“A New Novel,” the current exhibition at Luxembourg & Dayan gallery, is not for the squeamish. The upper floors of the gallery’s town house on East 77th Street in Manhattan contain several dioramalike installations inhabited by stuffed doll figures who, to judge from all the pills and drug paraphernalia strewed around, have been on an extended binge.
In one a prone naked male appears to have been stabbed with a metal hook. Another is a sex dungeon, and nearby, on a video monitor, is a stop-action snuff video that was filmed there: two creepy-looking male dolls violating another male doll, harnessed in a sex swing, until he dies.
The man behind the show, Bjarne Melgaard, has been called the most famous Norwegian artist since Munch. His body of work is enormous and hard to categorize. He has written novels, the exact number is unclear, that are just novels, as well as one — his latest, also called “A New Novel” — published in conjunction with a show that shares its name. And he has put on exhibitions called novels in which books don’t figure at all. “A Kidwhore in Manhattan: A Novel,” a show he installed in Berlin in 2008, consisted of sofas that had been upholstered in fabric printed with Mr. Melgaard’s writing and drawings.
The one thing that is widely agreed about Mr. Melgaard, 45, is that he is not an artist willing to be contained — by art-world categories, allegiance to a single art dealer or, perhaps, the norms of civilized society.
“He has a voracious appetite, and he likes his freedom,” said Carol Greene, the owner and director of the Greene Naftali Gallery in Chelsea, who was the curator of an exhibition of his there — “The Synthetic Slut: A Novel” — two years ago. The main room in that show, Ken Johnson wrote in a review in The New York Times, looked like a loft apartment that had been vandalized by someone obsessed with being sexually dominated by black men.
“He’s highly organized, but his aesthetic is excessive and asks a lot,” Ms. Greene added. “We had to go way beyond the limits of what we usually do.”
For a show in May at the Ramekin Crucible gallery on the Lower East Side, Mr. Melgaard specified that two live, caged tiger cubs had to be on display and also required that the gallery be repainted in expensive metallic paint. “He always needs a new site to explode,” Mike Egan, the co-director of Ramekin Crucible, said recently. “He blows it up and then moves on to the next site of maximum conflict and blows that up.” He added that though there were lots of arguments, he “loved every minute” of working with Mr. Melgaard.
“He’s one of the most interesting artists on the planet,” he said. “He never cuts anything off. It’s always about increasing the potential of possibilities. The energy of his shows is a kind of self-annihilation, like opening up a portal to the dark abyss.”
The first floor of the Luxembourg & Dayan exhibition is not the abyss, exactly, unless you think of the abyss as extremely crowded. The space is so crammed that visitors need to step cautiously, not just among scenes of doll depravity but among towering piles of “A New Novel,” the book (from which those scenes are drawn), as well as a great many stuffed Pink Panthers, large and small.
When Mr. Melgaard dropped by one morning recently he was distressed to discover that there had been a book slide. He knelt on the floor and carefully stacked the volumes again, with the spines all facing out.
One of the killer dolls in the show’s continuously looping snuff video bears a certain resemblance to Mr. Melgaard himself. He is a big, bearlike man with a large head and wide-set eyes of startling blueness. Those same eyes, in black and white, stare out of a mug shot, also part of the show, that was taken last summer, when Mr. Melgaard was arrested in Manhattan, charged with assault with intent to do bodily harm. He declined to say what he had done (a criminal complaint filed by the Manhattan district attorney’s office says he threw a clothing rack at another man), but pointed out that the charge was later changed to disorderly conduct, and that he had been sentenced to take anger management classes.
In person, however, Mr. Melgaard, who lives in Brooklyn, is gentle, even shy, and talks about his career with detachment, as if he were speaking about someone else. It’s tempting to compare him to the protagonist of “A New Novel,” a character named B., who, though he engages in a lot of rough sex, is mostly lonely and lovelorn. Mr. Melgaard was born in Australia, where his father had taken a job as a steelworker, but grew up in Norway and had a classically unhappy childhood.
“In school I was completely lousy at everything,” he said. “I was the world’s most uncool teenager ever, the biggest loser. I was fat, wore glasses, had no cool friends.” His mother took him out of school because he was so unhappy, and he went to an art school for a time before finally, on his sixth try, being admitted to the Oslo National Academy of Art.
But he was a late bloomer, Mr. Melgaard said, and was involved with the black-metal music scene in Norway. He was also a beach bum in Australia for a while. “I didn’t have it in me to make art then, or I didn’t have self-confidence enough.”
In the last decade or so he has made up for lost time, with shows all over the world and in a variety of mediums, not all of them about pain and violence. He had a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London this fall that was all about tree houses. And the “New Novel” show includes, besides the drug-taking dolls, 13 vivid paintings of what prove on close examination to be tigers, and piles of fancy clothing, jacquard suits and jackets and evening gowns, made to Mr. Melgaard’s specifications by Proenza Schouler. The other day he tried on one of the jackets (Size 59 to fit his broad shoulders) and said: “I’m not selling this. I’m keeping it.”
Back down on the first floor he admitted that he had perhaps gotten carried away with the Pink Panther figures, after discovering that he could buy them on Amazon, and explained that the panther was in some ways an emblem of himself.
“When I was growing up in Norway, we were not allowed to look at Disney films,” he said. “They were considered unhealthy. But the Pink Panther was allowed, and he became at a certain moment in my life someone I identified with: a mixture of an agent and a loser. Everybody likes the Pink Panther, and at the same time nobody does.”
Correction: January 1, 2013
Because of an editing error, schedule information on Thursday with an article about the exhibition “A New Novel,” at the Luxembourg & Dayan gallery in Manhattan, misstated the gallery’s address. It is 64 East 77th Street, not 644. (There is no 644 East 77th Street.)