“I’m fascinated by the intimate face, which doesn’t express anything other than presence.”
Peter Ravn, 2010
by Merete Sanderhoff
Men are discreetly surveyed in Peter Ravn’s paintings. By the fly on the wall or clandestinely, without disturbing them or bringing them back to the orchestrated self-perception of reality. The subjects exist in their private rooms, self-absorbed and oblivious to the fact that they are being watched.
The prototype of the modern man, is the core motif in Ravn’s paintings. These men are pictured in situations where they let go of themselves and of control. They exist in an intimate and private room where nobody needs to act normal, being required only to be present in the now. They are uniform in the modern sense, dressed in what appears to be timeless suits and white shirts suggesting something very orderly and controlled, which has then lost it momentarily. To capture these pictures of the modern man’s elegies has been a lead motif for Ravn, since his relatively late debut as a painter in 2000. The modern man reveals himself occasionally, when seemingly unnoticed, in spite of the uniform and discipline. That’s where Ravn strikes. His gaze penetrates the modern man’s public facade and reaches into the private space, hiding behind the immaculate surface of the suit and testifies that the perceived order is just a delusion. That in reality there are people underneath with feelings, instincts, anxiety and aggression, traits which are normally suppressed by mutual consensus. He has a clandestine knowledge of what goes on under the surface and is capable of uncovering it. This exposure of the suffering behind the strict modernity is one of Ravn’s hallmarks.
Peter Ravn masters the canvas and controls colouring and composition with considerable gusto, which brings to mind a calligrapher’s hard-earned skill of writing beautifully or a pianist’s talent for adding that extra something that doesn’t read in the score.”. That extra which transcends skill, but is of determining importance. The beauty, the obvious beauty that exists intrinsically in the demands of the craftmanship, comes to life as a consequence of this adapted skill. His ability to see, when the picture that should be is, gives his work such a striking precision. He paints with the confidence of a sleepwalker, leaving a distinct mark of willful control over the motif, as exemplified in works like Manual (2008), Kneeman (2009) and He had Stolen his Life (2009). Ravn’s observations are interesting and challenging because they leave you with an enigma: Who orchestrated this scenario, what disrupted the order and what will happen next?
Ravn’s canvases conjure up such moments, which may be founded on a specific experience or perception or in fascination of a photograph’s immortalisation of a fraction of life. Several of his motifs thus reflect a fascination with the aesthetic estrangement that can be found in a glance back through time.
In his newest paintings, Ravn has started cultivating the theme of fragmentation. The new scenarios are reminiscent of something in transit, something threatened by disintegration from the inside that implies the meaninglessness and absurdity of modern life.
The motifs are connected as series, for instance with the title Elevation. In this series it seems that’s exactly what’s happened to these men, who have lost touch with the ground and are suspended in a metaphysical vacuum, detached from the laws of physics and normality. Here, Ravn has moved wholly behind the facade, into his subjects’ mental space where he, with great empathy and precision, shows what it looks like when you dissolve as a result of inner or outer pressure: The outer world’s expectations of efficiency and discipline, each person’s expectations of themselves, but also the warmth and humanity, which pushes through as an irresistible inner pressure in spite of all outer guards. Sometimes The Man is split into several personae who interact; screaming into each others’ faces, crawling perplexedly in opposite directions or tenderly hugging each other; while their otherwise ashen bodies and faces show flashes of emotion here and there.
From Ravn’s point of view despair and modernity seem to go hand in hand. The forum for aesthetics that is Ravn’s paintings and his ability to see the disconnection of the modern man go together to share with us a beautiful nightmare and have been turned into something so familiar that you, as the spectator, are caught in the frame of apparent normality. Here you recognise something without necessarily recognising what part you yourself play in it.
I see Ravn as related to several of the artists whom I in 2007 described as an existential counter current in contemporary art in my book Black Pictures. A group of painters working in opposition to the type of contemporary art that is based on and dependent on theory to make sense. It seems quite straightforward to compare Ravn with Peter Martensen, as they both portray anonymous, cloned men in modern uniforms. And when discussing brushwork and equilibristic craftsmanship one quite naturally thinks of Michael Kvium. Ravn thus carries on a tradition of sensuous and narrative painting, which throughout the 20th century has been upheld by painters like Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Gerhard Richter in spite of theory based opposition.
Peter Ravn graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1980. Before his debut as an artist he worked many years with design and visual identity, mostly in the music business. Through the 80s and 90s he was behind the graphic identity of bands and musicians such as Gangway, Randi Laubæk and Dizzy Miss Lizzy. In the same period he wrote and directed a number of music videos. But Ravn found that, during the 90s, the music business lost some of its innocence and playful creativity and he turned to painting, which he perceives as the last free bastion of creativity.
Merete Sanderhoff holds a Masters degree in Art History and works as a project researcher at the National Gallery of Denmark. She is the author of the book “Black Pictures – Art and Canon”, which was published in 2007 by Forlaget Politisk Revy.
Translation: Néné La Beet