Essay – People’s Choice Award

No Fear painting

The People’s Choice For The Winning Image Is “No Fear” By Bente Løvhaug

[Note: This essay is from the 2022 winning People’s Choice artwork by Bente Løvhaug. The 2023 People’s Choice voting was canceled because of a lack of viewers who had signed up to vote. Hopefully next year enough viewers will sign up to hold it again.]

The subtly subversive cover for singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell album (2019) is a Pop art powder keg that, like Del Rey herself, embraces multiple eras simultaneously. The staged partially painted photo (shot by her sister Caroline) finds Del Rey in a lime green windbreaker with her left arm around a strapping young man (Jack’s Nicholson’s grandson Duke) aboard a small sailboat as a large American flag flies directly behind them. Further beyond the deep blue sea, Los Angeles burns in the distance. Del Rey’s right hand (her fuchsia nails painted the same toxic shade as school highlighter markers) reaches out to offer a hand to the viewer/listener (echoing a line in the song “Mariner’s Apartment Complex”)

While the NFR cover is loosely anchored in the21st century, 1960s allusions abound. Duke Nickolson, gazing off camera with authoritative gravitas, recalls countless publicity shots of a young, virile John F Kennedy at sea or aboard a tony sailboat (or yacht). Above Del Rey’s head floats a fiery comic book “NFR!” logo that marries Roy Lichtenstein’s high brow Pop to the more populist OG Batman TV show (Behind Nicholson a second, a more subdued “LDR” logo stretches across the water from bow to shore. Del Rey lives in Los Angeles) These three-letter abbreviations subconsciously conjure “JFK” and, by extension, that never, never land known as Camelot (and even more subliminally “FDR” and the faint utopian aura surrounding President Franklin Roosevelt’s post-Depression New Deal like a mirage nearly a century later)

Another possible inspiration for the NFR cover is The Beach Boys’ 1965 album Summer Days (And Summer Nights), whose breezy image similarly finds the band aboard a sailboat on a bright sunny day. The Beach Boys’ connection isn’t as tenuous as it might seem. Del Rey often references lyrics from other songs in her own (along with invoking literature and poetry—everyone from Vladimir Nabokov and Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg) and The Beach Boys have long been a go to favorite (right up to her 2023 single “A&W”dropped on Valentine’s Day, which isn’t about root beer but short for ‘American whore’).

For starters, The Beach Boys have an obscure early song called “Lana”An intoxicated Dennis Wilson drowned in Marina del Rey, a fact surely not lost on Del Rey (who name checks the deceased drummer on NFR’s“The Greatest”). More importantly, the erstwhile queen of sadness may well relate to the gaping chasm between the sunny California myth masking the grim reality beneath those ultra-bright smiles and striped Pendleton shirts once worn by this all-American band forever associated with Southern California. Aside from a handful of up tempo surfing and car songs (often co-penned and sung by nasally lead singer Mike Love), the fun-in-sun myth that’s still perpetuated to this day couldn’t be further from the darker reality of drugs and depression that plagued principle songwriter (and singer, arranger, producer) Brian Wilson as early as 1964 (An early album cover that has become a collector’s item has a misprint that reads “Don’t Break Down” for a song titled “Don’t Back Down” that eerily coincided with Wilson’s first nervous breakdown). Yet they were still perceived as surfing Doris Days (as longtime band member Bruce Johnston quipped) even as drummer Dennis Wilson hung out with mass murder Charles Manson for a minute (and had the bejesus scared out of him in short order. Manson, a failed songwriter just as Adolph Hitler was a failed painter, even has a song, credited to Dennis, on a late 60s Beach Boys album). Not quite the halcyon days of “…fun, fun, fun, till her daddy takes the T-Bird away…”

