This story appears in the current issue No. 9 of Document, available online and at select newstands worldwide. Melgaard's first monograph "Bjarne Melgaard" is edited by Document Editor-in-Chief Nick Vogelson and was published by Skira Rizzoli. To mark the occasion, Rizzoli celebrates the release with a special artist talk and book signing tonight, November 14, 2016, at its New York location at 1133 Broadway.
The most famous Norwegian artist since Edvard Munch, Australian-born, New York-based Bjarne Melgaard tackles thought-provoking subjects that are deeply personal to him, like AIDS, drug addiction, and gay sex. Although Melgaard started his career as a painter in the 90s after studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, the artist soon moved on to a variety of mediums, creating intricate immersive installations that involve sculpture, video, and sound.
On his canvases, phalli emerge from the mouth of an anonymous beast, point at his self-portrait, and turn into the bodies of cartoonish creatures. His sculptures are just as layered and complex: the Pink Panther smokes crystal meth, a hand comes out of a vagina, “Planet of the Apes” figures engage in sexual acts, and monsters are covered with colorful hair (made in collaboration with hair stylist Bob Recine). Melgaard often makes connections with the controversial; his first installation involved the late porn star Joey Stefano, and he hired a group of artists with schizophrenia to collaborate on paintings for a year. In 2014, his “Chair” sculpture, a flat base that sits on the thighs of a black woman tied up in a sexually charged pose, which references Allen Jones’s 1969 work, stirred controversy for being racist after Garage Museum of Contemporary Art founder Dasha Zhukova was photographed sitting on it.
Glenn O’Brien—a writer entrenched in New York’s art, fashion, and music scenes since the 70s, who coined the term “editor-at-large” when he held the position at “High Times” after serving as the first editor of Andy Warhol’s “Interview” magazine—first came across Melgaard’s divisive work at New York gallery Venus Over Manhattan in 2013. The following conversation between Melgaard and O’Brien is an excerpt from “Bjarne Melgaard,” (Skira Rizzoli) the first comprehensive monograph on the artist’s oeuvre, which debuts this fall.
Glenn O’Brien—I think the first time I ever encountered your work I was completely taken with it and confused at the same time. I saw the show you did that was half you—under the pseudonym BFBC Inc.—and half William Copley, or CPLY. It took me a while to figure it out because your pictures looked so much like his except for a certain thematic variation related to your pseudonym “Big Fat Black Cock Inc.” How did you know about his work?
Bjarne Melgaard—I knew about him from years ago. I had followed his work for many years and he certainly had a renaissance where people were rediscovering him.
Glenn—He was an amazing character—collector, dealer, artist. His son Billy used to hang around the Warhol factory around the time of his famous “X-Rated” show at the New York Cultural Center. He’s one of the major figures of the secret history of art.
Bjarne—Those BFBC paintings were originally made for a show I curated at the Maccarone gallery called “Frogs on the High Line.” We formed the art collective Big Fat Black Cock to make copies of CPLY paintings with black people in them to talk about the segregation and racial tension that was going on at the time that he was making his paintings.
Glenn—Oh, I remember the neighbors around the gallery called the police because there were black people having sex in the window.
Bjarne—Yes, that was it. They were beautiful paintings.
Glenn—It is provocative these days for a gallery to show something beautiful in the window. Did you have any objections from black people?
Bjarne—No, they were partly made by black people.
Glenn—You did a book based on Karel Appel and were influenced by COBRA. Was that your first influence in terms of the relationship between art and insanity, or is it something you’d been contemplating for a while?
Bjarne—That’s something I considered for many years.
Glenn—Were you a fan of Artaud?
Bjarne—I was a fan of Artaud and Jean Dubuffet and all those people. I have long been interested in the relationship between the so-called abnormal mind and creativity.
Glenn—What about in your life? Have you had relationships with people considered mentally ill?
Bjarne—I had a group of schizophrenics that I worked with in my studio for almost one year, collaborating on my paintings. I have also curated shows with them. I’ve had close contact with some of them for a very long time.
Glenn—Your work deals with the dichotomy of sanity and insanity but also with good and evil. Traditionally they were very interrelated. Mentally ill people were thought to be possessed by the devil or evil spirits. Do you think that attitude still prevails?
Bjarne—I definitely think that. But it depends on what types of mental illness you’re talking about. The more classical schizophrenia isn’t looked upon as something that is liberating or that could be liberating, or something that could lead us into new dimensions of how to reform our society. For most people there’s a stigma there.
Glenn—I think somehow the issue of mental illness connects with the change in the way morality is looked upon. For centuries, morality extended to economics and business practice, but it seems that a coalition of religious people has managed to restrict the notion of morality almost entirely to sexual behavior.
