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Ambiguity and Realism with Lasse Thorst

To coincide with an exclusive launch of five new paintings by Lasse Thorst, our Curator Phin Jennings visited his studio in Denmark to learn more about the importance of harmony, symbolism and ambiguity in his work.

By Phin Jennings | 20 Sept 2023

“I love that I can fuck it up with one brushstroke. But I can also save it: there’s something at stake.” It is a sunny, chilly Friday morning and I am in Lasse Thorst’s light-filled studio in Aalborg, Denmark, choosing works for his upcoming launch. In front of us is Portrait, a painting in oil on paper of an ambiguous-featured character whose slightly amorphous shirt collar is the same shade of blue as his face. We are talking about how unforgiving it can be to work on paper. Unlike canvas or board, marks on paper are difficult to work over or scrape off without leaving evidence. Each mark is indelible and, once applied, can’t be reversed.

Ambiguity and Realism with Lasse Thorst
Portrait (2023, oil on paper, 32 x 21cm)

It is a continuation of a conversation that started the night before with the artist showing me Egon Schiele’s Sleeping Couple, a drawing from the early 20th Century. 80% of the image is taken up by a swathe of unmarked paper that stands in for a blanket, enrobing the couple. Thorst’s Portrait is similarly economical; its subject’s cheeks and jaw are empty, their facial features rendered in faltering, monochromatic strokes and their ears and hat not clearly separated from their face. Clearly this artist, whose painting of a blue and vaguely-rendered face I am looking at, does not thinking of painting without realism as fucking it up.

Well, that depends on how you define “realistic”. There is a realism in Thorst’s work that has little to do with simply representing things as they appear. Ambiguity exists everywhere, and perhaps the most honest paintings are those that embrace it. He is part of a centuries-old tradition of painters who have avoided simple realism, employing unexpected colours and forms in the pursuit of a truer portrayal of the world. He tells me that Norway had Edvard Munch, Germany had Emil Nolde and in Denmark, between the two countries, he is impacted by both artists.

Ambiguity and Realism with Lasse Thorst

He explains his painting in terms of the quote broadly attributed to Miles Davis: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” He would rather create something that makes sense on its own terms – something harmonious – than something that is straightforwardly “correct”. Personal style, as well as representation, is important. As such, his paintings feature characters and spaces rendered in unexpected colours and shapes, in unlikely situations (Moth Honey, whose protagonist’s mouth is covered by an opportunely-placed winged insect, comes to mind). Thorst clearly takes detours from painting things as he sees them but, he tells me, “I always find my way home.” This home isn’t a reality that I am exactly familiar with- it’s a new one where not much is recognisable, but nothing feels wrong.

Ambiguity and Realism with Lasse Thorst
Moth Honey (2023, oil on canvas, 40 x 30cm)

The people who Thorst paints are based on archetypes and stock characters from folklore, literature and art. “They are symbolic characters,” he explains to me, “we all know them.” And it’s true; I recognise figures like the clown, the magician and the artist in his paintings, and I bring my own ideas of them to my experience of the work. Again, I am struck by the way that the artist weaves his own idiosyncratic kind of realism into the paintings. In Thorst’s words, “we feel safe with them,” because we think of them as part of a world that, though not our own, we have each become familiar with in our own way. This is a kind of realism that goes deeper than appearances, and allows the viewer to relate to the paintings their own terms. Here, Thorst’s world meets with the viewer’s.

Ambiguity and Realism with Lasse Thorst

The series of paintings that form this launch are based around the nightshade, a family of plant whose members include fruits and vegetables, ornamental flowers, psychoactive and poisonous substances. All of the images are set at nighttime, the setting sun in Sea Change forming the story’s introduction. The nightshade’s characteristic fluted funnel-shaped flowers can be seen in almost all of the works and, like the characters who they surround, hold symbolic meaning beyond the image. They represent a kind of ambivalence – they are beautiful, deadly, nourishing, mind-altering. In the hands of Thorst’s cast of characters, it’s difficult to know how they will be, or have already been, used. Are they menacing or friendly? Are these scenes real or the product of a nightshade-induced trip? “That’s what the night does to you,” Thorst laughs, leaving me with a feeling of ambiguity that is somehow more real than any definite answer.

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