Contemporary artist with a romantic spirit

By Anni Nørskov Mørch, MA (History of Ideas & Art History), Visual arts curator at Trapholt, Denmark

Can a plain A4 sheet of paper animate tragedies and comedies? Peter Callesen’s hands can. With his technical brilliance and his subtle instinct for the fragility and bewitching potential of human life as well as of the material, he carves meaningful stories out of something as ordinary as the white paper from the printer tray.

Peter Callesen is an outstanding figure in Danish contemporary art. In particular, it is his talent for developing both humorous and suggestive stories out of paper that attracts well-deserved attention. With a knife and an unerring command of the composition he transforms the plain A4 sheet into tales and visual play on words rising from the sheet.
The present article is an attempt to pinpoint some of the general characteristics in Peter Callesen’s art. Which is not to say that the author of the present article is attempting to reveal the conjurer’s tricks, but merely to open a door into his magical universe.

Paper has been Peter Callesen’s favourite material for a number of years, and still is. The way he makes use of the incredible potential of paper is so convincing that he has become “the paper artist” – which he thematizes, not without self-irony, through the title of his latest Danish exhibition with Helene Nyborg Contemporary in 2008: Paperman. The title suggests the close relationsgip between artist and work. The artist is identified and identifies himself through the material he is working with, using himself in his art in more than one sense. Peter Callesen’s face can be recognized in several works from the exhibition, and the themes of the works grow out of personal experiences.
Peter Callesen portrays the moment when dream and reality meet. He creates pictures of the fantastic dreams of childhood and the meeting with the inevitability of reality. He stages this moment in his paper works as well as in his previous performances. “Characteristic of many of my previous works has also been my work with fairy tales and myths as well as re-interpretations of them, together with a return to the land of childhood, as seen for example in my performances Folding, Castle and Floating Castle. This land of childhood is to be found between dream and reality, between potential and illusion, and here where the two conditions meet or collide, in a kind of ‘utopian incarnation’, my works are born, often with the tragic-comical as a result. In these works I also work with the pictures of recollection and the displacement and transformation of these pictures.”

Peter Callesen’s oeuvre

Like most contemporary artists Peter Callesen’ s modes of expression are not confined to one medium or material. Throughout his oeuvre, his total work production, he has also, in addition to paper, used snow and ice as his transitory material, just as he has used drawings, photos, performances and installations as his mediums. Through his choice of material and medium he emphasizes the highly romantic tension between the sensitive and the magnificent which is characteristic of his universe. His works possess a seductive power, just as tempting as the fariy-tale promises about princesses and halves of kingdoms and as the conjurer’s bewitching tricks.

“I work with the poetical and the seductive, which in some cases thematically border on the religious and the meeting with the impossible. I am interested in seducing the viewer and creating a space, pointing towards the sublime and towards a potential disappearance and death, bordering on something ‘Unheimlich’ [ghastly].”

In his paper works Peter Callesen demonstrates that the flatness of paper can rise into a living three-dimensional picture. The pictures he creates out of paper are multi-dimensional in the sense that there is both a positive and a negative form, in which the silhouette, the absent picture, is often the most intense expression. Similarly, the unfolding tale is equivocal, stretched between the strivings of hope and the gravity of reality.

Before Peter Callesen’s fingers found their way to the paper he cast a spell on the museum and gallery visitors with tales in public performances, installations and drawings. Before this the painting was the focal point for his studies at the Jutland Academy of fine Arts in Aarhus and at Goldsmith College in London, which he embarked on after a couple of years’ architecture studies. (“In fact, I only did painting in the first year at the Academy, after which I worked with video and performance.”) However, it is the same existential and unanswerable questions around faith, hope, identity and failure that haunt his works by sea or by land, in snow, paper and performance, with humor and pungency.

