Inger Marie Hahn Møller

Introduction: Kehnet Nielsen


Kehnet Nielsen’s work is quiet, subdued, introspect and meditative but at the same time also has a forceful and expressive side to it, and always demands something of its spectator.


Kehnet Nielsen (b.1947) got his breakthrough with the now legendary exhibition Kniven på Hovedet in 1982, which was named after Kehnet Nielsen’s contribution to the show which became the outset for the 80’ties generation of artists known as ”De Unge Vilde” (The Wild 80’ties). With their resurrection of the painting they reacted against the minimalist and concept art of the 60’ties and 70’ties which had declared the death of the painting. In the earliest work of Kehnet Nielsen influences are hereby evident from the German tradition of neoclassical painting of Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorf, and Anselm Kiefer among others. Despite these early influences they do not dominate his work, rather it is made up of an eclectic mix of inspiration and influences coming from everything from music, poetry and European history of art, to the artist’s personal idols and “the great masters” which he both implicitly and explicitly borrows from, celebrates and references through his palimpsestic approach to the medium.


The gradual departure from the wild and rough painting of the 80’ties is in Kehnet Nielsen’s work influenced by life itself and its existential and emotional processes, hereby creating a personal expressionism mixed with quotes and statements from his contemporary as well as from the history of art. His work appears substantial and physical where the formal painterly process becomes an existential investigation, hereby mimicking the processes of life itself. Layer upon layer in greasy oil Kehnet Nielsen works up his “psychological landscapes” on the canvas, while all along scratching and scraping the surface exposing previous layers through the scarring technique of the spatula resembling the process of time and the uncovering of past events and memories forgotten. A particular character trait of Kehnet Nielsen is perhaps the presence of a sense of infinite space of memory in his works as well as the displacement inwards and at the same time the work’s intense physical presence through the thick oil paint and of the spatulas clear trace across the canvas. In his paintings the infinite and the physical become united.


In Kehnet Nielsen’s earliest paintings from the end of the 70’ties – before the break through of Kniven på hovedet – one is met by a figureless, almost monochrome painterly style, bordered by a gate-like frame in a darker nuance. The framed edges of the paintings, gives the spectator a feeling of peeking through a doorway into an indefinite space. Far later Kehnet Nielsen has famously proclaimed that one should be able to paint the opposite way, hereby referencing that one should almost be able to enter the painting. Kehnet Nielsen’s paintings are as a space the spectator can enter – though not in the more traditional manner of an illusionistic perspective, but rather through the layers of greasy oil paint, which hereby become a space in itself. Herein lay also likens to the poetry Kehnet Nielsen references. Namely the connotationally open space of poetry, where the subtly implied and associative, rather than the definite, dominate the poetry’s form and content. The spectator is invited into this space and is free to interpret and elaborate from each his own horizon – but at the same time it is markedly Kehnet Nielsen’s own space, which slowly, layer upon layer, has been built up and hereby incorporates the entire life and persona of the artist. Kehnet Nielsen is in the process, in the layers, in the works, and his paintings hereby become a spatial void, which does not utilize the traditional effects of depth, but never the less open themselves up toward the engagement of the spectator.


At the exhibition Lottenborg at Galleri Susanne Ottesen in 2007, Kehnet Nielsen yet again moved away from the figureless and emptied picture planes of the 1990’ties, which almost likened meditative landscapes with a certain melancholic Nordic heaviness, towards again incorporating the figure in his works. The interchangeability between the dense and heavy matter and the light and elusive figure is one of the trademarks of the work of Kehnet Nielsen. But in Lottenborg the personal reference becomes entirely explicit, as the motifs gravitate around the private confines of his home and studio. This, the personal reference, becomes even more accentuated as the male figure, transcending the entire series of works, is a portrait of the artist him self. In the work Selvportræt nat (Self-portrait Night) we see the artist in the action of preparing a new canvas, but we also see the painted surfaces have been overlayed with emptied white fields, which at closer inspection are painted over the motif as a white mist. The quote, one should be able to paint the opposite way, here becomes re-actualized, and the virginal white mist hereby perhaps forebodes an entirely new approach to the medium.


The exhibition Motives II, 2010, also at Galleri Susanne Ottesen, lays in conjunction with the works of the exhibition Lottenborg. But here the problematics concerning the painterly existential are here intensified and as such several of the paintings become meta-reflections on the nature of painting itself. The exhibition is made up of a range of studio paintings, which partly draw upon the genre’s art historical tradition, where the studio and its objects become an indirect self-portrait of the artist-subject, and partly deal with the genre of the studio painting, but in an entirely different way than traditionally, here far more complex and ambiguous. Indeed the space in the paintings contribute to this effect, as the space – in spite of the figurative elements – evade the classical spatial perspective, and become dissolved and diffuse. The various motivic planes glides in and out of eachother, meshing in a flickering and quivering chaos, and because of this, it can at times be difficult to judge whether the motifs are in a process of creation and unification or dissolution. When ones gaze have taken rest upon the motifs for a while, the tendency of spatial confusion is countered by the calm shapes and concretely recognisable objects which take form and linger in ones inner vision. The works hereby also deal with perception and spatial understanding; of our way of which to perceive a painting, which in this case is spread out over time because of the many spatial planes and the almost physical effect, the thick layers of paint and variety of painterly techniques generate, which also, and because of this, involves the onlooker’s body. The spectator’s body is caught by an instantaneous presence, whereby the classical spectation of a painting, only in relation to ones eye and intellect, becomes evaded.


Kehnet Nielsen’s Motives are comments to or reflections upon the classical studio painting genre. The paintings are paintings of paintings creating a plurality of spatial spheres: The space we see; the space in the presented canvases, which glides out into the surrounding studio space; the space we percept with our body; the space the artist inhabits, which becomes superimposed onto our space. The works hereby diverge from the classical genre’s confirmation of The Great Modern Master / the masculine artist subject, and rather become an overall reflection upon the painting and its space – a space which exists both mentally and psychologically, physically and metaphorically and which also involves the spectator.


Inger Marie Hahn Møller, MA in Art History