JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller back room. All of the works are c-prints, made between 2012 and 2015. Physical sizes range from roughly 23×18 to 56×44 (or reverse), and all of the images are available in editions of 3. A new monograph, Sasquatch Century, has recently been published by Mousse Publishing (here), in conjunction with an exhibit at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Olso (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Torbjørn Rødland’s photographs often leave me puzzled and uncertain, which is likely evidence that his pictures are consistently succeeding. Perched on the edge of the obvious and the cliché, they consistently tumble over some invisible boundary, confounding my expectations, playing on my ingrained routines of looking, and generally testing the limits of my uneasiness. Each one in infused with an undercurrent of transgression that feels like flirtation, a sensory dance that is simultaneously frustrating and enticing. Images that seemed ordinary on first glance suddenly have a charge of something odd or unexpected when looked at more closely, and that visceral sense of being wrong footed is an attention sharpener.
Rødland’s newest show is organized around the theme of bodies, and its title Corpus Dubium is well matched to the off kilter doubt that quietly destabilizes each of the photographs on view. In one image, a young girl looks upward, her head held in the hands of a suited man – the pose of communion for some, but still weirdly obedient and vulnerable, like he’s about to pull her tooth or break her neck. In another, an image of hands holding a camera initially has an advertising feel, that is until we realize that the hands are intensely deformed, like blunt all-thumbs stumps. In a third, a muscular bicep worthy of a classical statue is covered with bulging veins, like writhing worm trails under the skin.
When Rødland uses young women as his models, his photographs become sexualized in ways that hover between normalcy and fetishized eroticism, each one using visual codes and associations in ways that keep us off balance. A mundane selfie of a nude woman with one leg upon a desk is transformed by a blasting white light from behind, which happens to be placed exactly in her crotch. A thin waisted nude woman poses in jeans a dozen sizes too big, an echo of before/after weight loss ads but with the addition of a single white glove which adds a touch of some other perversity. And a picture of a fire engine red pump hooked into the front of a man’s pants might have a normal come hither effect, except that the sickly green tint of the woman’s foot (in hose) makes it look like that of a corpse.
The few still lifes in this show tread into similar convolutions. What are we to make a collection of bent forks and spoons covered in wispy strands of hair, and what menacing imagined narrative might we derive from such a construction? His images of stray pills and an opened weekly pill box are freighted with a similar darkness, alternately lit with bending shadows and flashlight directness that upends their connection to mundane commercial imagery.
Rødland’s approach is built on an assumption of pervasive media/cultural awareness – given our image oversaturated lives, we are increasingly adept at reading all kinds of embedded visual signs and cues, from the promotional to the pornographic. His conceptual framework appropriates these motifs and styles and then consciously undermines them from the inside, often using them in contradictory ways, in effect turning our own processing rules against themselves. This is what creates the seductive, subversive dissonance found in his pictures.
While a number of contemporary photographers have explored this kind of stylistic appropriation, often with a rigorous and dulling deadpan, Rødland has found away to embrace the meta conceptual twist without stifling its bite. He’s manipulating us and we know that we’re being manipulated, and that tete-a-tete leaves us aware of (and just a bit uncomfortable with) how well he’s been able to control our reactions. He’s pushing all the right (or deliberately wrong) buttons, creating a frisson that feels original.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $7500, $8500, and $15000 based on size. While Rødland’s prints have begun to make appearances in the secondary market, there have not been enough outcomes to chart much of a price history. As such, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.