Faith, hope and failure

Both in his early performances and in the present current paper works Peter Callesen has worked with tragi-comical figures plunging into reckless projects that fail in spite of a persistent effort. If ‘sympathetic’ had not been a far too peevish word for the fundamental human longings and dreams which the projects aim at fulfilling, all the projects might be said to be sympathetic in spite of their reckless objective. As for the previous performances, the rule typically applies that after hubris follows nemesis. Not in the sense that a moral sentence is passed on the tragi-comical figures learning their lesson the hard way. On the other hand the luckless heroes, hoping to be able to achieve the impossible, come up against the hard obstacle of realities, in the shape of gravity being insurmountable, the power of water over paper or the incompatibility of reality and picture.

In subsequent works the tragic hero’s heart-rending failure seems to be increasingly replaced by the artist working with the beauty and poetry of insisting on reaching the impossible.
Through the oeuvre runs a romantic vein, and many of the existential questions raised in the works are repeated although the perspective is warped. Many of the previous works carry literary references to e. g. fairy tales, treating themes like the lost land of childhood, the frailty of the notion of masculinity while producing fresh suggestions for modern memento mori pictures which have served throughout the history of art to remind us of the transitoriness of life. Subsequent works address the artist’s role from a more psychological and complex perspective, and the existential questions that are raised have a more metaphysical angle, the latest works involving a specifically Christian set of motifs.

“I am very much inspired by the painters of Romanticism. For example, I have created several works referring directly to paintings by Casper David Friedrich. Like him I work with symbols in art, often ascribing meanings to Nature that transcend the merely biological. My way of attempting the impossible can be said to be a romantic tendency, too.
Furthermore, I think that in my art there can sometimes be said to be indications of our being part of a greater context – a context that is greater than ourselves, but which we may merely sense or even not understand at all.”

Romanticism is not a style, but a mode of perception. A melancholy and wistful mood, which leaves its mark on the way we look at the world and the self. On the terms of contemporary art something as ordinary as sheets of A4 paper becomes the bearer of a romantic tension between frailty and grandeur.

Contemporary artist with a romantic spirit

In practice Peter Callesen’s artistic approach relates to the contemporary art, which is trendsetting in all its diversity today. This is particularly interesting to keep in mind in relation to the most recent works, which deal with a Christian set of motifs. Today the question how to make pictures of God is often posed either by a Bible-illustrating, didactic picture practice or by a more modernistic, abstract and evocative picture practice, but rarely on the terms of contemporary art.
Contemporary art is not a well-defined category of objects, practices and experiences. Characteristically, contemporary art is split into numerous stylistic positions and is not held together by a shared ideological approach. Contemporary art has replaced ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern’ as expressions of current art. The meaning of the word is both evident and obscure. Pragmatically, though, contemporary art can be defined as the art that is created today. However, several characteristics can be identified for the art labelled this way.
Contemporary art is art, which is created either today or in the immediate past which the present has a fundamental affinity with. This immediate past goes back to the 1960’ies. From September 2008 to March 2009 MOMA (Museum of Modern Art in New York) housed an exhibition: Here is Eternity. Four Decades of Contemporary Art. The fact that contemporary art goes back to the time before some of today’s most prominent contemporary artists were born indicates that there is more to it than the immediate current interest in the shape of production dates behind the concept of contemporary art. In fact, not all art from this period of roughly 40 years will be naturally categorized as contemporary art.

This is bound to mean that there are also common denominators, which are dealt with in specific ways in the so-called contemporary art. One of these characteristics is an enormous diversity, which may help to explain the vague denominator: contemporary art. A more substantial definition may be found in the interest of contemporary art in what is going on in one’s own age. For the contemporary artist it is typically of no importance whether the work has a long life; the crucial point is whether the work is relevant in its own day and age.
Temporality, that is: time as an ingredient in a work of art, is a dominant characteristic in contemporary art. Obvious examples are unique temporary works and works with non-permanent materials. In performances the work consists of action and of the relations between artist and audience or between work and surroundings. Performanceis a kind of theatre with no text-based manuscript, staged in a specific place at a specific moment in time and which only live on in case of photo documentation. Another example is works with the characteristics of a classical work of art, such as a painting in which the time element has been incorporated in the form of perishable and changeable materials like margarine, urine or very thick paint, which after the brush has been laid down is still seeping down the canvas, slowly, but surely. Temporality is a general characteristic in Peter Callesen’s oeuvre. Performances, a foot cast in snow, paper installations that are destroyed after the closing of the exhibition, and paper works that are a mere sneeze away from disappearing in their original form – they are all types of works from Peter Callesen’s hand, working with time and in it.
Over and above the traditional artistic modes of expression, such as painting, sculpture and graphics, contemporary artists also work cross-medially in performances and installations together with a long string of new (mass)media from photography to video, the internet, etc. Similarly, contemporary art transcends boundaries by moving into society and joining merrily in discussing political questions, social relations, the pictures of pop culture and the methods of mass media.

