Bente Christensen-Ernst does not invite us into her world meekly. Her hyper-realist, in-your-face images defy any guessing- games or sense of ambiguity. They command attention and will not be overlooked. Party to a present-day world of very speedy image-consumption, the onlooker delights in the gratification of instant recognisability. One glance and we’ve passed the threshold into a mimetic world. This is easy! Here a couple of pears, celebrating the lush textures and colours of the physical world, there a grenade; here are two women window-shopping and over there ripe olives nestling among their leaves. A style inflated with recognisability. At first glance.
So let’s start again and go into second-glance mode. Past the diagnostic into a deeper philosophy on the surface, and, without wanting to paraphrase Alice, a Wonderland opens up before us. A parallel universe stamped with its own “form-sense”, underpinned by a four hundred year old Western tradition of nature morte, where we think we are looking at reality but we are not. A universe characterized by skilful brushwork, taut, referential composing, larger-than-life figurative construction, bringing a sort of pictorial majesty to the mundane, a sort of highly-focussed underpinning of the value of imagery in art. This essentially is Hyperrealism. Categorizations are dangerous, and sometimes just aid the sloppy, but it is impossible to look at Bente Christensen’s oeuvre and not place her in this genre.
Objects in Hyperrealism – the sequitur of Pop Art – although photographic in essence are meticulously detailed to create the illusion of a reality not seen in the original photo used to gather the initial information. This tension between the supposedly real and the heightened unreal is what makes us want, more and more, to look at and be drawn in by the ironic originality of Bente’s world. Coupled with her almost playful use of metaphor she seduces us with her brand of narrative via the titles of her work. This is a world where fish are a mixture of fauna and flora, (Nevizade 2007,) with mouths and eyes ringed by tendrils, fins like leaves. Fish or illusion? A close-up of blackberries – one very much darker than the rest – are not there to be eaten but to remind us of racial inequality (“Harlem”). A green and a red pepper entwined in an almost human embrace tells us of “Young Love”. A potato-like form, veined and stained, crowned with shoots that could be innards, tendrils or even strangely-humanoid forms, reminds us of the transient nature of life with its title “Out of Fashion”. A portrait of her husband in a fez throws a playful light on a Danish-Turkish culture mix. A hugely amusing portrait of a pug dog is titled “A Young Danish Art Critic”.
Bente Christensen’s metaphorical “cludo”comes into its own in the politics of the exhibition’s title: “At the Syrian Border”. Here the irony-charged content of her work voyages into more threatening waters. To paraphrase the art critic RC Morgan, she has taken the images of our time and transformed them into powerful symbols of political endorsement. As in: “Are you looking at Me?”, a monumental close-up of a pair of penetrating eyes shrouded by a Palestinian scarf. The audacity of the question by someone staring so pointedly does not soften the threat. The enjoyment evoked by the almost sensuous depiction of the eyes and eyebrows is in certain conflict with the message. “Bashful Virgins “, a bunch of tightly-closed daffodil buds, reminds us of a woman’s role - or at least, that which is expected of her- in that border region. “Capital Punishment”, a cut-off fish’s head and “Battlefield”, a tour de force of halved green and red peppers, are free-floating signifiers of all that’s happening in those troubled a eas. “Window Shopping in Damascus”, two beauties in mauve and blue chadors and designer sunglasses, stylized into bright red-lipped window mannequins remind us of easier more happy-go-lucky-days. Bente Christensen indicates truthiness with paintings that contemporaneous with the Syrian war are full of reference to the tensions of the region. Her exhibition title aims to do this too but the artist is not a bold provocateur. She is an anecdotal portraitist – I specifically include all flora and fauna here ! Her work is a stark contrast in mild but very accentuated irony to, let’s say, the distinct visual language and at times agressively-charged content of a Taner Ceylan . Bente Christensen provokes thought and prompts a smile of recognition, without aggression. Her title and subsequently the works of the exhibition are an homage to a dual-cultured life – the artist lives for ca. six months of the year near just such a Syrian border – and the unavoidable tensions linked to the conflict-ridden region nearby.
With such hyper-realistic and graphically confident compositions, the viewer often wonders how this is attained. Without wanting to take the wizardry out of the mastery let’s see in the artist’s own wordwhat she does: “I add objects or I simplify. I stylize things trying to paint the idea, if possible turning it into a metaphor……Sometimes I leave things out. I use normal brushes, sometimes I use my fingers….. I use my own photos which I manipulate and at times I change the settings and colours. I draw the work on the canvas before painting the object. With portraits I first take many photos…then I start painting…..”
