It's always pleasant to take a walk along Exhibition Road from South Kensington tube station and in to the gorgeous Kensington Gardens. Past the Albert Memorial and Francis Kere's temporary pavilion and over the bridge, looking out to herons & Egyptian geese on the Long Water, and pedaloes and swans on the Serpentine. It's great that both the Serpentine gallery and its younger sibling, the Serpentine Sackler gallery, are both free but of late I've had one or two disappointing visits so was hesitant about what I'd discover at Stavanger born, Los Angeles based, photographer Torbjorn Rodland's The Touch That Made You exhibition.
I needn't have worried. His portraits, still lifes, though less so his landscapes, are all great. He seeks to 'simultaneously inhabit and defamiliarise the realm of the everyday', to reveal 'layers of discomfort and pleasure', and to create work that is 'conceptually playful and psychologically active' and, for the most part, that's just what he's done.
Rodland's photos aren't just about trying to freak you out. They're made up of pretty prosaic, day to day stuff, on the whole - but, usually, with a little twist. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes less so. The red spots on the girls face in Freckles look a bit alien but she's an attractive young woman and you're asked to consider how you feel about her. It's hard to work out if the Drunken Man is a happy or an angry drunk but what Rodland's trying to focus on is the hand touching his shoulder, the interconnectedness of all people and things.
Human connection is just one of the many themes that thread the show together. Fetishism, playfulness, body shock, the grotesque, and an almost erotic sensation towards things and the surface of things rub up together time and again from the mournful androgyny of Young Head via pictures of babies and toddlers urinating to the horror schlock of Apple, First Abduction Attempt, and Summer Scene. Some of these could be stills from Paranormal Activity or more gruesome slasher flicks that prey on suppressed childhood trauma and fear.
Drunken Man (2014)
Young Head (2013)
First Abduction Attempt (2014-16)
Summer Scene (2014)
Rodland's also big on incorporating recurring tropes so, alongside the flesh, you'll see a surplus of socks, shoes, hair, and cutlery. Honey, too, crops up a lot. Often dripping across the surface in a vaguely pornographic way. Untitled (East Hampton) also plays on an uneasy tryst between sexual desire and discomfort. Attractive smooth skinned girl wearing nothing but - some kind of oven glove decorated with bees! What's going on here?
Untitled (East Hampton) (2005)
Stockings, Jeans and Carpeted Stairs (2013-17)
I think what Rodland is trying to do is to both arouse and make us feel uncomfortable in our arousal at the same time, to confuse, to discombobulate. The muscular male arm cradling a stockinged foot is one thing but an image of Anne Frank on a mobile phone?
Some (Bathroom Tiles, Arms) are aesthetically pleasing in the extreme. You can almost feel the cold of that bathroom floor, wince (or maybe rejoice) at the sensation of an octopus tentacle writhing around your arm, or even smell the blue and white paint in Pump. Others, much less - and those are the ones that don't work so well. Comb Over comes across as a weak joke, Pads is hard to decipher, and The Morning After doesn't appear to even belong in this collection so much of an outlier is it.
Not quite as much as the Andy Capp gelatin silver prints, the room full of supposedly banging techno, or, it would initially seem, the utterly bizarre coda to the exhibition which comes in the form of one of Adolf Hitler's drawings of the Seven Dwarves. The story goes that Hitler owned a copy of the 1937 animated film and screened it to his private circle, the drawings of Bashful and Doc were found hidden behind a watercolour of an Alpine house after the Nazi leader's death. Hitler and the Seven Dwarves? One of real life's most horrendous characters next to some of fiction's most adorable. That would seem to be Rodland and his work in essence.
Blue Portrait (Nokia N82) (2009)
Bathroom Tiles (2010-13)
Comb Over (2015-16)
The Morning After (2005)
Red Pump (2014)
Of course it's pretty difficult to make a career out of finding cartoon characters drawn by megalomaniac mass murderers. It seems unlikely Stalin ever completed a My Little Pony colouring book or that Pol Pot ever got round to finishing a Scooby Doo jigsaw puzzle. So Rodland has aimed to do something similar with the raw materials of everyday life.
Photographing oranges, dust, ear buds, morsels of food, and bent and twisted knives and forks with all the precision of a high end fashion snapper, even his methods involve the fusing of two seemingly disparate styles. The highbrow meets the lowbrow as surely as the paint hits the patent leather, the cream saturates the strawberries, and the strands of hair work their way through some kind of strainer.
Shadow Work no 2 (2014)
Mountain Lake, Evergreen Trees (2007-14)
Plate and Spoon (2015)
The Geller Effect (2014)
Five Berries (2014)
Hair, like Avocado, and much else in Rodland's repertoire plays on the opposing forces of freedom and restraint. The hair, long and free, seeks to escape in just the same way the polka dot handkerchief (?) seeps out of a very unrealistic looking 'avocado'. At the same time they're both, in some way, caged.
With his love of music (there's the aforementioned techno room, a photograph of a Beethoven statue in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and he's even collaborated with musicians from the Norwegian black metal scene) it's no surprise that Rodland is interested in the juxtaposition of structure with informal events, that's how most music works, and if, occasionally, he doesn't quite succeed in hitting the right note most of the time his photography plays a pretty sweet tune, even when you can't quite understand the words.
Disney's Bashful by Hitler (2008-10)