Private View: Thursday 9th March 2023, 6:30 - 9pm
London (London Bridge)
Two men in white briefs stand on opposite sides of a paddling pool amid a verdant garden filled with dark green, leafy plants and slender palm trees. All around them are objects associated with leisure activities – a surfboard, basketball, bicycle, a deck chair. But the mood is subdued, the figures’ expressions vague and detached. This tension, between lush landscapes and vacant figures, motion and stillness, is characteristic of Audun Alvestad’s latest series of paintings which continue his explorations into the concept of leisure. As if you had a choice in the matter, the artist’s fifth solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, marks a shift in focus away from crowded waterpark and rollercoasters to quiet domestic settings – private gardens and backyards – that are both more secluded and subdued. Within these paradisal settings, Alvestad considers the ways in which we attempt to fit in while also finding a sense of comfort and stability in an otherwise turbulent world.
The exhibition borrows its title from a quote by the late painter Philip Guston in which he talks about style and the artistic process. For Alvestad, as it was for Guston, painting is an intuitive act – a way of simultaneously escaping reality and connecting with it, just as his characters, in creating their own private dream destinations, seek seclusion from and a place within society. Though the settings of the paintings change – from tropical gardens to swimming pools with slides and colourful inflatables –, there is an uncanny similarity between each scene that highlights their unoriginality. The colour palette is constrained to the same muted tones, the characters are barely distinguishable and even nature has been cultivated to behave in a certain way. But this is the point: they are an idea of a place, a collective memory that feels familiar and safe, but also vague and unreachable.
In many ways, what Alvestad’s paintings capture is a kind of cognitive dissonance – a conflict between what we think we desire and the reality of that experience. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in a large-scale diptych painting, depicting a brutalist staircase that juts out into the skyline over the ocean. There is a queue of people in white bathing suits waiting to jump, but instead of looking excited at the prospect, the two figures in the foreground of the painting appear melancholy, their eyes downcast. This tragic-comic scene is relatable on the level that we have all experienced the anxiety of peer pressure, but it also reflects more widely on the problematic nature of aspirational culture. Destinations like these are designed for fun, but in our desperation to fit in with the crowd, to capture the same image that we have seen on our social media feeds, we forget to actually experience the place or the activity.
However, the paintings are less preoccupied with critiquing the desire to belong and more with the appeal of this kind of imagery and how that might reflect a wider lack in society or a sense of longing. Indeed, there is a tenderness to Alvestad’s scenes – in the awkwardness of his characters as they fail to express themselves and connect with one another. In one painting, a man gazes shyly out at the viewer from behind a pink inflatable flamingo while in another he’s floating in a swimming pool atop a white unicorn, his legs kicked up in the air and his head turned towards the social gathering that he’s not quite a part of.
In this way, the paintings become less about aspiration or exclusivity and more about our need to connect, to feel part of something. These luscious pockets of paradise may all look the same, but in a world filled with uncertainty, they come to represent a vital place of stability and rest.