Icelandic artist’s cartoonish, if not ghoulish, portraits offer stark humour and truth

  • Arts
  • Tuesday, 10 Sep 2019

A close-up detail of Oskar's painting called 'Pippi' (oil on linen, 2019). Photo: RK Fine Art

In Icelandic artist Georg Oskar’s own words, it was like getting a knife twisted in his heart. No doubt, many others enjoyed his paintings of a tropical paradise with its eternal sunny days and palm trees swaying in the breeze.

But a university professor described the works as boring.

That was enough to yank Oskar out of his tropical dream and back to reality.

“I was living in Bergen in Norway, and stumbled upon a book by a Norwegian explorer that was filled with all these amazing photos from his travels. That was what sparked my interest in making some studies on painting tropical scenes. My reality is a different world, it is gloomy and dark, and I thought I would very much like to stay in this imaginary world while it rains outside my studio,” says Oskar during an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

But these paintings did not impress the said professor.

And Oskar felt very small.

Still, he took it on the chin, and went on to explore other aspects of his practice that he felt were more honest, more him.

Today, the 34-year-old looks back at it as a turning point, of sorts, and is grateful for that critical comment because it spurred him to find himself.

A visitor looks at Oskar's I Had A Good Home But I Left (oil on linen, 2019) at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

“That was a great lesson for me and it taught me the importance of staying true to yourself. To do art my way instead of copying someone or creating something that appeals to people. Of course, I would be lying if I say that I only want criticism, but one has to also be able to appreciate when it is not only flowers and sunshine all the time,” he says.

Untitled Everything at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur, comprising 15 paintings and three box sets, is Oskar’s first solo exhibition in Asia.

Earlier this year, he had a solo show in England (I Felt Bad But I Feel Little Bit Better Now) and was one part of a duo show in Beijing (Index ½).

With the exception of I Missed You So Much, which remains one of his favourites, the works featured in this exhibition were all done this year.

Oskar moved from Iceland to Berlin early last year, and invariably, he feeds off the city, its energy and his experiences, while creating art in his studio.

Oskar says his art is a world filled with extremes, an exploration of the unseen space between light and dark, and the written and spoken word. His solo exhibition Untitled Everything in KL is his first in Asia. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

“Berlin is open but broken, you witness colourful life and harsh reality at the same time. It gives the individual more space to be themselves, but people get obsessed with it and it destroys them. I believe that some things exist in the human condition and will never change: emotions, fear, love, unspeakable feelings ... we all enjoy and suffer from it. This has always been my main subject in my paintings,” he says.

Having lived and worked in Iceland, Norway and Germany, Oskar muses that the different geographical experiences add another layer to his story.

“I witness other stories from people I met briefly, or from a split second in the underground or on the streets. The moments vary and are influenced by the location. I tend to hunt down these moments, it is important for my personal growth and it gives depth to my practice,” he elaborates.

Oskar's Sunday, Monday And Tuesday series (oil on linen, 2019). Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

With his art, he describes it as treading a fine line between the familiar and the unknown. It is a balancing act that puts him in that sweet spot – when the art is done right.

He finds it fascinating to mix the good with the bad, to mix the humorous with the sombre.

“When these extreme elements come together, you end up with distortion, and in it, you find a very beautiful little picture that you recognise, but you aren’t quite sure where from. It leaves you with a feeling that you once knew it, but you have forgotten. This is really interesting to me and it is fulfilling to explore this mystery, precisely because it is a never-ending story,” he explains.

I Missed You So Much (oil on linen, 2018).

To Oskar, his paintings are full of corrections which come together and simulates a world where the space between two extremes becomes clear.

“The only thing I can do is to stop at the right time,” he says.

As for the professor who wasn’t moved by Oskar’s tropical studies, he returned to his studio a few weeks later and saw the new works that Oskar did.

“We talked about what I was doing and I felt like I was back on track.

Then we went to a bar and he introduced me to his colleagues and said, ‘This is Oskar and he has started painting again’. That was validation right there,” he shares.

This incident happened several years ago.

Today, we see that his newest body of work at Untitled Everything is a little melancholic, a little worn around the edges, yet steady on its feet and genuine.

It is a mark of an artist who is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. To the viewer, you can’t help but want to embrace it all, and take the good with the bad and the sad. It is all coming together as nicely as can be.

Untitled Everything is on at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229, Jalan Maarof, Bangsar in KL till Sept 14. Open (Tuesday to Saturday): 10am to 7pm. More info:

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