Alfred on the Fence
At the construction site for the new Government Quarter, a seven-metre-long and four-metre-high painting by Alfred Brekke hangs on the temporary fencing. In total, the piece consists of 16 individual paintings Alfred made while simultaneously finishing his graduation project for a Bachelor of Fine Art degree. We took a closer look at the process at select few moments throughout 2021.
Titled You Are Here Now, the work by Alfred Brekke is on display in the square in front of the Supreme Court in Oslo, where it will hang for a year. The construction hoarding includes works by the graffiti artists David Stenmarck and Espen Henningsen, who go by the name of DogE and who have created the colourful Garden of Peace in front of the old Oslo Public Library, and by Sling, one of the few women in Oslo’s graffiti community, who has created the work Sling Theory in front of Møllergata 19. The artists have also teamed up to create a work along the temporary fencing in Akersgata, where Alfred’s contribution consists of five boards featuring oil and acrylic painting, while the others have sprayed their works directly onto the hoarding.
We followed this process from 15 April 2021, when the artists had convened for the first time in order to inspect the hoarding where their works were to be displayed.
“Since this is a construction site, we’ve ordered an eight-cubic-metre container, mobile scaffolds, protective gear and vests. But what about paint and spray cans – can they get hold of such materials now that the stores are closed because of the pandemic?" Birgitte Bye arrives from Statsbygg’s communications team to check that everyone has what they need during the lockdown. Bye is serving as the project’s curator.
“The construction work is visually noisy and is a nuisance here in central Oslo, so we wanted to give something back to the city,” she explains. “We’ve previously had positive experiences with letting artists display their works on the construction hoarding around the new National Museum complex. Sling participated in that project as well and her work there was very well received, and after the project she has for example made a collection for the Helly Hansen clothing firm.”
“I discovered Alfred in 2019, when I was showing off Grünerløkka and my old workplace at KHiO to an American friend who was visiting me. By chance we ended up at a group exhibition for second-year Bachelor’s students at the Academy of Fine Art, where four of Alfred’s portraits were on display. My friend was instantly captivated – he asked about the price and bought two of the portraits on the spot. We felt that the pictures, with their psychological insight, called to mind a movement within figurative painting known as the School of London, which consisted of famous artists such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. I contacted Alfred a few days after the exhibition and suggested this project. Alfred has a wonderful use of colour, and he is really adroit at perspective as well – and that’s needed here, because the ground inclines a bit where he’ll be hanging his work.”
Referring to how Alfred’s parents are both architects, Birgitte laughingly suggests that that is perhaps why he masters perspective so well. Moreover, Alfred’s maternal grandmother was also an artist and became friends with David Hockney while studying with him at the Bradford School of Art.
“I paint things that are in the vicinity of where the picture is going to hang,” Alfred explains as we pay a visit to his studio at KHiO. “I also add elements that aren’t there, but that could be found or that I sometimes create after I’ve included them in the pictures. That’s my way of playing around with sequentiality and representation.” Alfred’s studio is full of paintings and wooden sculptures in a jumbled mix. If you look closely, you may recognise some of the sculptures in the pictures. It makes you wonder whether the sculpture or the picture was created first.
“Here is a sculpture of my father. I usually paint him every summer. I’ve done that since I was little. In general, I’ve always drawn and painted, but it wasn’t until I turned 18 that I decided to become an artist. Before KHiO I attended the Strykejernet art school here in Oslo, where we were given a lot of freedom and allowed to really let loose.”
After we walk around in the studio and talk some more, the faces in some of the pictures suddenly seem oddly familiar – and for a reason, it turns out.
“I have a good friend who I’ve painted a lot. Early Renaissance painters often used the same face for different people in the same picture, and they inspired me to include my friend that way in my pictures. I envisage the painting as a portal into a separate reality – if you had gone into the painting, there are several windows to new worlds. When I’m planning this current work, which will run across 16 boards, I am inspired by the Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, who is particularly famous for his portraits and for his treatises on perspective in art.”
