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Ragnar Kjartansson: Scenes from Western Culture

Ragnar Kjartansson, Scenes from Western Culture, Guitar Lesson (Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir, Logi Pedro Stefánsson), 2015, single channel video. Duration: 38 minutes.

This fall, the Portland Museum of Art is excited to present Ragnar Kjartansson’s Scenes from Western Culture. The Icelandic artist’s 2015 work, a nine-screen installation of videos, depicts a faintly absurd and occasionally ominous vision of Western life.

In Scenes from Western Culture, Kjartansson shows various vignettes of ideal images of Western daily life—a couple dining together, a speedboat on a Swiss lake, a couple making love in a sleek, minimal interior, an afternoon swim, the burning of a forest cabin, upper-class children playing in a Munich garden. These videos explore the artist’s fascination with social norms, theatrical artifice, and idle pleasure, inspired in part by French Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau’s pastoral scenes of 18th century aristocrats. These “cinematic paintings” resonate in us with familiarity and apparent banality, yet their tranquil nature and static scenes with a visual language verging on slick advertisement break down the barrier between reality and fiction. Each video is the fragment of a scene where the central meaning is hidden from the viewer and several narrative interpretations are possible. These works, like Watteau’s ambiguous paintings, both depict the desires of Western society and serve as tenderly mocking cultural commentaries.

Kjartansson’s work engages tropes that occur throughout the canon of art history, connecting this contemporary work with the PMA collection. This exhibition is part of the PMA’s dedication to nurturing an innovative contemporary art program. Scenes from Western Culture will be accompanied by interpretive material developed by the PMA’s Homer High School Fellows, offering further opportunities for young people and new audiences to connect with meaningful contemporary art.