I met the Swedish artist Olof Nimar when I was visiting Malmö in 2017. The next year he invited me to write about his work; this text was published in a small book accompanying his exhibition “Wet Hair” at the Gislaveds Konsthall, in Gislaved, Sweden.
The earliest pictures in “Wet Hair,” Olof Nimar’s exhibition, were taken last year in Claude Monet’s garden in the northern French town of Giverny. The orange, pink, and purple tulips are so deliriously saturated they seem to slip the camera’s focus, to melt into the bright white sunlight. “Many photographers have loved gardens,” writes photographer Robert Adams. “An etymological detail that Kenneth Clark raises in his discussion of landscape—paradise is the Persian word meaning ‘a walled enclosure’—stands I think as perhaps the best possible synopsis of what a photographer sees through the finder of his camera just before he releases the shutter.” In Nimar’s exhibition, “walled enclosures” nest one within another. The artist, after giving shape to his own attention through his camera’s viewfinder, uses multiple framing devices to shape ours. He plots our aesthetic experience like a landscape designer creating formal gardens.
Nimar reveals his intentions with the first picture one encounters upon entering the gallery: Landscape at Soumaya (2018) depicts a Monet painting hanging in a gallery at the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City. That brief description, however, obscures the complexity of what’s going on—both in the gallery and in Nimar’s photograph of it. Because the Museo Soumaya’s unusual architecture creates walls that are not vertical, the painting, which rests within an ornate gold-painted frame, hangs from wires attached to a freestanding wooden structure. It’s as if the artwork hangs from its own gallows. Nimar’s composition underscores the oddity of the situation by obscuring part of the painting, including Monet’s signature, behind a Plexiglas case protecting another sculpture in the foreground. For good measure, there is also a fire extinguisher and a sign on the wall indicating its location. The setting, though ostensibly neutral and “modern,” nearly overwhelms the artwork. By placing his photograph of it at the entrance to his show, Nimar hints that an alertness to contexts is necessary for understanding “Wet Hair.”
The conventions of photographic genres—landscape, still life, product photography, advertisements—are the first frame through which we can view his pictures. We recognize the seamless backdrops against which his subjects rest as part of the language of advertising: they remove objects from the world, make them available to our gaze, and suffuse them with a particular mood. A fistful of mushrooms resting on white has a clinical air; five lemon wedges on pink seem more playful. Except, in Nimar’s world, the format is used not only for food but also for a toy zebra (seen emerging from moody black) and small, brightly colored birds resting on gloved hands. What, if anything, is each picture selling?
Other genres are invoked as deftly: Blue Background, no more than two horizontal blocks of its titular color, becomes the view onto an endless ocean. But the craquelure of white on its upper half is not composed of clouds—it seems, instead, like some kind of printing error on vinyl, or soap that has not been fully washed away. What found landscape is this? This is the view that might be framed by the largest window on a seaside property, the type of scene that is foregrounded, not considered “background.”
The second level of scaffolding to consider are the artworks’ wooden frames. In the first room of the exhibition they seem conventional: left unpainted or brushed with white, they place boundaries on the pictures with good manners. Pass into the exhibition’s other rooms, however, and you confront frames in pale pink, livid, hunter green, azure, teal. Each accents or playfully contrasts the dominant color in the photograph’s composition. They likewise set the works off more forcefully from the walls they hang on.
Except, of course, the third level of visual scaffolding is scaffolding itself. These photographs do not all hang on walls: Nimar has installed simple wooden columns throughout the space, which allow the pictures to float in the middle of the space, hover in front of a window, or extend into the doorway between rooms. Some of these wooden supports are themselves painted, enlivening your field of vision with Barnett Newman–like zips of color. You can circumnavigate the works like sculptures, see how the frames have been put together.
In “Wet Hair,” few images are simply images. What his camera captures is always straightforward: Nimar uses natural light and does not dramatically manipulate the resulting images on the computer. But he has refracted these simple image-making techniques through a display sensibility that is faceted like a jewel. In this exhibition setting, the pictures are not always what they seem. Or, rather, they are both what they seem and part of a greater, more mysterious whole, the kind that provokes questions that have only subjective answers. What feelings do colors evoke? Does the power of photographic convention, the typical ways of interpreting images, supersede what your eyes perceive? Are these photographs or sculptures? The final picture you encounter, upstairs and far from the gallery entrance, embodies the complex visual play between natural and artificial, convention and its disruption, seen throughout the show. A close-in view of an unripe mandarin, the fruit, which we expect to be invitingly orange, is instead the same green as the leaves that surround it. It looks plastic, malformed. At the same time, evidence of the tree’s ruddy health fills the composition. It is dappled with the sunlight that will eventually transform the fruit. What light will we bring to Nimar’s pictures? He has reshaped them dramatically for this exhibition, staging an intricate scene for us to animate with our presence.