More importantly, The Beach Boys’ best songs (from “Lonely Sea”to “‘Til I Die”), often propelled by Wilson’s plaintive falsetto,are inherently sad or wistful (or at least tinged with melancholy). This may be what Del Rey most relates to in their music. As The Beach Boys sang about girls on the beach and having fun all summer long (while being acutely aware that these carefree times “won’t last forever”—a theme reprised on NFR’s “Venice Bitch” in the refrain “..as summer fades away…”), Del Rey sings about summertime sadness (about a friend who committed suicide) and getting high at the beach. Brian Wilson’s battles with drugs and depression parallel Del Rey’s own struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. (The singer tried to drown herself as a teenager but luckily neighbors who were driving by spotted her and pulled her ashore “I wanted to go out with you, swim with the fishes” she sings on the heart-wrenching “Fingertips” from her latest album,” Do You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard. (There actually is an unused mosaic decorated subterranean tunnel leading to the beach in Long Beach, California. The Beach Boys coincidentally played their first paid concert at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium on New Year’s Eve 1961)

Similarly, Del Rey shares a much stronger spiritual bond with doomed confessional poet Sylivia Plath (who ended her life by sticking her head into an oven) than she does with Hollywood Golden Age starlet Lana Turner (from whom the former Lizzy Grant took first name). Filmmaker David Lynch is another kindred spirit with a similar vision of and strategy of exposing Americana’s dark underbelly through a highly personal and poetic surrealist lens. Her stream-of-consciousness lyrics often evoke the same twisted terrain Lynch mines in Twin Peaks and his films (She has covered “Blue Velvet”) . Yet this “…bigtime believer that people can change…” also clings to a fading idealism (In “Looking For America”an NFR postscriptwritten in the wake of back-to-back school shootings, she sings  “…no more bombs in the sky, only fireworks when you and I collide…”) along with the sober realization that she’s living in the middle of a dystopian society (Her left hand is tattooed with the word “paradise” while her right reads “trust no one”—ironic for someone’s who’s left laptops in her car to be broken into multiple times and as a result has had hundreds of songs leaked onto the Internet).

Instead of a fuzzy rose-tinted Camelot, Los Angeles burns apocalyptically in the background on the NFR cover. Look closely and you’ll notice the upper third of this cleverly staged album cover (awash in slightly murky red, white, and blue) isn’t part of a photograph but rather depicts a painted sky and clouds slathered in thick impastoed brushstrokes. Once we notice this, we’re jolted back to Norman Rockwell the painter and his idyllic, largely milquetoast vision of America as a White picket middle-class paradise (Leave It To Beaver in paint as disseminated on countless magazine covers of The Saturday Evening Post)

Camelot of course has always been a Platonic state of mind that’s swollen to even greater mythic proportions over the decades. It’s a kind of never, neverland just as Henri Matisse’ Joi de Voire , with its ring of nude bathers, remains an indurate seaside fantasy. The connections to Kennedy and Camelot aren’t completely gratuitous, either. Early in her career , Del Rey adopted a glamorous 50s Hollywood retro persona and positioned herself as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra” (Ol’ Blue Eyes himself played a significant role in JFK’s election campaign). In the music video for her song “National Anthem”, Del Rey plays both Marilyn Monroe (albeit as a brunette) and Jacqueline Kennedy. Elsewhere, she excoriates Southern California decadence with Hollywood at its most depraved epicenter (“Gods and Monsters”). Both The Beatles and convicted Tinseltown mogul/MeToo sexual predator poster child Harvey Weinstein are referenced in “Cola”. (Del Rey has since “retired” the song, whose jaunty chorus goes “…Harvey in the sky with diamonds…”  Manson, that homicidal nutcase, found hidden messages in “Helter Skelter” and glommed onto that Beatles heavy metal banger. Del Rey herself mentions Manson, along with a wink and a nod to Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed, in her song “Heroin”

In the final bars of NFR’s title track, Del Ray sings “…You make me blue” in a piercing falsetto  that may be a nod to Joni Mitchell’s classic album Blue (1971) that documented Mitchell’s unraveling relationship with Graham Nash (The album cover is a blue-toned photograph of Mitchell performing at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in 1968). Both Mitchell and Del Rey have lived in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon and reference it in their music. Although she’s primarily renowned as a singer-songwriter, Mitchell is also a painter whose self-portraits grace several early album covers. (Del Rey pays further homage by covering Mitchell’s “For Free” on 2021’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club. A second album, and one of her most personal, Blue Banisters, was released later that year during the height of COVID …

