Inside Out, Catalogue text

of Selene Wendt


For the exhibition Inside Out, Ulf Nilsen uses a tool box filled with elements from his earlier work and at the same time dumps the entire contents on the floor. To a large extent, the exhibition is a continuation of the story that was conveyed in Sentimento del Tempo  (2003). Once again, he has created a labyrinthine exhibition experience that relates to his life journey. The continually shifting balance between fantasy and reality, the relationship between inner emotions and outward appearances, and a use of strong symbolism all define the exhibition. Nonetheless, Nilsen has turned to a new chapter in his narrative by placing more emphasis on conceptual aspects than ever before. He raises the ceiling in his constructions by including even more chaos and unexpected details in a visual language that speaks intimately of an individual’s role in the universe.

Avalanche is the first work we encounter in the exhibition. The installation gives a clear indication of what we might expect to discover in this exhibition – the completely unexpected. Inside Out reveals a complex and unpredictable inner world that is full of paradox, carefully built up from the enigmas of life which, in turn, are irreverently deconstructed by vague and fleeting answers. We are invited to navigate a psychological and emotional labyrinth. Specially built exhibition walls create a clear rhythm in the exhibition and also prevent us from seeing everything at once. Our experience changes along the way, influenced by how the various elements play with and against each other. A use of strong symbolism is the main thread that sews the visual language together. Paradox is emphasized through opposing factors that create both balance and tension: construction and deconstruction, inside and outside, image and reflection, front and back, fiction and reality, installation and painting, sculpture and found object.

Instead of a more traditional exhibition context wherein everything is neatly placed so that we only see the perfectly polished front of each painting, we are given the opportunity to see much more in Inside Out. We experience an individual’s journey through life in all its naked vulnerability. We are provided a back stage pass with access to all areas, including everything that lies in front, behind, here and there. By exposing the backside, and showing the loose threads that contribute to the whole, he draws us even further into his intricate and nuanced visual world. Everything is turned upside down so that aspects which might seem circumstantial are, in fact, thoroughly thought out, whereas details that seem planned may just as well be purely coincidental.

The relationship between painting and installation comes strongly to the fore in Inside Out. An interesting dialogue is created between works that communicate both with us and with each other. The paintings function almost as paraphrases from the exhibition itself wherein installations and sculptural elements complement the paintings, while the installations in turn quote elements that we find in the paintings. The Sun is a perfect example of this aspect. Contrasts play out in a painting that features abstract color fields set against surreal figurative elements. We must really search for the clear messages in Nilsen’s use of symbolism. The Sun is, by all means, a key work, and demonstrates how everything comes together neatly in a rich form of expression. Formal and conceptual aspects compliment the humorous undertone in an engaging and challenging visual language.

Carefully constructed, almost absurd combinations, such as a ladder, a door, and a monochromatic canvas quote witty groupings of found objects and small paintings that stand tentatively composed on the floor near the painting. This is all it takes to change our perception of the painting itself. Similar to an exclamation point that transforms an entire sentence; we see how this little detail emphasizes the relationship between what is planned and what is serendipitous in a subtle yet convincing manner. It is liberating to discover how Ulf Nilsen has seemingly thrown all caution to the wind by giving each detail equal importance. Nilsen communicates through an unexpected visual language that is among the most innovative and playful work he has ever created.

Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities has long been an important source of inspiration for Ulf Nilsen; it provides valuable insight into Nilsen’s particular form of expression. In the catalogue text for Sentimento del Tempo (2003), I wrote about the clear parallels between Nilsen and Calvino, something which is still relevant today. When we relate Ulf Nilsen’s work to Italo Calvino, the multiple meanings of various symbols emerge even more clearly. Invisible Cities is the story of Marco Polo who recounts to Kublai Khan about the many cities he has travelled during his voyages, which don’t actually exist in reality – only in the narrator’s imagination. All the descriptions are of Venice, described in endless different ways. Similarly, we notice strong recurring elements in Nilsen’s work and realize that these are various descriptions of what is essentially the same – accounts of a life journey.

Italo Calvino’s use of symbolism is also reflected in Ulf Nilsen’s paintings. It bears relevance when Calvino writes “The day I understand all symbols, will I finally succeed in being master of my domain?” For Nilsen, the symbols in his work are indicative of the questions that follow him through life, which, therefore, recur as an integral part of his work. The works reflect a search for identity through the visualization of an inner struggle. As long as there are unanswered questions, the symbols will remain elusive.

Ulf Nilsen’s use of strong symbolism is found throughout his fictive urban landscapes. Unfinished City is a perfect example of this tendency, and just as with Calvino, the image is an apt metaphor for psychological aspects. Nilsen’s imaginative constructions are as orderly and precisely composed as they are absurd and even disturbing. There is a sense of order in the chaos that reflects the individual’s role in the universe. The carefully composed elements in the works convey much more than what immediately meets the eye. At one moment we sense quiet before the storm which rapidly changes to a feeling that everything suddenly might fall apart.

