Private View: Thursday 10th of February from 6:30 to 9 pm
Crowds of people and mythic creatures appear clustered on the canvas in richly patterned clothes washed in cool hues of purple and blue with warm touches of luminous orange. These are the works of Danish artist Rune Christensen whose compositions are inspired by his travels around the globe, melding different cultures, histories and narratives to create a powerful sense of vitality. Wanderlust, his first solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London, is as much a celebration of the beauty and diversity of our world as it is an expression of longing.
‘The feeling of wanderlust has haunted me my whole life,’ says Christensen. ‘I have a restless desire to move, experience and learn, and although I’ve spent many years travelling across the globe, I’ve never been able to completely satisfy that hunger.’ Whilst the artist is now, for the most part, based in Denmark, painting enables him to connect to his memories of travelling while also imagining new worlds. Part of this process involves embracing a spontaneous approach to image-making. Christensen rarely plans his compositions, and although he might refer to photographs that he’s either taken or collected, these are used more for atmospheric inspiration. ‘I paint my thoughts, things I’ve seen, read or listened to, textures and smells, interactions between people,’ he says. As a result, each of his paintings incorporates a vast array of references to different cultures, fashions and beliefs which are unified by the artist’s distinct graphical style and controlled colour palette.
Interestingly, almost all of the images are framed by a patterned border that creates an illustrative quality and adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. For example, one painting depicts a giant two-headed snake wrapped around what looks like a two-headed hyena. Both animals are baring their teeth as if poised for attack and while they are precisely rendered in the artist’s signature style, there is a huge amount of power contained within their bodies. Meanwhile, visible brushstrokes in the blue background create a sense of movement and depth - it’s as if the creatures are tumbling through the night-sky or the depths of the ocean. In this sense, the border around the edge of the canvas serves to both contain the dynamism and elevate the image to an almost spiritual status.
This approach to image-making is partly influenced by the artist’s background in graffiti, but also reflects the influence of religious artworks on Christensen’s practice. ‘I visited many churches on my travels and always found myself drawn to the classical paintings, which often lacked perspective, meaning that the images were close to the surface of the canvas, like a carpet of information,’ he says. The same could be said for some of the artist’s own paintings, especially those which depict crowds of people. While Christensen uses bold, contrasting lines to delineate the patterns of their clothes and faces, the figures appear tightly overlapping to the point of merging into one another. This creates an odd impression of translucency that lends the figures a spectral presence. The figures’ blank, unseeing gaze is often directed at the viewer while their cheeks are tinged with orange as if they are glowing from within. In these works, the artist captures the intense, disorientating experience of walking through a foreign city or market, when your senses are overwhelmed, but also a feeling of distance and loss. The pervading colour palette of cool tones - purple, green and blue - contributes to the melancholic atmosphere, but also serves to create a kind of liminal space - somewhere between night and day, past and present - that resonates with the notion of wanderlust and restlessness.
Also included in the exhibition are two smaller scale paintings of vases filled with colourful, blooming flowers. These works directly reference the tradition of still life painting, with the fallen single petal in each painting serving as a poetic memento mori - a reminder of the fragility of life. Although these paintings stand-apart from the more dynamic, crowded compositions, vases or pots are, in fact, a recurring motif in Christensen’s work, reflecting on history and his own approach to art-making. ‘Humans first created pots as a way of storing food and water, enabling us to move away from hunting and gathering,’ he says. ‘In a similar way, painting acts as a vessel for my experiences and a release.’ In this sense,Christensen’s paintings are not simply works of nostalgia or romanticism, they are expressions of a freedom found in creativity.