Bjarne—Well, our culture is so overloaded with sexual themes and sexual content that it’s hard to avoid. It’s everywhere. Sex has become our God in a way. This is the most sexualized society ever. There’s nothing that’s not available anymore. I think it’s a political trap. I think by getting people to focus that much on sexuality, it takes away their focus on the much more important ways that our society needs to be reformed, and what needs further research.
“Our culture is so overloaded with sexual themes and sexual content that it’s hard to avoid. It’s everywhere. Sex has become our God in a way.”
Glenn—When did you take up art?
Bjarne—Well, now I’m 49. I started going to art school when I was 12- and then I took evening classes. When I was 19 I moved to Poland to study the neo-plasticism movement and was awarded a scholarship, and then went to the Rijksakademie in the Netherlands. After that I moved to Australia.
Glenn—Why did you move to Australia?
Bjarne—I was born there from Norwegian parents and went back again in my late 20s.
Glenn—You also were involved with black metal music. I’m still not sure what that is. I know it’s a big Scandinavian thing related to heavy metal. Very dark, distorted, maybe Satanic. Were you a fan? How did black metal stuff relate to your sensibility?
Bjarne—Well, when I grew up with black metal in Norway I wasn’t interested in it at all. So that came later on when I moved away from Norway. That was when I began to get more and more interested in that phenomenon and involving myself. I worked with all the bands, like Mayhem and Satyricon, Emperor and Darkthrone. I was also in this film “Until the Light Takes Us.” I was basically interested in trying to find something that would have a similar emotional impact to [Edvard] Munch. I think that black metal is very similar to that emotional outburst of darkness that is in Munch. To me, it was the only thing that I saw that had the emotional intensity of “The Scream.”
Bjarne—Yeah, I was seeing black metal as kind of a contemporary version of “The Scream,” or something in the sense of utter decay and darkness and murder.
Glenn—I think when we look at “The Scream” today we don’t experience it in the same way.
Bjarne—Yes, but I think at one time it had that kind of intensity.
Glenn—Is that a purely Scandinavian thing?
Bjarne—Black metal is a Norwegian phenomenon. From Sweden you have death metal. But black metal came from Norway.
Glenn—What’s the difference?
Bjarne—The difference I think was that black metal involved a lot more church-burning and crime, and was way more radical and violent than the other music movements. That’s the main difference.
Glenn—Is it urban? Is it rural? Where do the kids come from?
Bjarne—They come from lower-middle class, working-class backgrounds. I think it’s typical working-class-background kids.
Glenn—What did you do with these bands?
Bjarne—I had a record company that I made records with. I did shows, I showed photos, I did documentation, I did performances—all kinds of things.
Glenn—How did they relate to you?
Bjarne—I’m not sure what they thought of me. I was an outsider, not a rock ‘n’ roll person. I didn’t go to any concerts. I didn’t have long, black hair or eye makeup. I came from a totally different background. I guess they related to me in that they thought it was interesting to work with an artist. Maybe they found it a bit weird and maybe they were a bit puzzled by it...Maybe because I had so much knowledge of the music, they found a certain respect in that.
Glenn—I find heavy metal interesting in that it seems to express things that the audience might not be entirely aware of. I had this idea when I heard the German metal band Accept—they did the song “Balls to the Wall.” The album cover had a guy in black leather short shorts. They were really into leather. I think they were a forerunner of speed metal and thrash metal. It seemed to me there was a connection, maybe unconscious, maybe not...
Bjarne—It’s very male-dominated; there are no women on the scene.
Glenn—Even in regular American heavy metal it’s the same; you never see women at those things. Do you think they were cognizant of that? Or do they just not think about it?
Bjarne—I don’t think they think about it.
Glenn—There aren’t many visual artists who have produced as much writing as you. Did art or writing come first, or did they develop at the same time?
Bjarne—At the same time. I just always have been writing and I see it in the same light as drawing. The signature, writing on a piece of paper—it just came very naturally to me. I was always very interested in literature and I read a lot.
Glenn—Who are your favorite writers?
Bjarne—I think my favorite book is Guillaume Dustan’s “In My Room,” and I also like all the people published by Semiotext(e) like Kathy Acker.
Glenn—I knew Kathy very well. I edited one of her books.
Bjarne—How was she?
Glenn—She was a really interesting character; she was almost like a fan. She thought of herself as an outsider and it seemed like she was always falling in love and seeking acceptance, almost in a masochistic way. I thought she just had a great voice as a writer. For me editing her was frustrating because the first half of the book was one of the greatest things—so immediate, intense, and personal. I think it was the best thing she ever did. But then I felt like she kind of just lost interest or something halfway through. I think that she exemplified the problem that fiction writers have now. Maybe it has to do with attention span. Kids today...Even on the internet they want to watch something that’s like three minutes.
