We seem to have come full circle from modernism's original cult-of-the-new aesthetic. Contemporary artists flying a standard labeled "Archaic" don't look to invent but rather to exhume past (mainly classical) styles and content. More European than American, their work has come under fire as a rehash that dresses dead art in insipid academic mannerisms and makeup.
The genre does run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum falls firmly in the latter category. His work is sampled in nine excellent paintings at the University Art Museum at Cal State Long Beach through Sunday.
Nerdrum appropriates the past's solid, tour de force technique and no-holds-barred theatricality beloved by the Baroque and Romantic eras. He handles oil and figuration masterfully, now crisp and lucid like an Ingres in a doughy moist maiden called "Anina," now smoky and dramatic at the edges like a Rembrandt in "Transfiguration."
Everything else about Nerdrum--themes, connotations, a surreal futurism--comes from the convoluted psyche of our complex times. This quality separates Nerdrum from his less convincing colleagues.
His paintings isolate a single figure in icy Nordic expanses or in tight dark spaces that look like the bowels of a mine. Nerdrum gives nude or oddly draped figures some modern-day accoutrement, such as a rifle, to identify them as nomadic survivors of some cataclysm. In "Man With Corn Seeds," an oddly erotic youth whose pink skin seems to be illuminated from the inside, steps out of a craggy blackness to offer a handful of seeds. In "Revier," an unheroic, aged sentinel draped only in a cloth holds a staff and a state-of-the-art rifle while he sits watch over a vast wasteland of boulders. The pitch gets corny in "Return of the Sun," but on the whole this is powerful work that speaks to the unsteady balance between will and despair.