Vanessa Baird – You Are Something Else, Installation view, Kunstnernes Hus, 2017, All pictures taken by: Christina Leithe Hansen, Courtesy of Kunstnernes Hus and OSL Contemporary

Vanessa Baird is Norway’s answer to Paul McCarthy, merging his love of fantasy and excrement with the tongue in cheek dark humor of Judith Bernstein. Having had less global exposure than Bjarne Melgaard the Oslo based artist who has spent years raising eyebrows, Baird will have her US début as one of the featured artists of OSL Contemporary at the 2018 Armory Show in New York.

For most people, art should be beautiful. But within the vast community of the contemporary art world beautiful usually just translates as banal. Artist Vanessa Baird has made a name for herself in Norway through her elaborately detailed, large-scale paintings and drawings. Her work hangs in private and public collections and it is in the public realm where she has run into trouble. The most notable instance was in 2012 when employees complained about a mural she made for the Ministry of Agriculture and Food’s media room in R6 a government building in the financial district of Oslo. The mural was commissioned as a triptych yet never completed -even if the content related to Baird’s personal mythology- because it became a subject of contention after the 2011 bombing of homegrown terrorism in Oslo. Rather than be offended by iconographic religious imagery or references of death, it was the blank sheets of white paper blowing in an invisible breeze, which for many served as a reminder of the attack on the capital. Instead of de-installing the project, the solution was to put curtains and a large plant in the space to detract from the subject matter. Six years later, the work is in full view as with time direct emotional response often subsides.

Like many artists, including Bjarne Melgaard who in 2015 covered a version of Munch’s The Scream at the Munch Museum, Baird does not shy away from controversy but rather embraces it. Making the same type of work for many years, her narratives consist of ghoulish creatures, little girls, blond women with large lips, her father on his deathbed and brown bodies who lurk in the sea, only beady eyes visible just above the horizon of the water. In You Are Something Else on view at Kunstnernes Hus, various figures are shitting, blasting brown excrement while others are decapitated through the unfortunate occurrence of having their heads engulfed by another persons anus. It was the brown bodies however, that truly caught my attention revealed in a subtly contorted, facial gesture. I found myself inquiring, where are they going? Are they being discarded or welcomed? Have they been banished to the sea never to reemerge? They are cropped at chin level and appear to hunger for recognition. They are aesthetically executed in a position that strips them of their power. According to the artist, they are refugees in limbo; not here, not there. But why do they never cross the threshold or breakthrough the swell arriving on a sandy shore? Instead, while the white bodies frolic sexually in a delectable form of torture, the brown bodies are doomed as crocodiles to a body of water, a proposed danger to others, a proposed danger to themselves.

Vanessa Baird – You Are Something Else, Detail / Installation view, Kunstnernes Hus, 2017, All pictures taken by: Christina Leithe Hansen, Courtesy of Kunstnernes Hus and OSL Contemporary

The way these figures stare we can only imagine that if not for the silence of the sketch, their agape mouths would be screaming in terror, imploring those on shore to pull them from the swirling current. By using the stigmatized and racially charged comic, Baird restricts any potential growth or interpretation of these figures. Perhaps that is her goal, to completely strip them of their agency resulting in a powerlessness not unlike slavery. Whereas in 2017, black bodies can be (and should be) granted a particular amount of elegance and vigor the artist instead chose to reference a caricature from a stunted moment in history.

Vanessa Baird – You Are Something Else, DETAIL, 2017

As refugees pound the pavement of many countries sidestepping borders, many remain gypsies and for the most part, unwanted. In Norway, a -disputed- campaign was started in 2015 and championed by Sylvi Listhaug, immigration minister and a member of the Progress Party, seeking to offer a smoother softer way for refugees to return home. However as most know, while they may want to go home in theory, each refugee has been justly named because they are unsafe in their respective countries and flee to seek out a better life. Norway, has been one of the highest donors worldwide in sending money to help refugees but prefers to support the cause outside of their country. Do Vanessa Baird’s figures sit frozen, waiting to be absorbed by the sea, sent home, or are they in a moment right before they are to climb on solid ground? This representation, is the weakest point in her otherwise engaging oeuvre.

In contrast, American artist Kehinde Wiley just made a new body of work on view at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. His exhibition titled, Kehinde Wiley: In Search of the Miraculous, uses the same subject matter; the relationship of black bodies to the sea. Stylistically a different artist than Baird, his work contains an undeniable richness and dignity that can be translated into a situation whereas political vexation is communicated but with grace, reflecting our current times. Today is far from perfect, but contemporary artists have the power to change minds rather than extract or recycle outdated ideas from a racist past.

At the Kunstnernes Hus, You Are Something Else consists of a series of floor to ceiling drawings and thrift store paintings that she interacted with. Not having used the visual representation of feces much in her earlier work, it’s as if the artist is releasing something herself or freeing her body of any toxic expectations that may have been present prior. As if forcibly taking or being given an enema, the constipation is released. This seems to be the freedom she seeks even if the physical, labored and grotesque process that at times is difficult to look at.

Sitting at the opening dinner, I was across from the artist’s mother, a bright-eyed octogenarian who sat quietly observing those present only briefly speaking to her nearby granddaughter and a friend. I overheard a conversation between Vanessa and a curator who inquired as to what her mother thinks of the work. The artist explained that her mother doesn’t say much and in fact she feels as if the work has gotten bigger as if to say “Look at me!”

Well, we are looking. I am looking. In that deeply layered process, an intensive shedding is happening because the only way to let go is to, let go.

Combining marks normally categorized with the Impressionists, shattering fairy tales with the insertion of personal truth, and creating landscapes in the tradition of Japanese scrolls, Vanessa Baird is a unique artist quietly begging to be heard. She may use the symbology of shock but deep down is a woman like so many others, making a world on a two-dimensional surface so that her three-dimensional one, makes sense.

In addition to the exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus, a selection of framed watercolors were recently acquired for the permanent collection of the newly renovated Grand Hotel. One of the oldest hotels of Oslo it was once a watering hole for Edvard Munch and later, Michael Jackson. Baird’s work is in the main dining room and not without some disapproval from hotel staff. Accompanied by a nearby sculpture of a boy on a rocking horse by Elmgreen and Dragset and a version of the Scream in neon by Tracey Emin, the drawings are in good company. While they may not be everyone’s taste or choice of companion during a meal, they do offer food for thought.

Vanessa Baird, Arts Council, Installation view, To Everything There Is a Season, 2012, Photograph courtesy of the artist and OSL Contemporary, 2017

Vanessa Baird, Installation view, Drawing on paper at The Grand Hotel, Oslo, 2017, Photograph courtesy of the artist, OSL Contemporary and The Grand Hotel

Vanessa Baird, You Are Something Else, is on view at Kunstnernes Hus until January 21st, 2018.

Katy Diamond Hamer is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Eyes Towards the Dove. She contributes to several publications and can be found on Instagram @katyhamer

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Note the below comic was drawn by American artist Louis Dalrymple in 1903, negatively commenting on the wave of immigrants arriving to the United States from Italy, looked upon unfavorably.

Louis Dalrymple, The Unrestricted Dumping-Ground, 1903