Pupils of Apelles, a four person exhibition now on view at Copro Gallery, is about reaching far back in time for inspiration and connection. Although the Norwegian artist and mentor Odd Nerdum appears in the largest font on the show's roster, it is the 4th century Greek artist Apelles of Kos who is presented as the presiding master of its cult.
The invoking of Apelles may strike some as a kind of smokescreen, as show's star attraction is Nerdrum, an aesthetic refusenik who once painted himself in a custom-sewn golden robe as The Savior of Painting. Whatever you may think of Nerdrum's art -- and his ego -- you have to grant him this: no living "master" has magnetized more ambitious and talented young representational painters than he has. Yes, offering up his own art as a model is part of what Nerdrum does, but to be fair, Nerdrum's approach has also involved asking his students to look far outside the perimeters of current tastes in art: that is where Apelles enters into things.
A lyrical painter whose works are recorded as having employed elaborate allegories and personifications, Apelles made a number of portraits of Alexander the Great including one of the young ruler wielding a thunderbolt. History has noted Apelles as being an early advocate of a tetrachrome (four color) palette consisting of white, yellow ochre, red ochre and black: from this basic set of pigments a wide range of tints including flesh tones could be mixed. Apelles' technique also presages European oil painting methods: in his Natural History Pliny the Elder says that Apelles used a varnish on his paintings that "caused a radiance in the brightness of all the colours and protected the painting from dust and dirt." The "rough technique" of Apelles — in combination with his limited palette — was adopted by Titian in his late works and also by Rembrandt and Velasquez. Odd Nerdrum's son, Öde Spildo Nerdrum, notes that Apelles' methods also had an esoteric aspect: "The understanding of the limited palette also goes further than just an idea of mixing color," he comments: "It is an alchemistic tradition."
"It really triggered my imagination," Molesky recounts, "to think about what these paintings must have looked like, these invisible paintings -- all destroyed 1200 years ago -- that were esteemed by Rembrandt, Titian, Botticelli and others as the greatest works ever, even though they had never seen them." Raphael, another admirer, portrayed himself as Apelles in his fresco The School of Athens which graces the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. In a sense, striving to emulate Apelles offers up the fantasy of joining what Molesky describes as "a secret bloodline of painters whose imaginations were ignited into fierce striving when the imagination was set to try and create something worthy of the Greek master."
For the past few decades, young artists interested in classical training -- exactly the "wrong" approach in an era dominated by postmodern theory -- have looked to Nerdrum as a beacon. His Road Warrior meets Rembrandt imagery and his considerable facility have made him a figure of considerable adulation. Luke Hillestad came to study at Nerdrum's farm after an art school put-down helped him clarify his sense of difference:
At 22 I made a picture of two lovers for an Art University. The teacher's only comment was that I "should get a job making covers for romance novels," which sparked chuckles in the classroom. I would have happily taken that job, as I would have been equally glad to make pictures for video games, if only I had those connections. While the University upheld Kant's call for disinterestedness, I was on an earnest search for beauty which pleasures and drama that delights. Odd's farm was a place that facilitated these desires.
Working with Odd really isn't work. While it can be strenuous at times, it usually involves small things. He will say things like "we will do this, and then we will have a nice time."Whenever there was some big chore it was always followed by great food, relaxation, always coffee. He tends to always look at the other side of things. Not necessarily playing devil's advocate, but more so a sense that whatever the majority believes is probably wrong.
Pupils of Apelles
Odd Nerdrum, Luke Hillestad, Caleb Knodell, David Molesky
Through January 2nd, 2015
Bergamot Arts Complex, 2525 Michigan Ave T5
Santa Monica, CA 90404