Alfred i atelieret sitt på KHiO. / Alfred in his studio at KHiO.
The next time we meet Alfred, on 24 May, is at St. Olavs Gate 32, where the former Norwegian National Academy of Fine Arts was located from 1981 to 2010. Statsbygg has allowed him to use the skylit Room 08 there as a studio. It is in this same building that Alfred is holding a graduation exhibition along with his classmates, a final farewell before the building is to be sold. We visit during the exhibition’s final day, and there are many attendees who want to talk with Alfred about his graduation work Creation Creates Creating, which includes a bust of his father.
“Since we last met, I’ve spent much of my time on finishing my graduation project, but I’ve also begun testing out various forms of architecture, and I’ll also be testing out full-scale people. I’ve also decided that all of the 16 boards should be able to work as individual paintings in their own right.”
Leaving the exhibition, we walk up to Alfred’s brightly lit studio, where he shows us his sketches of all 16 boards.
“I try to create a graphic space first and then add the colours, so that I can just paint it in later on.”
Birgitte Bye, who is also in attendance, tells us that Garden of Peace was finished the night before. Encompassing 120 metres of graffiti outside the former main library branch in Oslo, the piece is imagined as a dialogue with the artist Arne Lindås’s (1924–2011) mural Garden of Eden, which the municipality removed from the walls of the Hammersborg Tunnel beneath the Government Quarter.
“There’s been a lot of rain this spring, so David and Espen’s plan of working from eight to three had to be abruptly changed to twelve-hour shifts from eight in the morning to eight in the evening on days without rain,” Bye explains. “Naturally, Alfred, who is the only participant using paint, has a longer deadline to complete his work. This will in any case kickstart your post-KHiO career, Alfred! I hope someone gives you the chance to hold an exhibition after this project.”
“The expectation has to be that this will be my best painting,” Alfred says before we leave.
On the wall
Friday, 10 September, is the day for mounting the work – 16 boards, spanning seven metres in length and four metres in height. In addition to completing this large-scale work, Alfred mounted five smaller works for his collaboration with Sling and DogE the week before. Passers-by glance curiously at the artists striving to mount their works on the fence, and radio reporters from NRK’s local branch have also met up to speak with Alfred.
“It was amazing to see the piece in its entirety and that it works so well in its surroundings,” Bye says. “I was also happy to see that the work has such a solid frame, one that the contractor UCO installed.” Bye was present when the work was being mounted and tells us that many people were interested in Alfred and his art.
“Employees from the Ministry of Culture were on their way to work when we mounted the piece, and some of them even took selfies with Alfred, with his art serving as the background. I’m just so proud of Alfred – he’s poured his entire heart and soul into this work.”
You Are Here Now
“Family members and friends have modelled for me,” Alfred explains. “If we take a look at the pictures, starting in the upper left, the first one is a self-portrait, then comes Felix from my class, who I’ve collaborated with in various projects. Then comes my sister and my nephew – I painted them at their place. My father is standing there in the window, looking outwards.”
So you managed to paint him this summer as well?
“I sure did,” Alfred laughs, “but this time he wanted to be a bit more anonymous. My mother is the one standing there next to the car. The landscape around her is from Stavern – this entire summer I’ve done nothing but paint, so when my mother went to Stavern for the summer, I chose to paint her there so that I could go for a swim every now and then. The Stavern landscape is also reflected in the car. For the collaboration with Sling and DogE, I also created a version of the car – a somewhat odd version.”
“The three people walking on the pavement are three versions of my mate Benjamin. He’s wearing different clothes in different styles, and he also had time for a haircut in between the painting sessions. This idea of using the same person has of course been inspired by the early Renaissance painters – in their paintings you sometimes wonder whether for example both Jesus and the Virgin Mary are in fact the same model.”