Another line from “Norman Fucking Rockwell” “…you color me blue…” could describe Bente Løvhaug’s No Fear (2014-21), a primordial wintery landscape (ecoscape might be an even better term for her oil paintings. They possess both a dogged moral determinism and spiritual idealism punctuated by hashtags such as #nopolluton and #wisdsom on her Instagram account) blanketed in deep nocturnal blues, and indeed a good chunk of this year’s People’s Choice winner’s entire oeuvre. Here, a fortress-like forest of faintly green trees lines the perimeter at ocean’s edge surrounding snow-capped mountains in the distance. As sea, sky, and a full blue moon peek out from the darkness seen from a birds (or god’s) vantage point (distantly conjuring Caspar David Friedrich’s early 19th century German Romanticist Monk by the Sea),her mildly moody panorama seen from on high evokes the eerie Pacific Northwest found in Lynch’s Twin Peaks (Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score for would fit seamlessly here). And while Friedrich’s diminutive holy man is nowhere to be seen. Løvhaug’s canvas is suffused with a decidedly spiritual air. Indeed, one often feels in the presence of a faintly pantheistic nature in front of her canvases (majestic in sweep but a modest 24”x30” in size).

It comes as little surprise that No Fear, along with most of her other blue ecoscapes (Beautiful DarknessHappiness WithinStay), has a decidedly European flavor (whose lineage seems to run from 19th century European Romanticism through Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler’s more colorful and abstract modernist mountainscapes)  along with a pinch of American Luminism (George Innes fiery landscapes) thrown in elsewhere. The Oakland-based painter hails from Norway originally and spent several years of her childhood living in Great Britain before settling down in the Bay Area. Being seismically uprooted from one world to a much different one is another trait Løvhaug shares with Del Rey, a transplanted New Yorker. (The singer was, in fact, scheduled to do a duet with Lou Reed, that Cony Island curmudgeon who hated everything sunny, California and lovey dovey, on her song Brooklyn Baby. But like some Hollywood B-flick. this pairing wasn’t meant to be. The former Velvet Underground frontman literally dropped dead as Del Rey’s plane touched down at LaGuardia) yet to an even greater degree. Talk about culture shock.

Any predominantly blue painting invariably brings to mind Picasso’s Blue Period. Various (mostly asinine) theories have been promulgated over the years to account for the genesis of The Blue Period. One of the most popular is that the artist was so poor that he could only afford one color. Poppycock. What most likely triggered this brief chapter was his best friend Carles Casagemus’s suicide in late 1901 that was quickly immortalized in several nascent Blue Period canvases. It’s a shame that Picasso, that walking geyser of Hispanic machismo, later wrote off the entire Blue Period as “nothing but sentiment”. Nonetheless, unlike No Fear The Blue Period is saturated with sadness—the endless procession of beggars, prostitutes, and people down on their luck (epitomized in the emaciated figure of the great Old Guitarist at The Art Institute of Chicago.

If blue often connotes sadness and melancholy for Picasso and Del Rey, it’s not always associated with the blues. Pioneering 20th century abstract painter Wassily Kandinksy wrote that “the deeper the blue becomes the more strongly it calls man toward the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and finally for the supernatural…”  Indeed, many of Picasso’s most heart-tugging Blue Period canvases take us out of our ordinary reality in spite of their depressing subject matter. Such is also the case with the emotionally neutral proto-cubist Rooftops of Barcelona (1903), a canvas strewn with signs of civilization including a Romanesque bridge. No Fear, on the other hand, is utterly devoid of human presence—it’s practically a painted snapshot of an unspoiled pre-industrial nature. Løvhaug’s is a world devoid of Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein (or even the possibility that such demagogues could roam the Earth). In this regard, her idealism and deeply ingrained optimism are more akin to Rockwell than to either Del Rey’s or Lynch’s more cynical brand of (sur)realism. Although she’s never preachy or in-your-face, the personal is political (Her social media logo is the honey bee—nature’s social network and a symbol that we’re all interconnected and cooperation is key. Her overarching philosophy seems to be that one can capture more with honey than with vinegar. Del Rey, on the other hand, often takes a more tart approach in her music: Cinnamon, a bittersweet spice, is a recurring motif—e.g. “Cinnamon Girl”).