“The art of the eighties and the nineties may first of all have demonstrated the fact that there is no watertight barrier between art and culture. Neither when the artists consciously wish for this barrier, nor when they make a conscious attempt to break it down. The borderlines between art and context or between art and non-art are fluid, being a no-man’s land between art and the world.”
The New Danish History of Art, vol. 10, p. 233

When contemporary art moves into society it often becomes ‘space-specific’. As the term suggests, space-specific art deals with works created for a specific space, often in the public domain. In contemporary art, typically as a temporary installation, interacting with its surroundings and its people. A decoration commission would also relate to the place to be decorated. However, it is not normally this type of works that is referred to with the term space-specific contemporary art as the latter is typically temporary and adopts a polemical relation to its surroundings.

One of the characteristic strategies of contemporary art is appropriation. The art of appropriation is an art of acquisition in which art takes possession of objects, pictures or extracts from the art of history which are then exhibited as art or become part of works of art through which the appropriated objects are endowed with a new meaning. One of the more sensational conceptual works of this kind is Piero Manzoni’s Socle du monde in which the artist appropriates the entire planet by means of one trick. By naming his work Socle du monde, placing a base on the earth and mounting bronze letters upside down on the base Piero Manzoni turns our image of the Earth upside down. The Italian conceptual artist is one of Peter Callesen’s sources of inspiration. In fact, according to his sketches his installation Earth is a tribute to… Manzoni.
Like the remainder of the ‘post-post-modern’ picture-consuming generation Peter Callesen also goes for the pictures of art history, the church and popular culture as one huge file of coequal pictures for inspiration and further investigation. Here the power of the statement of the individual picture in relation to the project in question is of vital importance if it is to be cited.

“As a matter of fact I have a pretty pragmatic relationship to my use of pictures. For me there is no real difference between using a picture from the history of art or a photo from the newspaper or the internet. My using a great many pictures from the art of history is probably due to the fact that they are pictures I know and have a relationship to, and because there is of course a reason why these particular pictures have become part of the history of art, namely that they are fantastic and fascinating pictures.”

In the context of contemporary art, for an artist it is more or less reactionary to employ allegories and symbols, which makes Peter Callesen’s romantic and Christian motifs exceptional. In spite of the modern world having lost an unambiguous context in the world, Peter Callesen’s choice of Christian motifs is predominantly identifiable symbolic references; we just happen to know them from another context than that of contemporary art. In his latest works he employs well-known iconic Christian motifs without deconstructing them ironically or in a politicizing manner for some institutional or religious-critical purpose. In keeping his fascination of the impossible mission Peter Callesen has decided to examine how, as a contemporary artist, one can make pictures of God today.


Paper as a metaphor is often seen as an image of what is entirely empty of meaning. For example, being like a blank sheet of paper is a poor starting point for solving any problem. Or it is like the unrealized potential of the white sheet in the typewriter, which scares the writer into a writer’s block.
Today it is a favorite saying that we live in the paper-less society. But more than ever we use enormous amounts of paper: printing paper, toilet paper, money, books, wrapping paper and wrapping In general. But even though our daily lives are increasingly wrapped up in paper, we rarely see this as more than a neutral medium for information. We are generally blind to the material substance and the endless potential of paper. Like most essential values and things lying at the root of our lives, paper also becomes a banality whose inherent characteristics are forgotten. In this way paper is the material closest to being nothing in all its generality, distribution, whiteness and blank-ness.
Paper holds the rare combination of qualities and combinations that it is both fragile and multi-functional, nothing special as well as being just anything. What material would then be better suited to tell about formidable realities and crumpled-up failures? The limitations of paper present a challenge for Peter Callesen’s technical and craftsmanlike command of the material, and the banality of paper laves him free to develop the most dramatic tales.

