Fredrik Værslev at Johan Berggren Gallery

Matthew Rana

February 5, 2012
Johan Berggren Gallery, Malmö
January 27–March 3, 2012

Fredrik Værslev’s exhibition seems to suggest that paintings are trivial; that they are—to turn a phrase—”for the birds.” Indeed, the five untitled paintings that make up the bulk of the show are rather innocuously referred to in the press release as “bird paintings,” an allusion to the manner in which they were made. Although they obliquely refer to the art-historical canon and such painterly concerns as surface, color and composition, the wooden, pallet-like paintings that occupy the gallery’s main showroom aren’t painted and bear few traces of the artist’s hand. Instead, their lacquered surfaces have been inscribed by the force of non-human actors: subtle depressions made by bird beaks and stains from ripe hawthorn berries.

Initially produced for another series, the pine and larch structures were set outside Værslev’s studio before he left Norway on a trip. When the artist returned, he discovered that the planks had been used by birds, eating the hawthorn berries that had fallen on them. Fortuitously, Værslev decided to exhibit the wood as he found it—or, at least, with minimal alterations (such as attaching the steel supports on which they are mounted). As benign as the narrative seems, the paintings themselves are much less approachable, demonstrating a marked neutrality with regard to their reception and a near indifference to scrutiny.

Perhaps this is what gallerist Berggren refers to when he describes the “fetishistic moment” operative in Værslev’s work. As Diedrich Diederichsen notes in On (Surplus) Value in Art, art objects no longer establish their value through more traditional auratic qualities such as originality of expression, or the visible presence of the artist’s hand. Instead, their value is increasingly determined by the quasi-fetishistic character of a “metaphysical index” bearing traces of the individual artist’s virtuosity as an intellectual laborer: their attitudes toward fashion, their tastes, or the attractiveness of their milieu. In fact, value actually tends to increase the less the artist actually touches their work. Art objects themselves are necessary only insofar as they function as signs for the production that surrounds them, or what Diederichsen calls their “value creation environments.” 1 Although it is perhaps risky to apply this kind of economic reductionism to paintings that so actively resist consummation, one is left with the distinct impression that Væerslev is working with precisely these environments. However, rather than representing a “crisis” of value or demonstrating it as a source of anxiety in the work, the artist instead capitalizes on the situation as one whose energies can be harnessed and toyed with.

This is clear in the second half of the exhibition, housed in the gallery’s storefront space. Here, four collaborative paintings made with artist friend Nicolas Ceccaldi—also represented by Berggren—are on view. Part of the ongoing “shelf painting” series in which Værslev offers his work to various collaborators who can do with them as they please, the paintings displayed here are spraypainted white with black Chinese characters; atop the narrow shelves attached to their bases, antique dolls have been placed. With titles such as Dual Identity and Comptoir I, these works refer not just to problematics of co-authorship, but suggest the dual identity of the paintings themselves, caught up in a rarefied pageantry of empty signifiers and kitsch. In any case, Ceccaldi evacuates the signs in the paintings, whose values eventually give way and are “frittered into ‘show.’” 2

Nowhere is this strategy more strongly mirrored than in the exhibition’s press release written by Norwegian cultural critic and hardcore music performer, Peter J. Amdam. Through a series of “prolegomenous” statements, Amdam situates the work within a range of meanings so broad that it threatens any meaning whatsoever. The bird paintings are characterized alternately as “crude photo ‘prints’,” immanent becoming-paintings, and pure traces of life. Indeed, variations on the word pure appear no less than four times, while references are made to practices such as de-fleshing, de-incarnating and dis-architecture. In an ironic twist, significant space is given to a discussion of the show’s rejected title, “I like my women like I like my wine, red and full of alcohol.” While self-consciously edgy—the press release basically calls out Værslev’s other galleries as too conservative—it also leads to the conclusion that the berry stains may as well have been made by spilled Château Margaux.

If there is something to be gleaned in this tongue-in-cheek deployment of art-theoretical clichés, it may be “the artist’s excessive withdrawal as well as his extreme proximity.” Indeed, Værslev is highly conspicuous in his absence… and in the metaphysical index, off the charts.


Diedrich Diederichsen, On (Surplus) Value in Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008) p.49.


Jean Baudrillard, Passwords (London: Verso, 2003) p.11.

Painting, Economy
Animals, Collaboration

Matthew Rana is an artist and writer currently based in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he is a lecturer in Fine Art at Valand Academy.

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February 5, 2012

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