The second floor of the Hirshhorn Museum is awash in pink and gold lamé. In one gallery, swathed in shiny pink satin, a video plays of a dapper man standing in front of an 11-piece orchestra, big-band style and surrounded by the same satin, singing the words “Sorrow conquers happiness” over and over. The title — “God.” In another, a curtain of gold foil fringe surrounds a woman in a slinky gold dress playing an E minor chord — nothing else — on a guitar (“Woman in E”).
The work of the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson is all about the quest for beauty and the ways in which that quest is doomed to failure, bogging down in mediocrity or kitsch, or, in these works, the trappings of Las Vegas. But the work radiates so much theatricality and glitz and humor that it feels like a big party. For a show about failure, it sure is having a good time.
Kjartansson, 40, is having his first major American museum retrospective with this show, which was at the Barbican in London over the summer, but he’s become something of an art-world star with installations at the Venice Biennale, his New York gallery, Luhring Augustine, and other venues. It’s not hard to see why. Encompassing video, performance, painting and even music (including an opera), his work — in contrast with the spare sobriety of much 20th-century video art — is infused with narrative and emotion. These are videos that you can’t tear yourself away from, whether it’s the artist costumed as Death, confronting a class of school kids in a cemetery (“Your scythe is fake!”) in “Death and the Children” (2002), or in “S.S. Hangover” (2013-14), an Icelandic sailing vessel moving back and forth across a Venetian canal, loaded with six musicians who play gentle stirring music on brass instruments as night slowly falls. You might get the idea quickly, but there’s always more to hear, a reason to stay, as if you were watching a movie, or hearing a musical performance.
All of this is deliberately, and unfashionably, Romantic. Floating through the work are jagged painted mountains evoking Caspar David Friedrich; lush and wistful musical scores by Kjartan Sveinsson (formerly of the band Sigur Ros); and layers of implicit narrative. One of Kjartansson’s central themes, in a show that’s filled with echoes of itself, is the 19th-century trope of the struggling artist in pursuit of truth — in “Blossoming Trees” (2008), he spent two days literally playing the role of a 19th-century landscape painter, painting at different times of day (with a knotted handkerchief shielding his head from the sun) and drinking beer and reading “Lolita” when not working. But he presents this trope with loving humor, in parody that doesn’t quite obscure the earnestness of the message. The resulting paintings are deliberately clumsy, but they also are testimony to a dream we all have, of being able to capture and reproduce something essential about what we see.
Similarly, in “World Light — the Life and Death of an Artist,” Kjartansson and a group of friends spent a month making sets and filming scenes adapted from a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Halldor Laxness, which is about an aspiring artist who dreams of greatness but isn’t very good. Starring people who aren’t trained actors, in video footage over four screens that includes outtakes and mistakes, the piece amplifies the book’s contrast between great aspirations and mediocrity. But it also is a monument to a basic, childlike reaction to art: when you love a book so much you want to inhabit it, to act it out. The results may be laughably bad, but that’s not the point.
Despite, or because of, its deliberate embrace of mediocrity, there’s nothing not to like about Kjartansson’s art. It is work that almost forces you to experience it and to engage with it, and once you’ve done that, you’ve entered his game. If you’re critical of, say, the actual look of his paintings in “Blossoming Trees,” or in “The End — Venezia,” whose 144 canvases document a 2009 installation at the Venice Biennale during which Kjartansson holed up in a palazzo with a friend whose portrait he painted every day, you’re actually getting the point, which means you’re participating, which means you’ve been co-opted. It’s hard to maintain critical distance in the face of work that presents not so much a unified facade as a Moebius strip of smiling irony, constantly deflecting attempts to pin it down as it delivers you to the opposite side of the argument you started with. The work is at once performance and its document; at once mediocre and profound; at once narrative and containing no actual story. The paintings are deliberately clumsy; the videos, by contrast, often embrace moments of fleeting beauty to become aesthetic objects in their own right.
In many ways, the epitome of Kjartansson’s approach, and the show’s highlight, is “The Visitors” (2012): a video record, on nine screens, of eight people playing instruments in separate rooms of a grand, decrepit, 200-year-old house in New York’s Hudson Valley for more than an hour. Each screen is like an individual painting: A female cellist straddling her instrument against a vivid yellow wall evokes Kokoschka; the drummer in the blue-and-white pantry, Vermeer; and Kjartansson himself evokes a Degas pastel, playing a guitar while soaking in a bathtub.
“Once again, I fall into my feminine ways,” they sing, over and over. “There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing you can do.” Outside, the house’s owner sets off a small cannon. At the end, everyone dances onto the porch (the ninth screen), still singing, and on across the fields into the distance, palpably giddy with a post-performance sense of release. You can’t quite explain what you’ve seen, but you’ll feel you’ve been a part of something, and watching the figures recede into an archetypal idyll where you cannot follow conveys a sense of loss and nostalgia. In this piece, Kjartansson actually captures the transcendence he usually wants to elude him. You could say he even fails at failure. But once again, he throws a great party.
Ragnar Kjartansson Through Jan. 8 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. Free. 202-633-1000. hirshhorn.si.edu.