John Kørner Tongue Out Galleri Bo Bjerggaard, Copenhagen 19 January – 11 March
One of the first things a viewer sees in John Kørner’s Tongue Out is a greyish quartet of floor-based sculptures depicting boxy buildings, all with the word ‘Problem’ on their frontage and a smokestack chimney above it. The Danish artist then leads us – literally, via a cartoonish, traillike cutout of a pathway on the floor – into a show of paintings primarily depicting melting glaciers, sometimes dotted with human figures and human inventions. Kørner’s pictorial sources apparently included a 2013 book entitled The Greenland Ice Sheet: 80 Years of Climate Change Seen from the Air, and the ‘tongue’ of the exhibition’s title evidently refers, at least in part, to the kind that glaciers have: platforms of ice projecting into the sea, evidence of thaw. The show, in these terms, seems built on unsubtle environmentalist rhetoric. But then you look at the paintings themselves, with their liquescent, colourful acrylic handling on acres of spotless white, and things get complicated.
Kørner’s ‘take’ on this subject matter is, for want of a better word, sunny. In Tongue Hanging Out (all works 2023), a lavalike pink protrusion emerges from a tangerine horizon and dips into a bluey-green ocean wherein bobs a regiment of triangular icefloes; to either side of the tongue are psychedelic swathes of paint, bright shades bleeding into each other. Light Eruption is a widescreen Arctic vista that’s partly frosty, partly already melted and turned to earth-brown, and features a variety of trails, allowing the eye to take a virtual tour of the scenery. Dancing over the landscape, mean-while, is a luscious, Northern Lights-like glow of green, pink and orange, the heavens gracing the dissolving region in sympathy. In Holding Back a Train, a foregrounded figure in winterwear surreally uses one foot – while checking his phone – to keep a shrunken white train from barrelling forward. In the background, the landscape breaks weirdly into a planar collage, the horizon variously rotating through 45 and 90 degrees, woodland erupting from the earth diagonally and, once again, that pinky-orange glow suusing the icescapes.
Amid all this, there’s a frequent sense of unreality – thanks to Kørner’s bright colours and sheeny handling – that suggests an artist knowingly unable to convey the scale of the disaster, perhaps unable to wrap his mind around it. Frequently he defaults to the anecdotal and odd: the single flower seen in closeup against an icescape in Lilium Bulbiferum with Glacier, the nude man tipping a panful of water over himself while standing in a frozen landscape in Oce of Antarctic Programme Foundation. If, as a result, the viewer has a strong sense of not seeing an image commensurate with the crisis, maybe that’s Kørner’s way of admitting that painting isn’t up to the task, while nevertheless continuing to paint. Martin Herbert