Bjarne—Their attention span is so short.
Glenn—Yet novels seem to get longer and longer, 400 to 600 pages. It seems like it’s almost a different species of people that read novels.
Glenn—Do you think that affects art? Do you think the attention span has altered in terms of the visual arts?
Bjarne—Yes, I think so. I think so especially among the young generation; they have become so [engrossed] in consuming image after image after image so fast. In the end I don’t think they really can recollect any images afterwards—it doesn’t stay in their heads. It’s this endless consuming of images and information; they’re kind of over-informed about everything and it gives you the feeling that they’ve lost their own language. You know?
Glenn—That also seems related to the whole idea of craft. We used to spend months or a year making a painting and now things happen really fast. I don’t know if fast work can contain the same power or emotion of something that has a broader timeframe. Whistler has this lawsuit with a famous critic who he was suing for defamation because he’d made the painting in one day and that was considered scandalous. But that was kind of the beginning of abstract painting also. Has your way of working evolved over the years?
Bjarne—Yes. I started out as a painter and drawer and then I developed into doing more installations and films. I’ve done different things over the years. I take the time that I need. But I think this changes with age. I feel like I have less patience now. Also, it doesn’t come as easily to me as it used to. I don’t know if it’s about getting older and about time, but before I could just draw for hours and hours and it would just come out of me. Now it feels like something that comes much harder. Maybe also because of the time we live in where everything is so fast, you have to be influenced by that.
“I was an outsider, not a rock ‘n’ roll person. I didn’t go to any concerts. I didn’t have long, black hair or eye makeup.”
Glenn—Were there installation artists that inspired you? In a way some of your things remind me of Kienholz. Maybe it’s the real intensity and diversity of content. What were your first installation pieces?
Bjarne—My first installation pieces were wax figures that I made in England about a dead porn star called Joey Stefano who I kind of dedicated a church to. I made over two thousand pieces about him that I exhibited in the museum in Ghent. That was the first major installation I worked on. It was really dense and packed with work.
Glenn—Did he have a tragic death?
Bjarne—He committed suicide.
Glenn—It was made like a church? You did your own Ghent altar piece?
Bjarne—It was structured like a church. That was my main first installation that I got recognition for. I like to create a complete environment and I like to push the limits to have a world of my own. I’ve attempted to do a lot of things. I don’t know if it’s about what I have done, but about what I’ve tried to do. It’s not always that easy to do whatever you want. You always have the aspect of where the money is supposed to come from and how to survive on it.
Glenn—That’s why you just keep working, I guess! You’ve produced a lot. Are you more satisfied than in the beginning of your career or less satisfied?
Bjarne—I just would like to do more new stuff, try new things. I feel like I’ve come to a point where I need to change my expression and go into new territories.
Glenn—Would you like to work on a bigger scale?
Bjarne—Yeah. Also I would like to work with film.
Glenn—Have you ever made any longer, form films?
Bjarne—Yeah, I’ve made several.
Bjarne—Yeah, like an hour and a half-long films. I usually include them in my shows as partial installations. I made several.
Glenn—I like Freeman and Lowe. They’re what you’d call installation artists but it’s more than just an installation.
Bjarne—Oh yeah, where they construct meth labs. I know them.
Glenn—They go beyond installation because they create entire mythologies in the process. There are fictional backstories, often with a lot of relevance to historical events. They started working on things that were based on Timothy Leary and LSD and the psychology experiments with psychedelics conducted by intelligence agencies.
Bjarne—Where do you think the notion of LSD stands today? Have you been involved in a lot of LSD?
Glenn—Years ago, I took a lot of LSD. I guess I’m still digesting it. Now I’m mostly interested in keeping the kids from taking it. [Laughs.] I know a lot of people that got involved in ayahuasca and many of them are very appreciative of the insights it gave them and a lot of them also seem insane. I guess it can be interesting, but I don’t know. Personally I feel that the drugs in my life did their work.
Bjarne—Yeah. At a point they just don’t work anymore.
Glenn—Or, maybe the insight that they give you is permanent. I was a Rasta-level smoker but now I just find it slows me down.
Glenn—I think maybe I write better when I’m not [under] any influences.
Bjarne—Did you used to write a lot on drugs before?
Glenn—I smoked pot and wrote a lot, yeah. I think it’s good for that instant change of mind or just to break the continuity a little bit. It gives you another insight. But I think when you’re doing creative work a lot of it is about control. It’s a fine balance between control and giving up control. What’s your experience?
Bjarne—Well, I’ve done a lot of work while taking different types of drugs. But now I don’t do it anymore. I just feel like it came to a point where it didn’t give me anything anymore. As you said, it’s kind of like the knowledge it’s given you is now the knowledge you have; you don’t get any further with it.