Art Sud n°50, 2005

Oddbjørg Reinton, who is originally from Norway, has been living and working in Montpellier, France, for about twenty years now. She is constantly involved in individual and collective exhibitions, in France and other countries. Her paintings make their mark on the public’s attention, probably because they have an obvious strangeness in them. What strangeness? O. Reinton’s works, some of them drawings and others painted canvas, are totally dedicated to the representation of animal figures. The word “figure” is here to be understood as shape. As a matter of fact, Oddbjørg has been adapting shape variations for a long time – color, material, composition – dedicated to a same kind of beings – polar bears, elephants, rhinoceroses and gorillas. However, Oddbjørg Reinton is not an animal painter at all. This is the first disconcerting, or paradoxical aspect of these peculiar works. In them animals are people, each one of them is not so much taken as representative of a species but it is the highly individualized example of a mood, of a kind of sensitivity, of a state of mind, all those things which are indicated in an art of portraying in which the position is both physical and moral. When you contemplate these people, something in Oddbjørg Reinton’s paintings puzzles you straightaway – why only animals? Why these ones precisely? How can someone switch from polar bears to gorillas and from elephants to rhinoceroses?
Oddbjørg Reinton provides some precious parts of the answer. The first one is geography. To sum it up, it is the journey from north to south, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. O. Reinton mentions this northern area where she is from with few words. “Living next to something, next to Europe, made me dream of places elsewhere. But mostly, when I was a child, my family and I moved from Oslo to a tiny remote village where you had to walk three miles to visit someone. It was at the end of the earth.” She then stresses that information: “Over there, you can experience total silence. There is nothing. Emptiness, not even a bird singing.” Remoteness, emptiness, silence, nature. Those are the things that a young lady from Norway who wants “an elsewhere” would not find in the Mediterranean south. Again O. Reinton explains. About sounds: “Here, people are everywhere. You never hear silence, even if you think you do. About agitation: “There is a speed in things which struck me. There are always people who speak and gesticulate everywhere. It feels like an aggression sometimes”. About color: “the colors are those of the sand, of the stones, and of the blue sky”. There is drought and also “dry” colors. The way stone feels when you touch it for example – this has been incorporated in my paintings, the ones about elephants for instance.”
Oddbjørg’s canvas have indeed a common feature – an unusual combination of color and material. Color seems to be exactly what Oddbjørg wants to transcend. When she paints bears, their white mass, with shades of ochre, gracefully swims in a white and blue-shaded depth. Her elephants and rhinoceroses, of a pale brown or grey, always surface from a very dark background, of a dark brown, almost black. The most amazing are her gorillas, which communicate with black in an unfathomable way, through their fur or the background which reinforces them.
There is a reminiscence of expressionism in the way O. Reinton arranges the colors. Color is not color. It is a degree of intensity of white or black, of light or darkness, it is not realistic – there are no frozen lakes or tropical forest around those painted animals. In a typical expressionist way, she represents the quietness or the violent aspects of a movement which is both physical and spiritual, and which seems to make the figures either burst out from a mysterious origin in the middle of the canvas, or escape beyond the unlikely limits of the frame. Yes, but the color, so austere, present both in some dark northern landscapes and in the dry vividness of the south, is intimately linked with working on the material. Oddbjørg mentions this: “Sometimes I don’t pay attention to the color at all. Sometimes I can very well erase the figure. Then it is the material that matters. It is what I deal with. And the material is notably what I have learned from the Mediterranean culture”.
In Oddbjørg Reinton’s paintings, the material is indeed of great importance. The artist actually combines objects that are part of the paintings’ figurative composition with hemp or cotton canvas and acrylic paint. The fur of the bears and gorillas is sometimes actual fur – synthetic – glued to the canvas. The bars of the cells in which gorillas are shut up can be real wood or metal bars set to the frame of the canvas. Some of the gorillas’ faces are seen behind wire netting or even behind the square stretched piece of a mosquito net. But the material is not decorative. On the contrary, it is fundamental since it helps making the paintings sketchy representations of a highly physical and sensorial reality. This means that beyond the true to life image that she paints or draws, Oddbjørg represents presence. This is particularly true with gorillas. The look in their eyes is actually extraordinarily intense, almost disturbing for the spectator. Why? How? Is it because they look like us? Maybe that is what it is. But it is not only about this, it is not so simple. For a long time art has accustomed us to the mirror image of anthropomorphic animals, including cinema which invented the big King Kong only to match him to a frail little blond woman and have him lose the fight. Oddbjørg, a frail little blond woman too, does not match herself to gorillas – although she almost does – but to the world in which they live. It is the same thing for bears, elephants and rhinoceroses. If it seems that they are all carried along by a movement which seems to go over the limits of the painting frame, if they are drowned in the material or are literally imprisoned in a small space behind real bars, it is because they have been placed where they should not be in reality. Oddbjørg paints the unseemliness of their condition and the question these animals ask to humans – why I am here? What did you do to me? In their image, through their image, this is how their presence among us is characterized.
In this respect, Oddbjørg Reinton’s last exhibition at the museum La Peyrade in Frontignan is revealing. The artist has chosen to show only representations of gorillas. Some large canvas on the one hand, where these beings, a priori heavy, escape from gravity, because their bodies, freed from everything which ties them up to the ground, swim or fly freely in a material which itself flies like clouds. Oddbjørg even endows one of them with the strange poetic majesty of an allegory – the one about the gorilla “set to the mountain”. On the other hand, she also hung on the picture rail an impressive gallery of about fifty small portraits – 9.8 x 11.8 inches –. Each painting pertains to a tradition of the portrait that painting notably passed on to photography at the turn of the 18th century – the composition, the pause, the light, focused on a part of the face, the gentle or intense look give the visitor the impression that every gorilla emerges from an endless dream or from a mysterious stasis magnified by the sublime black backgrounds which defines them all. O. Reinton thus honors each face like a notable member of a family who would care about telling their generational history thanks to the so-called “family portraits”. But, paradoxically, each portrait is also a print, the painting facsimile of a more ordinary kind of images – the photo ID, the one that you can get at a photo-robot for instance. Emotion then bursts out from this discrepancy between the two categories of images present here. The form, which unifies the gap, is both calm and restrained – also a characteristic of every single one of O. Reinton’s paintings – and exasperated to a barely indicated state of unbalance. Could it be that, through this paradoxical union, Oddbjørg Reinton managed to achieve everything that places her paintings in a tense relation with the ‘elsewhere’ and which certainly goes beyond the simple geography of the cardinal points?
We shall let the artist have the last – and amusing – word: “I don’t feel like painting cows”. In Norway, there are cows, but also and more importantly moose, but they are rarely seen. One day Oddbjørg came across one of them, which, consequently, is often present in her watercolors but never in her painted canvas. On the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea and everywhere else, elephants, rhinoceroses and gorillas can only be seen in zoos. In order to actually find real ones, you have to cross the sea and go south. Oddbjørg Reinton’s paintings emphasize this idea – she wants to look in the distance, where the invisible takes the place of the horizon.
Maxime Scheinfeigel, in an interview with Oddbjørg Reinton (May 2005)
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