The Heavy Weight of Eyebrows

On a superficial level, the works of Trude Semb conforms to the definition of neo-expressionism, and is characterized by a fierce and vigorous use of effects: running paint, powerful brush strokes and a strong, almost banal colour scale, primitive shapes and a kind of self-representation in the form of animal figures or masks. There are hints of biography to be found in the paintings of Trude Semb, and they appear equally related to expressionist poetry and neo-expressionist painting.

The neo-expressionist movement culminated internationally more or less with the death of Basquiat in 1988. In Norway though, possibly as a much more interesting side line to the debate between the Nerdrum school and the Academy of Art, there was still a continued dialectic between, on the one hand, (new) conceptualism and minimalism and, on the other, neo-expressionism and photo realism/surrealism. This dialogue is still going on. Just as during the expressionism movement, several German artists can be seen in the context of this movement and its “backlog”, first and foremost Kippenberger, but several other enfants terribles are often mentioned, like Günther Förg, Werner Büttner, Dieter Göls, and Albert and Markus Oehlen. Symptomatically they are all men.

Kippenberger and Basquiat’s enormous resources of technical prowess, use of materials and staggering effects, as well as their use/misuse/mix of artistic work, autobiography and central nervous system stimulants, has served as an inspiration for later Norwegian artists, like Bjarne Melgaard and Sverre Bjertnes. In Germany, neo-expressionism was often called Neue Wilden. Some would claim that “new fauves” would be a better definition. Critics like Achille Bonito Oliva and Donald Kuspit looked on the movement as a revival of traditional European forms of self-expression after years of American dominance (American abstract expressionism). The socio-economic position of the movement was heatedly debated, and other critics, like Hal Foster and Mira Schor, were more concerned about the movement’s market adaption in the new and expanding art market in tandem with celebrity culture, anti-intellectualism, the notorious marginalization of female painters and so on. (New Spirit of Painting, London 1981, with 38 male and no female artists finds its Norwegian parallel in the exhibition of Norwegian post-war art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the nineties, where no female artists were represented – it must have been in connection with this that Bjørn Randsve was lured out on thin ice and documented.)

The use of biographical events as a direct or indirect source of inspiration for a set of motifs, death and loss, experiences with intoxication and sex, mental problems, has its roots both in early religious painting and the Passion of Christ and in the early modernists spiritualisation of their own emotional life, even in those days with a good mixture of alcohol and absinth-induced delirium and angst. Semb gives no direct references to her own life or experiences, but her works often comes across as a stylistic representation of loss, grief, angst, sacrifice. Something or someone is bringing a heavy message.These images are messengers who carry a heavy burden from the subconscious mind , but at the same time offering clarification or comfort.  The choice of Rados Dedic as a teacher is of course very important for Semb’s development as a painter. Dedic was a Norwegian-Yugoslav artist and teacher at the Academy of Art in Oslo. Born in Montenegro, he was educated at academies in Germany and Eastern Europe. He lived in Norway the last thirty years of his life. Rados Dedic first worked as an assistant of Ludvig Eikaas, later as a teacher at the Academy of Art in Oslo. Afterwards he worked as an independent artist. Rados’ career started as a painter and graphic artist, but in later years he worked mostly with sculptures in stainless steel. Semb trained with Dedic, and worked and shared a studio with him until he died in 1999.

The neo-expressionist movement and the fascination for the use of physical experiences as fuel for expression – experienced with body, expressed with body – implies an indirect distancing towards the intellectualised conceptual art of the nineties, where it may be argued that the work of art only appears as a pure work of art when the physical work has been destroyed and only the idea and the documentation remains. Semb’s works with archetypes and a system palette with black and white drawings and lots of red also points back to the last generation of painters like Frans Widerberg and Bjørn Carlsen, who did much of the same with different colours and different archetypes.

Dette, å stå åleine midt i ei verd så grenselaust rik, er som å leva livet i lag med sitt eige lik.

Semb seems to be conscious that she, as a woman and an expressionistic painter, apparently is marginalized in her own chosen field of expression, a role she opposes as a painter; larger than life portraits of men and gorillas that are not threatening but rather objectified with sensual lips and heavy lids, is an inversion of men’s use of woman as a sexual object and mother/Madonna, in Semb’s pictures they have become hunter, killer, perpetrator and father, protector, shaman, guru. The erotic elements are limited to face and lips, there is very little body in Semb’s works. There is a distance and a sense of being an outsider, which presents a disharmony towards the intuitively neo-expressionist. This disharmony or unease may possibly be the core of the whole project. The control, the reticence bear witness of a painter who regards both the extrovert artist myth and the mundane privacy of the middle classes and may feel comfort or discomfort both places. Semb refuses to take the easy route by using fashionable expressions or any notion of current taste or market, the sense of being an outsider is more of a premise.

A (re)articulation of her own sense of being an outsider is something Semb shares with many painters, and isn’t anything new. Basquiat was one of the first African-American artists who won accept in the institutionalized art world in the United States. He worked mainly with painting inspired by graffiti and so-called street art, and he became an important figure in the neo-expressionism and “heftige malerei” of the 1980’s. Semb’s work is about grasping the power of definition in a format where it can’t have been easy to mould her own space, but where it was necessary for her to establish herself. This need for expression relies just as much on the fact that the format chooses itself than the artist chooses the format. Semb uses stereotypes in the same manner as Basquiat’s trademark, his use of words in pictures, and she is strongly influenced by the way the American rock culture expresses itself. It’s natural to return to the axis from prose poem to picture.

Rochester’s question to Jane Eyre – what is your story of woe? – is both interesting and quite provoking. And of course banal, as all the most important human relationships necessarily must be. Stylized women and men with dark, heavy eyes, sensual lips and sorrowful expressions, archetypes that simultaneously express loss and comfort may be nothing more than an expression of what experiences look like, and a wish to express concretely how it, the big it actually looks like for the artist, the big it, which is the sum of a life, as expressionists always have done.

For many it might be natural to view Semb’s production as a feminist project, even if or maybe just because common human basic emotions are supported by androgynous faces and gender neutral rock expressions – maybe the best way to describe her is as the art world’s answer to Patti Smith?