK: The story I like the most is the one about trying to paint the foam of a horses mouth, how Apelles became frustrated and threw his sponge, which gave the effect he was looking for. I find the story intriguing because it somehow reveals the working methods of an ancient painter, and the use of a sponge to create an illusionistic image.
I see painting as an act of magic using techniques that baffle and fool and using materials from original sources, like creating your own slight of hand in a visual format. I think that is part of the connection between Odd and Apelles, that earthy quality of building layered history and scraping it back.
DM: You've heard the story about the still life competition between 3 Greek painters. Each painting was covered in a cloth and then revealed one by one. The first was clearly well painted. The second painting when revealed, fooled birds and insects so that they attempted to partake in the illusion of fruit. As they went to pull the cloth off the last painting, they found that it was a painting of drapery. This painting was held up as mastery because it fooled humans.
LH: We like being tricked and we like being told stories. When we go to the movies, we want to forget about the stained carpet, we want a picture we believe in.
Apelles once dropped his pencil, Alexander stooped to pick it up; Apelles received it on bended knee, saying, “The king, in his love of painting, forgets that I am his servant."
“Talk not of servants,” replied the gracious monarch. “If I am king of Macedonia, thou art the king of painters; between kings there should be no ceremony; they are brothers”
CK: I think that story was also said of Titian with his brush. Who knows if it is true, but it is fun to believe in!
LH: Well I guess some fiction is good when it makes us better, not when it cheats us. Maybe that's the difference?
DM: The best kind of story is not one that leads us to ignorance by telling us, but one that shows us and teaches us to find our own moral pillar from which to view the world.
LH: Aristotles poetics! With regard to tragedy and fantasy, Aristotle demands believability. The outcomes of each event need to naturally follow each other; while we painters don't work in such episodic ways, I think we can take that lesson into a single picture
DM: Luke, how many years have you been developing this body of work you are sharing in this exhibition with Odd?
LH: I started the first piece during the winter of 2013 in Norway and it was the last one I finished for the exhibition. Apelles was on my mind the whole time. Most of this was my own fantasy, but it was a catalyst, a constant meditation on Greek thought.
DM: What were some of the ideas behind your paintings in the show, for example “Migration” and “Severed Wing?”
LH: In the picture “Migration”, a tribe of people attempt to cross through murky waters into a new land, a migration ritual that nature often demands. They carry each other and the objects they have deemed most precious and vital to their culture. A wise woman leads the way, eyes closed seemingly led by an unseen force or gut-instinct. Bodies bend under the weight of a structure they are trying to move. A small flame flickers from a lantern of perseverance. Men, women, and a newborn child follow into the unknown, migrating for their survival.
In “Severed Wing” three women bury their sister, their severed family member. It is a funeral picture and an allegory of seasons. They wrap the sister in a red shroud - an heirloom. Beauty is their comfort from the horrific emptiness of death.
I want to hear about your work David. The fire pictures seem to be paintings of danger, but when I feel nervous I can feel comfort in your work. They don’t make me feel more nervous; I have empathy for the experience.
DM: Since my time with the Nerdrumschoolen tribe, I fell into the subject matter of turbulence and fire with now and again revisits back to the 4 color palette and figurative focus. Lately, one technical thing I’ve been working on is developing a greater illusion that the light source is coming from within the painting. The rhythmic movement of fire illuminates an atmosphere of smoke that partially obscures human figures who feed the flames.
LH: Caleb, tell me about the haunting picture "Selfportrait as Possessed” could you name what you are possessed by?
CK: Yes, the possession picture has more to do with guilt, temptation and trying to control oneself. I grew up in a strict religious church in a small city that kept tabs on your personal life, everything I did I felt guilty for. In a sense painting myself possessed was also act of rebellion. I allow for imagery to sort of float to the top from the subconscious level. There is a sincerity that can't happen when one tries to make a nice picture or a nice composition.
DM: So, you strive, building the layers, then something starts to click and the accumulation of marks resonates your subconscious thought?
CK: Yes, I think most painters would agree it's not what you paint but how you paint it. So you must trust the subject in order to feed it and of course you want to be seriously invested and interested in that subject.
Odd Nerdrum "Pupils of Apelles" opens on November 15th, 2014 at Copro Gallery.