Tragic comedy of life

Jens Ulrich Petersen: The Tragic Comedy of Life.

JUP once said to me, “When painting, I do not make pictures, I tell stories.” Indeed, when contemplated, this distinctly appears as the painterly project of the artist because his paintings often seem to be reduced to sheer story telling. The players have fallen in, but the stage is empty, and only the merest props are present. The stories that the paintings are telling us appear wily, even humorous but at the same time serious, even absurd, the tragicomedy of Life being central.

The high or low  line of horizon is one of the visually exciting traits of JUP’s paintings. On a background  dominated by one single colour, a figure will be observed  in the – for the artist characteristic – point of intersection  at the periphery of the painting. Often his paintings are playing with extreme perspectives, noted, for instance, by the presence in a street of either purposeful or else aimlessly meandering pedestrians seen, for instance, from above, throwing long, dramatic shadows behind them, resulting in beautiful compositions on the canvas.

One recurring theme in JUPs paintings, especially worth pointing out, is loneliness. Loneliness at home, in the throng of the city, at old age. A touch of sincerity underlines the feeling of emptiness, as expressed by rows upon endless rows of empty windows in a block of flats – the monotony of which is  broken by one individual poking her/his head out from his/her apartment, accentuating the absence of other eventual tenants. Likewise the single person in a double bed cries out a freezing absence. Even people seem to be isolated as they, face averted, pass by one another or move along in a serialized bee-line. Another element conspicuously absent from nearly all that emanates from the artist’s hand, is Nature. What we see is culture in simple form – until we realize that Nature is creeping in as culture is decaying. Loneliness, too, appears in the shape of abandoned buildings: Man-made structures devoid of  human presence are strikingly fascinating.

In this context the large, all absorbing colour-expanses again signal emptiness – a vacuum ready to be filled in which underlines the atmosphere of expectation or resignation characterizing many of JUP’s paintings. Occupying the center of the work the colour area or a mosaic pattern often acquire a meditative character, getting charged with relevance.

For the time being the artist is especially preoccupied by the conditions of prostitutes and the homeless, and these pariahs of the society are populating the world of his recent motifs. In his thematic range Faces of a City subjects from the gallery of rootless characters enter the stage, being, however, more or less superseded by purely aesthetic patterns, for instance by the shadows on the street, thrown by anonymous pedestrians. The aesthetic and the social-realistic aspect may, however, be found inside the same frame, when, for example, a vagabond is seen sleeping on the hard bed of cobblestones paradoxically forming a delicate mosaic, thereby stealing the attention from the sleeping figure and the harshness of the situation. Here we see JUP at his best when the aesthetic form and social realistic substance merge, competing for the spectator’s attention.

JUP’s style on the expressive- as well as on the contents plane is reminiscent of painters like Edward Hopper, the American artist, who is known chiefly for his nocturnal motifs illustrating the vagrant, lonely night owls. Further, the father of Realism, Edouard Manet, has made his imprint on JUP. Parallels can be drawn, too, to Wilhelm Hammershøj’s style in his dominating colour schemes with single or few persons, predominantly backs turned. Or, more recent artists like Erik Frandsen who, by refined modes of expression like mosaic, elevates motifs of the homeless to be worthy of this medium.

One thing, though, comes to one’s mind: JUP is not nearly as inspired by his painting colleagues, as he is by the masters of literature. Among these JUP is especially engrossed by the modernistic writers’ description of the rootlessness and the anonymity of the modern metropole like, for instance, Kafka’s universe, where helpless people are trapped in a senseless bureaucratic labyrinth. They know not why they are caught up there, and cannot find a way out, but run around in despair constantly looking for an escape. Such situations are vividly depicted in motifs where people move around in an empty space encircled by walls, being drawn towards narrow, light-filled openings, not knowing (nor do we, as spectators) what will turn up at the other end. Such situations are explicit in paintings titled K after Kafka’s anonymous main character. The myth of Sisyphus, too, has inspired JUP’s interest. His small, characteristic figures rarely have a saying in the situations that the artist has mercilessly put them. In their helplessness they are hanging in ropes or crawling around, grovelling, in the dirt.

JUP is, as an artist, autodidactic, albeit he has been studying, in the 1980’es, at Accademia d’ell Arte, Venice, for 15 months by professor Mario Abis, and for 9 months at Hochschule für Bildende Kunst, Stuttgart, by professor Per Kirkeby.

Ursula Klint, Mag. Art, Art historian

Translation: Niels Kock