A blind man with a cane attempts to find his way in a surreal urban landscape. Constructions are built up without clear logic, while they also function as beautiful sculptural elements within the whole. We catch a glimpse of an illuminated building in the moonlight that creates an interesting visual contrast to the other elements in the composition. Many questions arise along the way: Is this city a construction or a deconstruction? Is this complicated urban setting intended to convey a desire to create sense out of the mess, or should it be interpreted metaphorically as pieces of an unattainable dream that do not quite fit together in reality? Whatever the answer, we find that Nilsen’s use of symbolism, the subdued color palate, and the various psychological references contribute to a composition which is interesting both formally and conceptually.

Correlations between the different objects, both in the pictures and in the exhibition context as a whole, are of utmost importance in Inside Out. Ulf Nilsen consciously brings in various objects which underline particularly important aspects within the whole. Decadence and decay is emphasized through walls with gaping holes, crumbling bricks, unreadable books, windows that open up to nothing, useless canes, old wooden planks and crumpled up drawings. These elements come together in interesting ways that bring reality into the dream world of art.


A stick covered in black paint hangs delicately next to The Moon, a detail which triggers an interesting dialogue with the painting and refers to the process behind the work, while poetic aspects are underlined by the sweet little bell that hangs in front of the painting. Together, these sorts of details create an entirely fresh visual language that speaks of far more than what Nilsen could have conveyed in pure, traditional paintings. In front of this painting we see a monumental plinth with a highly polished surface that relates to The Moon. Text on each side of the plinth hints at an underlying poetic message. Fear and Courage is written on the front. From a distance, one might wonder why there is no sculpture placed on the plinth. Nonetheless, nothing is lacking; when we get closer to the work we see the moon perfectly reflected on the polished surface, exactly like moonlight on still water.

As has long been the case, text is integral to Nilsen’s visual language, cleverly implemented in ways which complement the images. ”The old slave dived into the deep woods” is written in large white letters on a peach colored background. The text underlines the poetic undertone of the painting on the right which consists of a wilted yellow rose, a dried out branch, and a bell. The symbolism hints at decay, the passing of time, and vulnerability. It seems that the individual in question (the slave) is trying to find his way, presumably drawn by light and hope. What happens when this is set against an ordinary two by four that lies on the floor along with a little cane that leans against the wall nearby? The work changes completely and the message about vulnerability becomes even clearer. This is further emphasized by the fact that the entire installation is dramatically positioned in the corner.

We discern an inner world that we can just about grasp hold of at the exact same moment that they disappear right before our eyes. The works evolve from recollections of various things; a combination of fiction and reality that doesn’t quite add up. Part of the magic in this exhibition lies in the fact that Nilsen dares to let some details remain seemingly unfinished. We experience not only what has been carefully worked, but we also discern the underlying, seemingly unfinished layers. It’s all about a reality that is difficult to completely define and decipher. The inexplicable hangs in the air and creates extra tension in the works. All in all, the exhibition relates as much to what is left unpainted as to what is carefully and painstakingly worked and finished. To be sure, formal aspects are still important, but Nilsen lifts everything to a higher conceptual level in this exhibition.


A Fallen Angel contains much of what we see throughout the exhibition. The painting depicts an open room filled with debris wherein the architectural elements reflect psychological aspects. The composition includes illogical combinations, as in dreams, things which we recognize yet we don’t quite understand the significance of within this context. Light comes into the open room, a clear sign of hope in the midst of so much pain. The central painting is complimented by two side-panels where clean, sharp lines create order and a strong counterbalance to the chaos in the primary image. “A fallen angel” is carefully written along the edge to the left, a perfect choice of words that give a sense of the quiet vacuum after a tragedy. Always interested in constructing and deconstructing at the same time, Nilsen creates order out of chaos and draws us into the image in search of meaning and answers. We may not find all the answers we are looking for, yet with this exhibition it is the unanswered which gives the works resonance.

All the works in the exhibition function on several different levels. Formal aspects are equally as important as conceptual aspects, while both humor and seriousness vie for attention. All in all, the works center around a narrative that is as complicated as an individual’s journey through life. What is logical and precisely thought out floats around in a vortex of seemingly coincidental details that, in fact, bear the weight of the entire exhibition.

These aspects come clearly to the fore in Darfur. A clear circle in the middle lights up as a full moon in the dark; in itself a strongly charged symbol well anchored in Ulf Nilsen’s visual language. The moon is a direct quote both from earlier images and other works in this exhibition. We also recognize the underlying themes: individual tragedies, vulnerability, the inexplicable and the fragile are all transformed to something beautiful. In the midst of the repetitive pattern of small, temporary tents, we discern a clothesline with a rainbow of colorful textiles hanging between two tents, almost as if it were tying two souls together in a tragedy. Almost as a little exclamation point in this narrative, fragility is emphasized through five crumpled drawings that lie under the painting. The drawings function as small sculptural elements that reflect the wobbly tents in the motif. As elsewhere in this exhibition, the work is about the subtle yet essential details that tie everything together in a fascinating way.

Inside Out  is anything but a predictable exhibition where all the pictures hang neatly in rows along the wall, carefully arranged according to the center point of each painting. Here there are no consistent, overriding rules that dictate a formal hierarchy between the works. Everything is equally important, both conceptually and formally, from a crumpled drawing to a monumental painting, from an old two-by-four to a small print. Everything is turned upside down and inside out, something that emphasizes the complex, diffuse underlying message. The works come together as many sentences in a book, or chapters in a story. We can look at the various installations separately, but it is more interesting to interpret them together as a testimony about an individual’s journey through life.


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