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Issue 243

For Leonard Rickhard, Technology Promises Both Progress and Destruction

In his survey show at Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museet, the late painter depicts the vast swaths of machines and technical systems that underpin everyday life

BY Nicholas Norton in Exhibition Reviews | 12 MAR 24

Leonard Rickhard, arguably the leading Norwegian artist to emerge during the 1970s, sadly passed away at the beginning of this year after a short illness, just weeks before the opening of his comprehensive career retrospective, ‘Between Construction and Collapse’, at Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museet. Born in 1945, Rickhard was a painter of modern infrastructure, machines and systems, with an engineer’s eye for detail. The latter enabled his works uniquely to reflect on the postwar, social-democratic reconstruction and industrialization of Norway, particularly in the south, where Rickhard lived for most of his life.

Leonard Rickhard, Claustrophobic Practice at the Third Cable, 2023, acrylic and latex on wood and cardboard, 4.1 × 5 m. Courtesy: Astrup Fearnley Museet

Rickhard’s paintings are typically landscapes, populated by homes, farms and industrial buildings, alongside associated agricultural machines and equipment. As such, he offers the viewer frequent reminders of the overwhelming complexity of the systems and technologies that man has invented to facilitate his mastery over nature. Yet, in certain works, there is also an underlying anxiety – hints that the very same technological progress has an inherent destructive potential, which leaves both society and the individual vulnerable. In Soft Whispers in the Birch Forest I (1985), for instance, men wearing camo uniforms move past a rural home in a forest clearing. Meanwhile, Figuration on Dry Grass (1985) shows a truck-drawn artillery piece among loosely rendered metal debris.

Leonard Rickhard, ‘Between Construction and Collapse’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: Astrup Fearnley Museet

At other times, Rickhard allows himself to zoom out, rendering the world at an impersonal distance. This is most evident in the first room of the exhibition, which includes several of his ‘Model Tables’ (1994–2005). Perhaps the most striking example is the four-and-a-half-metres-wide Large Model in the Afternoon Sun (1994–95), which depicts an architectural model of a brick power station and its surrounding area. Power pylons appear at regular intervals across the entire length of the hilly, starkly lit landscape, whilst a radio mast and various buildings are dotted along a road. The work not only evidences nature’s transformation through industrialization but the impact of scientific rationalism on how the world is seen and depicted. This self-reflexivity is made evident across much of Rickhard’s output by his frequent inclusion of increment marks along the borders of his canvases, often accompanied by precisely drawn schematics and diagrams.

Leonard Rickhard, Thoughtful Model-Plane Constructor, 2019–2023, acrylic on canvas, 2.1 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: Astrup Fearnley Collection

Another recurrent theme in Rickhard’s work is that of the collector. At Astrup Fearnley, a large room is dedicated to his ‘Bird Cabinets’ (1976–2007), which show various figures, always men, in front of vitrines filled with ornithological taxidermy. The exhibition also brings together for the first time all of the works in the artist’s ‘Model Plane Constructor’ series (1980–2023), in which men assemble scale models of German World War II-era fighter planes. Not infrequently, their heads are disturbingly and oddly detached. In Weary Model-Plane Constructor I (1985), for instance, the body of the model-builder seems to have exploded, leaving a doll-like head and arm on the table, with a collection of organs smeared alongside across a chair. Through these works, Rickhard reminds us that, despite being enmeshed in technological systems, people are fleshy, unpredictable and, ultimately, vulnerable.

Leonard Rickhard, ‘Between Construction and Collapse’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: Astrup Fearnley Museet

In a recent interview with Norwegian daily newspaper Klassekampen, Astrup Fearnley’s director, Solveig Øvstebø, mentioned that she had previously invited Rickhard to exhibit at The Renaissance Society in Chicago during her tenure there. He politely declined, explaining that he would like to collaborate, but that she would have to come back to Norway first. While Rickhard may not have been interested in presenting his work abroad, ‘Between Construction and Collapse’ makes a strong case for his relevance beyond Norway. It showcases an artist of remarkable scope and consistency, with the ability to elevate depictions of the seemingly rural and quotidian into ruminations on the viability of civilisation itself.

Leonard Rickhard's ‘Between Construction and Collapse’ is at Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, until 19 May

Main image: Springtime Model against Red Background, 1995, oil on canvas, 1.9 × 1.9 cm. Courtesy: Astrup Fearnley Museet

Nicholas Norton is an art critic and writer based in Oslo, Norway.