The final word goes to the “sister-in-arms” for all Hyperrealist painters, the “Mother of American Modernism” Georgia O’Keeffe, whose paintings of enlarged blossoms, presented close up as if seen through a magnifying lens, played on ambiguous association. Bente goes many steps further and elevates hers to humour.
“It is only by selection, be elimination and by emphasis that we get the real meaning of things”…..
Thank you Bente for leading us – not meekly – into the meaning of things.
Paula Domzalski MA
Art Historian, Curator
Mature fruits and edged stalks
It is always easy to recognise Bente Christensen-Ernst on her subjects. Her paintings consist of either portraits or pictures of fruit and vegetable. Her canvasses are often very large. But this alone does not explain her special position among contemporary Danish artists. The reason for this is rather found in her way of painting and in her artistic approach in general. Contrary to so-called neo-realistic painters, who like Niels Strøbek take pride in depicting the richness of details and in their trompe d'euil effect, Bente Christensen-Ernst works at simplifying the forms and minimizing the shades of colour, and consequently she has her roots with the American pop-art. Painting a pear she does not intend to represent the fruit as naturalistically as possible. She is fascinated by the oblong, round and soft aspects of the subject and by its geometric form, as opposed to the wedge-shaped chilli pepper for example. She is also interested in the way the pear functions as a sign.
Thus we are to understand the paintings of Bente Christensen-Ernst by reading them on the surface, in the associative interplay between the geometrical forms and the symbolic value of the fruit, as when she gives the name "Torso" to a painting of a delicious, juicy, green pear or when she gives a row of herbs the "pictorial" title of "Relay Race".
The shapes are often built on opposites: soft round shapes in contrast to those sharp and twisted. This is clearly demonstrated in the exaggerated difference between the body of the fruit and its stalk. It is difficult not to interpret this as a way of featuring the sexual difference: Rounded feminine shapes against edged masculine shapes. Whether this blunt Jungian approach is relevant or not , this is in fact the element of uncertainty that the artist is playing on - and mostly doing so with the greatest zest and humour.
TOM JØRGENSEN (Kunstavisen, April 1999)
It is said that Bente Christensen-Ernst in her portraits has been influenced by the American painter Chuck Close, but in fact she has also been influenced by the strongly retouched passport photos in Turkey and by the huge portraits of Ataturk that are hung on official buildings in Turkey during public holidays.
Cumhuriyet, Istanbul, 30 April 2000
Bente Christensen-Ernst who began her artistic career in Turkey has continued her activity in Denmark. She draws our attention by her persistent and original style. In her paintings everyday items that we tend to ignore are magnified and become rather awe-inspiring. Instead of depicting things as they look like, Bente Christensen-Ernst is an artist who has managed to go beyond their appearance. The fruit and vegetables that are the motifs of most of her paintings also symbolize the relationship between the sexes and between life and death.
Maison Française, Istanbul, May 2000
Humour in Sculpture and Painting
The works have been influenced by the time the artist has spent in Turkey. A pair of hands folded in prayer: Round as those of a chubby child. Due to the pitch-black background you imagine a long dark garment and a devout face somewhere outside the frame of the painting.
A picture of a big bunch of long, green, shining peppers is anthropomorphically expressive. It is as if the fruits in collective ecstasy seem to caress one another. Those to the right are slightly paler than those to the left. The title of the painting is: Men and women.
Many of the titles underline the ambiguity of the pictures. A big, dry potato found in a dark cellar is called: Art historian. The vigorous white sprouts you see on the top of the potato look like the hairstyle of a professor. The potato seems ready to come up with some new revolutionary work.
A close-up picture of red radishes with their white roots tangled up as in close co-operation is called: The National Football Team.
The works of Bente Christensen-Ernst are fascinating by their precision and expressiveness. The fact that they are decorative as well is just an extra asset.
LEIF BØGH (Nordjyske Stiftstidende, November 17. 2004)
More real than reality
The artist Bente Christensen-Ernst made her début on the Spring Exhibition of the Charlottenborg Museum in 1989 and on the Artists' Autumn Exhibition on "Den Frie" the following year.
She drew so much attention that she was invited by the Charlottenborg Museum to join the Autumn Exhibition of 1991. It is a common practice to invite the artists who make it through the "needle's eye" of the hanging committee.
