The Ribbons That Tie Us, an exhibition of Danish painter Per Adolfsen’s figurative works and portraiture from 2014 to the present, showcases the artist’s sensitive rendering of his subjects’ inner lives. A marked break with his previous emotionally charged acrylic paintings that merged representation, abstraction, and text (exhibited at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel in 2010), the contemplative oil paintings in The Ribbons That Tie Us demonstrate the artist’s evolving and deepening commitment to breaking past stereotype and false exteriors in order to truly know other people. The neutral palette and minimal backgrounds in many of his paintings allow the viewer to be fully present with the people foregrounded in them who are punctuated by moments of brilliant color—a lavender head scarf, crystalline blue eyes.
In 2014 Adolfsen painted a series exploring clichéd images of femininity. The most sophisticated works in this series occupy an ambivalent territory: on the one hand they investigate the flattening effects of stereotypes, which he imports from both the weighty tradition of Western figurative painting and contemporary advertising; but on the other hand, they begin to dismantle stereotypical roles and gazes by revealing an emerging agency in their female subjects. In a pose that could have been appropriated from a cosmetics or facial cleanser advertisement, the poised figure in profile in Spanish Woman looms monumental. The side of her face, cast in cool maroon shadow, deflects the viewer’s gaze forcing it to ricochet among the patterns of painted parallel streaks composing her face and the background. Lubricious painterly lines fluidly slide along the figure in Berlin Woman who stares at the viewer with an intensity that recalls the paintings of Die Brücke. Her nakedness and closed body language suggest vulnerability and guardedness; her clenched fist indicates a latent ferocity. The pose is one that could have been taken from any number of titillating, sexy advertisements, but the figure’s psychological intensity—reinforced by the fiery orange shadows around the eyes—and the androgynous queering of gender defy prepackaged commercial messaging.
In his Transparent series, Adolfsen abandons the superficial cliché as a starting point and instead looks deeply to reveal the multifaceted psyche of his sitter, a fellow artist friend. Transparent II is bathed in an invigorating pale blue haze that permeates the woman’s skin and clothing. The border between her body and the background blurs at times. Is she in a state of dissipation or becoming? Regardless, she stands unperturbed: shoulders square with the viewer, lips cocked in a confident smirk. Not the mere object of a consuming gaze, the woman in Transparent II asserts her own agency by looking back at the viewer. Transparent III shows the same woman slightly larger than life. Once again meeting the viewer’s gaze with blue-green eyes—whose lids are described in sharp orange lines with the geometric structure of Cézanne’s graphite portraits—she appears relaxed, yet strong.
Transparent I reveals a different facet of Adolfsen’s artist friend, and by doing so gives the viewer a fuller picture of her. A powerful warm light threatens to overwhelm the figure—her skin and yellow camisole almost lost in the blinding glow of the background—yet her eyes securely anchor her in space and bind her to the viewer even while a series of quick, repetitive diagonal strokes describing her hair bely an inner anxiety.
Adolfsen’s series of portraits of his Danish-Muslim friend Hibba are the apogee of his journey into empathic, deep looking. In Hibba I we see the bold contour of Hibba’s dignified profile against a background of alabastrine white whose light infuses the composition with warm energy. Brushmarks delicately sitting on the surface of the canvas attentively describe Hibba’s eyes, eyebrows, lips; her self-assured expression and her gaze are simultaneously introspective and assertive. As in all four portraits of Hibba, cascading lines follow the folds of her lavender hijab, which Adolfsen renders beautiful without exoticizing.
In the Hibba series, as in the Transparent series, Adolfsen’s multiple portraits work in concert to reveal a fully dimensional personality. In Hibba II and Hibba III, Hibba looks out at the viewer with disarming humor. She seems to say, “I caught you looking at me. Well, I can look back at you, too!” In Hibba IV she retracts her gaze, and playfully rolls her eyes. Rather than rendering her the passive object of the artist’s gaze, Adolfsen has opened a space where Hibba asserts her own agency.
In contemporary North America and Europe countless phobic and stereotypical images portray Muslim women as either cold and threatening or as helpless and oppressed. (In canonical Western painting Muslim women have been largely invisible, save for their exoticization in nineteenth-century “Orientalist” works.) At other times today, the Muslim woman becomes a political icon, as in Shepard Fairey’s We the People posters (2017), one of which features Queens resident Munira Ahmed wearing a United States flag as hijab. Adolfsen’s Hibba overcomes both extremes: stereotype and icon. By looking and looking again, he is able to truly see Hibba and know who she is outside of any political rhetoric, which in the present climate is paradoxically an implicit political act.
The Ribbons That Tie Us (2016)
The exhibition’s title The Ribbons That Tie Us refers to a homonymous series of still lifes included in the show, in which painted bands of ribbon glide back and forth across the surface of the canvas like dancers entering and exiting a stage. In one, orange ribbons occasionally twist and turn abruptly, like leaps and pauses in the choreography. The warmth of this painting’s color and the energy of its movement echoes the vitality of the portraits in the Transparent and Hibba series. In this way the ribbon paintings and their title serve as a metaphor for the relational character of the figurative work throughout the exhibition. In the journey from clichéd images to intimate renderings of friends, Adolfsen uncovers the colorful psychical, emotional, and empathic bonds that tie the artist to his subjects and, in turn, the viewer to the artwork.