Old Town Crier

Erik Thor Sandberg at the Katzen!

Erik Thor Sandberg at the Katzen!

By F. Lennox Campello

I should start this column by writing: “If you see only one art show this year…” but then, I suspect and hope that most of you who read this column see more than one art show a year.

Do not miss the fantastic show by DC area painter Erik Thor Sandberg at the American University Museum – Katzen Arts Center (through March 11, 2018). The news release tells me that this “exhibition features a series of new paintings by American artist Erik Thor Sandberg within the context of selected earlier works. Sandberg is known internationally for pushing the skillful illusionism of master oil painting to the current edge of Magic Realism on three-dimensional wood panels of his own design. Grounded in humanism, Sandberg’s paintings present a compelling contemporary expression of how people connect with each other, nature and basic elements of life.”

That is all true, but, since I’ve known Sandberg (and have admired his works since he was an art student under the great Margarida Kendall Hull at George Washington University – in my reckoning the greatest realist teacher ever to grace a DMV art school classroom) for several decades now, I can add also that Sandberg’s exceptional artistic talent goes beyond “skillful illusionism” and (in addition to that) is also augmented with a healthy dose of psychological kung fu that reaches into the solar plexus of one’s mind with the punching power of a Bruce Lee on steroids.

What Sandberg paints on his canvas are gorgeous mind hooks that ensnare the viewer and hypnotizes the casual observer beyond what a “normal painting” would offer.  Early in his career, Sandberg was often compared to the creations of Hieronymus Bosch, the fantastical and somewhat macabre Dutch 1400s master who populated his canvasses with images that once seen are seldom forgotten.  But there’s a part of me who thinks that Bosch was reincarnated not as a painter, but as Stephen King, perhaps the greatest living American writer (yeah, yeah… start bitching, but no one comes close to SK), and thus Sandberg stands uniquely on his own, and in my opinion is actually a much better painter than Bosch.

Seriously, I read that somewhere… I wrote it, and then I read it.

“Campello, are you serious?” Yes I am, just because a master lived and worked 600 years ago, and painted canvasses like no one else had painted before him, doesn’t make him unapproachable in talent and skill, and Erik Thor Sandberg is loaded to the max with both, and then on top of that he brings to his canvas an acidic viewpoint that is what often sneaks into the fluids of our brain matter and worms its way to that place where a little alien voice whispers for the viewer to drops his/her jaw a little when viewing his works… and then start trying to interpret what we see.

For example, look at “Offering” (2017, oil on panel, 42 x 49 inches), where one can spend three written pages just describing and admiring the sensuality of the female figure’s erotic curvature of the belly, curling of the toes, and anti-gravity of impossibly young breasts.

But noooo… instead we are diverted to her curious offering of a battle castle that reminds us of the Reconquista and Spain’s warrior queen – is that milk-white body Isabella? Who knows? Is the boy her grandson Charles V, the last Holy Roman Emperor? Who knows?

But in a single swipe of that work, Sandberg has planted all those seeds in my mind, and I’m not even wondering yet as to what the young child is doing, or what the red flower growing behind her means? Is it a pomegranate flower (one of the symbols of the ancient Kingdom of Aragon)?

I’m pretty sure that “Offering” has nothing to do with anything that grew in my mind when I see it – absolutely nothing. And yet, it now lives somewhere in my brain as such, and now in this set of written words as that, because that’s what Sandberg’s enviable skills as a painter, storyteller and canvas magician have delivered to me.

Don’t miss this show. A catalogue is available, and there’s also a much more elegant and comprehensible essay about Sandberg by Vesela Sretenović, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

The gorgeous American University Museum – Katzen Arts Center is located at 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20016 and the museum hours are: Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 4pm – and there’s usually lots and lots of parking!