Bente Christensen-Ernst exhibited eight very realistic canvasses depicting fruit and vegetables. I especially remember the painting of seven rosy radishes with green tops and white fibrous roots. On the huge canvas (150 x 150 cm) they seemed like a monument.
I was so fascinated of this radish painting that I intended to buy the picture as a gift to my wife in recognition of her "green fingers" and the delicious root vegetables she grows in our garden.
As for the colours one was reminded of the battle song of the soccer fans: "We are red, we are white, ..." There was almost a national mood with the radishes. But that was not what tempted me.
But the canvas was sold even before the opening of the exhibition. What a bother! A talent scout, the sculptor Peter Bonnén bought it under my very nose to the association "Art on the Job" where he works as an adviser. This of course was a compliment to the painter. Peter Bonnén is alive to support young artists, and those "a little older" as well, when they need it most.
Some art critics wondered at this very figurative début on an exhibition that generally has been much more neo-expressionistic and wild in its character. But her works were well received, also by the art critics of the newspapers.
Although Bente Christensen-Ernst has a figurative approach to her motifs, she is not so "old-fashioned" as the undertones might have suggested. She was immediately classified among realistic painters rooted in both superrealism and neo-realism. Both these isms that started in USA already in the early 60's, were in Denmark adopted by painters as Niels Strøbek, Jørgen Geisted and Erling Steen.
These names were unknown to her, as she started her career as a painter while when in her 40's she stayed for several years in the Turkish capital of Ankara where her husband was studying Arabic.
On the other hand, on the Louisiana Museum close to Copenhagen she had with enthusiasm become acquainted with the American masters, and she immediately felt that this style was to be her point of departure. Even today certain parallels with the great names can be observed, but in spite of this, one has to admit that she has managed to give her pictures body and substance in a personal way - and authority as well.
She has the coolness of the Americans, but nothing of the interplay between the "Golden Age" and the renaissance in Danish painting that is observed with the Danish realists. On this point she is more up to date and reveals a great admiration for the simple expression of the cartoons. Also her minimalistic combinations that fortify and intensify her reality, makes her more contemporary.
This is especially apparent in the picture of the radishes, but also in her other paintings where her motifs are heaps of flowers, peaches, lemons, carrots, tomatoes, yellow and red pepper fruits, dates and so on. The motifs are a repetition of the fruits and she builds up the painting by several coatings, sometimes as much as 20-25. Only the she is satisfied with the transparent "silky skin" or surface that gives the canvasses their peculiar magical radiance.
The same phenomenon is seen in more simple paintings where she in a perplexing way demonstrates what it takes to make a tree grow. It is a fantastic sight.
She finds her motifs in her daily life, and by "magnifying" them she in a way turns them into monuments. Even the less important things, those we often tend to disregard, are not forgotten.
The monumental aspect is also seen in her portraits. No doubt she has learned something from the American superrealist Chuck Close. He magnified photos of various persons and created a reality more real than the one seen on the photos. His paintings are more naked than those of Bente Christensen-Ernst who uses a higher degree of colours and shades.
On the Museum of National History on the Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød you can find a wonderful picture of the author Henrik Nordbrandt. Bente Christensen-Ernst has painted him wearing a Turkish fez pressed down over the his brows. Still he seems to notice everything that is going on around him.
The self-portrait of Bente Christensen-Ernst that has been shown at many exhibitions, is in many ways a counterpart to the portrait of Henrik Nordbrandt. But although she has learned something from Chuck Close, she is still very different and all together her own. This also applies to her portrait.
In the portrait she has made of the actor Ove Sprogø she has fused more portrait into one. In the very same painting you find both Egon from the "Olsen gang" movies, the doctor from the Matador" series and Ove Sprogø himself. When depicting people she tends to be cheeky and ironic, but in more official portraits, as of chairmen and mayors, she has to behave although she may find it difficult. Never call her boring!
Bente Christensen-Ernst is so autodidact as any artist may be. She has never been to any art school or any academy. She has learned it all by her self. Presently she is associated with Gallerihuset, Studiestræde 19 in Copenhagen. This gallery has arranged for her to exhibit her paintings in one of the big German galleries in Bremen.
She has her workshop in a basement in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen. She likes to have people dropping in to see how an artist works. Everybody is enthused over her precision, which plays an important role in giving character to her paintings.
ALEX STEEN (Danish art critic)