While it would be easy to conclude that Løvhaug is simply painting a real landscape from an elevated perch (arctic plein-air painting), her naturalistic ecoscapes don’t exist in the real world but rather are conceptual fabrications combining memory and imagination (Even more so than Paul Cézanne’s progressively abstract crazy-quilt of drawings and paintings depicting his beloved real world Mt. Sainte-Victoire refracted through a modernist prism) They recall Dorothy’s famous soliloquy from The Wizard of Oz:  “…It’s not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain…” The absence of daylight here functions like a dream catcher summoning fond childhood memories. Executed from half a world away, there’s still no place like home.

The artist reminisces how there were only a few hours of daylight as a little girl in Norway. For her, darkness isn’t a harbinger of some unseen danger. “Often any fear/darkness is a state of mind and can be changed by changing our thoughts. I hope my painting can bring comfort and lead to healing.”. Indeed, her canvases almost seem designed as meditative talismans—an extension in her belief in the power of positive thinking. While No Fear may not have been directly influenced by COVID, Løvhaug says she had an epiphany to become a full-time artist as the planet remained in lockdown under the scourge of this modern day Plague. The signs of the times no doubt only bolstered her conviction that art, like music, potentially possesses healing properties. A silent reverie hangs over No Fear and most of her paintings like a morning mist and calming balm. The manner in which the slowly undulating curves of treetops echo the slightly more staccato mountain tops looming in the background has an almost musical quality as various visual elements play off one another and a palpable lyricism emerges from their subtle interplay. (Rise and fall, ebb and flow, crest and trough). One can easily envision exhibiting a group of Løvhaug’s blue ecoscapes together as an ensemble piece with classical music wafting softly in the background (It could be called Rhapsody In Blue. Oh, wait. That one’s already taken)

Long before Mitchell’s self-portraits popped up on her album covers, 19th century American painter James McNeill Whistler drew explicit analogies between art and music by using musical terms in his titles (Harmony in Blue and Gold). His world famous portrait of his seated mother (an American Mona Lisa in terms of sheer renown), popularly known as Whistler’s Mother,is actually titled Arrangement in Gray and Black – A Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (and sometimes known simply as Arrangement in Black and Gray No. 1). Løvhaug’s canvases, though less abstract on the whole, share an affinity with his painted Nocturnes (also rendered in shades of blue more often than not). The most abstract of these Nocturnes, which one backward-thinking critic colorfully likened to “flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public”, find daubs of bright orange, yellow, and gold piercing dark blue-black night skies to generate a rockets red glare glow  Fourth of July patriotic fervor that are worlds apart from Del Rey’s dystopian vision of a burning Los Angeles as she yearns for an American dream that never was. Del Rey and Løvhaug may both well believe that most people are fundamentally good. Yet it’s Løvhaug who’s the eternal optimist who sees the globe as half full. Short of a nuclear holocaust, the planet is stronger and more resilient than the people in power and its politics.

~Harry Roche

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell album cover (scroll to the bottom)
https://www.interviewmagazine.com/music/lana-del-rey-norman-fucking-rockwell

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Picasso—Rooftops of Barcelona
https://cafleurebon.com/new-perfume-review-cognoscenti-no-32-blue-oud-dannielle-sergent-etude-in-prussian-blue-draw/picasso-landscape-barcelona-blue-period/

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Bente Løvhaug paintings:

https://www.instagram.com/bente.arts/