“The Art School for Mentally Disabled Adults” – the jury's special prize, 2013

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Birgit Neja Jensen (* 1952) (The jury’s special prize)

The Art School for Mentally Disabled Adults

Acrylic on paper
9 works
32 x 44 cm

The jury awards a Special Prize to the Danish artist Birgit Neja Jensen, with the following citation:
Birgit Neja Jensen is represented in the Portrait Now! competition through a series of portraits of her friends and students from the Art School for adults with learning difficulties in Copenhagen. I think that these works are worthy of recognition as being outstanding – for the authenticity of the psychological experience they offer the viewer. In an effort to give an immediate impression of the models, the artist refuses to indulge in the rhetoric of contemporary art, or in symbolism borrowed from classical European portraiture. She’s also far removed from any particular stylistic conventions. Formally, her works are close to expressionism – but one should consider again their lack of any cultural connotation; a quality common to 20th century expressionistic art.
The interpretation of these works can therefore not be achieved by reading familiar cultural codes. Relying only on intuition, and at the risk of being wrong, we must instead make assumptions of a mainly psychological nature, something which, today, may be considered quite a rare treat. When speaking of contemporary art, we often refer to the context explicitly outlined in the artists’ statements, or resulting from the overarching concept of the exhibition in question.
So, what can we say about these portraits? The fragility and unpredictability of their lines is reminiscent of the experience of making drawings in old computer programs; but they are nevertheless full of life and drama. Models are presented to the spectator in a very open manner – they simply don’t have anywhere to hide in the space arranged by the artist. It’s a space completely devoid of light-and-shade gradations or of any unified perspective. The world in which Birgit Neja Jensen’s characters live is deprived of shadows and hidden corners. It also lacks any details that might distract our attention from particular people. The open, intense colours of the abstract backgrounds, which repel the glance rather than draw it in to the pictures’ field of depth, reinforce this impression. Whether we like it or not, we ultimately, in following the artist, focus our attentions on the images of the portrayed characters. The men and women depicted clearly felt this concentration of the artist’s attention on them. They give off a sense of tension and internal strife. From the similarities and certain artificialities of their postures we can guess that the process of posing was psychologically difficult for them. Their smiles seem to be confused; some of them try to look away. However, the models’ stress appears to be caused by the fact that they are intrigued, rather than scared or embarrassed. At the very least, the artist creates an overall positive mood, using dense local colours which give the characters vital force, while at the same time turning the images into rather decorative ones. It seems that for both sides – for the artist and for her subjects – the process of creating these portraits became a remarkable and highly emotional event.
The series consists of nine portraits. Lined up in three rows of three pieces each, painted on sheets of paper of like size, they form a structure reminiscent not only of traditional portrait galleries, but of other regular structures which accompany us throughout our lives. School, for example: all of us remember the group photos of the classes we’ve attended – Birgit Neja Jensen also depicts her school community, but each of the portraits in her series is valuable and expressive in itself. Here, individuality overcomes collectivity, and psychology overcomes symbolism. This makes her work romantic, as it at the same time raises issues connected with the presence of the living psychological experience of today’s art. Her portraits prove it is still possible – and that’s why they are important.

Michael Ovchinnikov


From left to right: Chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation Flemming Besenbacher, prize winner Birgit Neja Jensen and member of the jury Michael Ovchinnikov. The Great Hall, Frederiksborg Castle, May 2013.