The sense of place in “Ørnulf Opdahl: Mood Paintings of the North” could not be more palpable or intense. The same could also be said of this great Norwegian artist’s sense of paint.
On his canvases, the surface often has a tactile, encrusted, mineral feel that pulls you in two directions at once. The landscape inspiration is self-evident, yet the paint has a powerful presence of its own. It’s this double nature that makes Opdahl’s work so subtle and spectacular.
Nordic Heritage Museum chief curator Lizette Gradén identifies Opdahl as the leading Norwegian artist of his generation, so it’s quite a coup that NHM is hosting his first solo show in this country. It also makes “Mood Paintings,” which gathers work from the last couple of years, one of the must-see exhibits of the summer.
Opdahl, a genial, self-deprecating man, was in town last month to introduce and answer questions about the show. He was born in 1944 in Ålesund, on the west coast of Norway between Bergen and Trondheim. He knew he wanted to be a painter from an early age and attended art school in Oslo, where he spent the first 10 years of his career.
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But it was always in his mind, he says, to return to his hometown and “do something with the landscape, do something with nature.”
He moved to an island near Ålesund in 1971 and has been based there ever since. Although he travels extensively (paintings sparked by his trips to Greenland are included in the show), the fjord and mountain landscapes surrounding Ålesund are at the center of his work.
“Afterglow” — depicting Ramoen, a craggy mountain near Ålesund — is a case in point. The mountain is half in shadow, half in light. The shadowed slope is smooth, almost gauzy. But the sunlit portion looks as if you could chisel at its steep incline and break rock flakes off it.
“I’ve been told that my paintings are dark,” Opdahl notes. “But I say that it’s not darkness. It’s light. I’m painting the light. And if you should paint the light, you have to use the contrast, the darkness. Winter in west Norway is very dark. … The light is very low. And when the light is coming in the middle of the day, it’s fantastic things that happen then.”
Opdahl spends as much as a year on each painting, but doesn’t work on a single canvas at a time. Instead, he has as many as 20 paintings in progress simultaneously. That may explain the unified power of “Mood Paintings.” It feels almost as if he painted the entire exhibit in one go, with all its components in view as he worked.
The paintings are built up layer by layer, not just using oil paints but mixing sand into the surface that he gets from the ground just outside his studio: “As one critic said, I create a piece of nature, in a way, with the textures. It’s tactile. It’s like stones … like sculpture almost.”
Some paintings verge on the abstract, but always with “a feeling of nature, which is very important for me,” he says. A balance — almost an ambiguity — between landscape figuration and an abstract handling of the paint is key to his work.
There’s a human presence in it as well — bright lights of habitation along a fjord or at the base of a mountain — but he uses it simply “to give the dimension of the landscape.” In “Spring, night,” for instance, Ålesund is seen only as a ragged string of yellow lights beneath a huge hump of dark mountain rising into an indigo twilight.
Islands, escarpments, ocean squalls, snow, a beam of sunlight that shines like a green medallion on the otherwise shadowed walls of a fjord … these are the sights he returns to again and again.
“I never get tired of looking at that,” he says. “I see something new always.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org