The first work in A4 paper from Peter Callesen’s hand was a gimmick in an exhibition catalogue. In this catalogue he left one page with a complicated pattern, calling on the reader to fold his own fairy-tale castle from this sheet. The point was to offer the reader an impossible but tempting challenge, a challenge which Peter Callesen himself was not able to ignore, of course. What seemed to be impossible turned out to be possible, and this became the start of his long series of paper works challenging himself as well as the viewer in the shape of castles and numerous other motifs.
Peter Callesen has worked with a kind of dogma rules in a long series of his paper works in Size A4 (though not A4 only). Logic dictates that only this particular sheet is used, that nothing is added, and that after cutouts the silhouette reveals the building materials of the three-dimensional picture, but is also a motif in itself. Whereas the three-dimensional picture is the technically sensational one, the negative picture appears more laden as far as meaning goes, which makes the absent statement become the more present statement.

The paper cuts develop into adopting larger formats and larger portions of the room as well, some hanging on walls and continuing on to the floor with no frame, others spreading to cover an entire room with no frame and no distinct limitations. This maintains the interaction, which Peter Callesen has worked intensely with in his performances. The A4 works possess a performativity by virtue of the fact that they display their own process of creation, and that the large paper works serve as installations physically influencing the viewer by capturing his or her room. By way of being large installations the paper works dominate the rooms they are exhibited in, but because they are displayed with no frames and podiums the fact is dramatized that a mere touch can destroy the work.


Peter Callesen’s working method is conceptual in the sense that one idea is the starting point for the process. He views the total picture from the effect he wishes it to provide, or the tale he wishes to pass on, or the visual pun he wishes to display. Then begins a composition task in which sketches and models are tested out until he is able to create the entire work from one piece of paper, so that it emerges with the lightness of a conjurer, as if the conception of the idea, the implementation and the final presentation have taken place in one breathless moment.

“I sometimes say that my things are reverse Magrittes – referring to his pipe: ‘This is not a pipe’. I insist that in the picture there is more than one can see. Or that something else emerges from the picture. I insist that the picture holds a reality. Manifesting itself the silhouette gets closer to reality. Formerly my things dealt more with failure; now they deal with the insistence that there is also a reality in the picture. I do not know if they can be said to be transcending, but they do go beyond…”

René Magritte was one of the main figures of surrealism and well-known for his play with optical illusions and motifs, like the man in the bowler and the pipe, subtitled: “This is not a pipe”, meaning that it is a painting of a pipe. Through the title Magritte emphasizes the fact that the magic of the picture consists of the illusion: that the artist makes us recognize painting on a canvas as real objects. When Peter Callesen calls his works reverse Magrittes, he points to the fact that they do not create an illusion of spatiality, but are really converted from 2D to 3D. The magic of his works is that here a creative process has taken place; something new has revealed itself physically.
Peter Callesen’s works themselves point at their creational process as a part of the meaning of the works. Apparently the process has been placed in front of us in all its simplicity, all the foldings are accessible to our inquiring eyes, but how it takes place is still seductively inscrutable.
This is the red thread running through the paper, snow, performances, installations and drawings of the oeuvre. A red thread of seduction and of hopeful yearning to be able to straddle the crevice between picture and reality.

All the Peter Callesen quotations come from the artist’s home page and from interviews and correspondence between Peter Callesen, Gerd Rathje and the author of the present article in the year leasing up to the exhibition series “Out of Nothing”. Museum for Religious Art, Lemvig, Denmark, Trapholt, Kolding, Denmark, Mjellby Art Museum, Halmstad, Sweden and Haugar Art Museum, Norway.