“And finally, you have my girlfriend Iris, who is sitting there in the middle in a silver dress. The dress hangs permanently on a peg just inside the door of our studio – we had to hang it there so we were sure not to lose it in between the sessions. I’ve also included the coffee maker from the office, along with a coffee cup and some other odds and ends that surround me in everyday life.”
The dean of the Academy of Fine Art, Sarah Elsie Lookofsky, is extremely pleased that Alfred has been given this unique opportunity to display his work of art in a public space, right after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree.
“The location – right between the most prominent government buildings, and close to where the Yblokka building stood with its Picasso mural decorations – makes you think of what the role of art in society both is and can be. Alfred has chosen to use the pictorial space to take us inside this public area, inside a home, inside a gallery, among people he knows. The words ‘you’ and ‘here’ in the title You Are Here Now – which seem to highlight this juxtaposition of outside and inside, the public and the private – may apply to Alfred, who I recognise in the picture, or it may apply to one of us, here and now.”
On Tuesday, 19 October, we visit Alfred for the final time. Along with his girlfriend Iris April Andresen, he has acquired a studio at Startblokka in Linderudløkka. Located at the former Siemens site, Startblokka is a collaboration between the Bjerke district authorities, the Pådriv network and the StorOslo Eiendom real estate company, and it focuses on becoming a social and inclusive place where people can launch whatever project they want to, according to Startblokka’s presentation of itself.
“Iris and I were in the same class, and now we’re sharing a studio here at Startblokka. We have each our own half of this room. My mate Felix has a studio next to us – there are actually several people here from the Academy of Fine Art.”
Alfred and Iris offer us a cup of coffee and point out the silver dress that is still hanging on a peg right by the door.
“It’s really good to hang out with someone who is engaged in the same type of activity and who knows how completely engrossing it is,” Alfred says, before Iris adds that they are currently working on a joint exhibition to be held at Hos Arne on 19 November.
“We’re extremely happy to have the chance to show our work,” she says. “That is the plan for the both of us – continue to make art and hold exhibitions. And we also intend to travel around a bit to see art and take in some culture.”
“And when my work is taken down from the fence in a year’s time,” Alfred adds, “I envisage holding an exhibition, one where I plan to set up the pictures in new constellations. You can actually find the various boards painted in the work – for example, the board with my self-portrait is in the upper right.”
Did you get to see all the boards as a whole before they were mounted?
“Previously, I had another room here at Startblokka that was a bit bigger, so that I had space enough to lay all the boards out on the floor, and then I climbed up and could look at them from above. Or rather, there was a hole in the work since the board with the painting of my sister and nephew was at their place. So it was a big moment for me when I could be there the day the work was being mounted. On my Instagram account, @afreldb, I’ve posted details from the work and a bit from the process leading to its creation.”
“And we’re also trying to make the hashtag #walkingwithbenjamin happen,” Iris adds. “The idea is that people take a picture of themselves as they walk with Benjamin. There aren’t that many pictures yet, but at least we have one of Benjamin walking with himself!”
When we left you last time, back in May, you mentioned that you were feeling the pressure that this should be your best picture. Do you think it ended up being just that?
“The goal is of course that the pictures should be better for each time, that the last one is the best one. There has of course been a bit of extra pressure in relation to this work, given the location. Fortunately, I think it turned out fairly well – it has of course required a good deal of planning with 16 boards that are not only to become a single work, but that should also be able to stand alone by themselves and also be used in a variety of constellations.”
What do think of the future prospects of the work, which will be out in the open and exposed to the elements?
“I hope and believe that it can take it. I have begun to take a picture every time I walk past, in order to document it in all kinds of weather throughout the year and at various times of the day. I thought about illuminating the work, but it turned out there is a streetlamp right by that lights it all up. I plan on turning the pictures into a time-lapse, which I envision can be used at the exhibition I’m planning after the work is dismantled.”
Do you have somewhere to hold this exhibition?
“No, not yet – so if someone is interested, please contact me!”