Improvised Freedom, Clarity of Light

DANISH artist Kjeld Ulrich now lives and works in the south of France. Most of his career so far, however, has developed in his own country (45 years in Scandinavia; just four in France), and it is in Denmark that he is still best known and where he sells more of his work than elsewhere.

His work has a distinctly northern-European tenor; a cool clarity of light underlies its apparently improvised freedoms. Ruggedness belies an easy elegance, so that lucid spontaneity is saved from slickness by the interruptions of an intriguing awkwardness or primitivism.

Asked if he has been affected by the prehistoric art of the cavemen, he sidesteps the question by pointing out that he now lives near Lascaux - where one of the most remarkable of such caves is - but that he never visits because he is afraid to. The implication is that he wants his own primitive springs of inspiration to be his own and not some secondhand imitation of a remote people.

What he says about his "motifs" is to the point: "I use stupid forms." He loves forms that are "banal," of no intrinsic value. He mentions a "little animal hanging," like a cow, that recurs as one of his motifs, coming down to his present work from something he saw in a butcher's shop 20 years ago.

Ulrich's forms are in fact less important than the color they carry. It is as a colorist that Ulrich first thinks of himself. In the grays he is using at present, he reaches for a full range of fighting colors, but all contained within the grays: He talks of "strong contrasts of red and green." However, the grays do act as a calming and harmonizing presence, transforming what might have been violent into resonant liveliness. He uses black with a strong sensitivity.

When he worked in Denmark, he found that one color he "couldn't use" was "citron yellow." Now that he is in the south of France he is using it vigorously. He puts this down to the light he is now working in. In Scandinavia, he had to work much in artificial light to be able to paint for more than a few hours a day. In France, he works only in natural light.

Ulrich never names his works. But this does not mean he thinks they are abstract. He discredits the idea of painting "nothing."

"Whatever you do becomes something," he says. "The simplest mark can be a landscape."

His work, aimed at a simplicity that is difficult to achieve, allows the imagination of the viewer plenty of elbowroom. It is through color that he commands mood. In this, he acknowledges - though completely without obvious imitation - his admiration for one of Denmark's most haunting, tranquil but intense painters, Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916).

"A painter like that," says Ulrich, "you can't escape from! And I don't want to."

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