Man and Nature – Þóra Þórissdóttir, “Guðrún Einarsdóttir” 2008
The forms in the paintings verge on formlessness – often so delicate and oft-duplicated as to become a texture. And texture itself is one of the most important aspects in the morphology of Guðrún’s art, especially striking in monochrome black and white pictures from her early career, where the thickly-textured surface is the meaningful aspect of the images. The works lie somewhere between two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional relief, the flat canvas interacting with the three-dimensional element of the paint.
A consideration of the nature and history of painting is one of the leitmotifs of modern art, and Guðrún’s works would be inconceivable except as a part of that process. Viewed from the perspective of the history of modern painting, it would be natural to classify her work as lyrical naturalistic abstract art, or to hang on it a label of minimalism, tachisme or all-over painting, but that also would be misleading. The paintings do not arise from a confrontation with the discourse of art history: they arise from a personal struggle with the material and its visual and morphological potential to reflect the creative energy and processes of nature. This involves a political dimension, as the works imply a clear attitude to the environment, a methodology which rejects the masculine values of modernism. The dialogue of the works with art history consists of confronting the concept of the creative power of nature in opposition to the creative power of man, assumed to transcend nature. Guðrún is captivated by the forms of nature, its colours and textures. Nature is her compass in the stormy seas of the discourse of art history.
Black and White
At the time when Guðrún graduated from the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts (forerunner of the Icelandic Academy of the Arts), she focussed on impasto landscapes in black or white paint, often with the addition of one other colour. The paintings depict landscape reliefs “moulded” in paint, sometimes with a horizon and sun. She soon realised that the additional colour served no meaningful purpose, and left it out; she even painted over some of her earlier works, restricting herself to the impasto texture of monochrome paintings in black or white. Guðrún went on to turn her attention to opening up the actual picture plane, with three-dimensional effects and interplay of light and shadow.
At her first one-woman show at Gallery Nýhöfn in Reykjavík in 1990, Guðrún displayed monochrome black and white oils with a thick impasto texture conveying the idea of landscape. Art historian Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson wrote of the exhibition:
Clearly, the artist’s use of white and black paint is not attributable to asceticism, nor to a dislike of the subtleties of colour, but to the potential they offer her for unhindered shaping of the picture plane. [….] Immediately complex play of light is set in motion on these painted and kneaded planes. Shadows flicker across the white surfaces, while the black paintings reflect the light falling on the varnished oil paint. A chapter of no small significance has here been written in the history of Icelandic landscape art.1
At the Kjarvalsstaðir gallery in 1993 Guðrún displayed large white acrylic paintings. They did not allude directly to landscape; here the artist experimented with three-dimensional textures of varying thickness, shaped in organic natural forms or geometrical shapes and patterns. These paintings comprise a unique period in Guðrún’s artistic career, when she focussed on the interaction of light and shadow in studies of form, and textures in quick-drying materials. The paintings are produced at greater speed than her later works, and the method resembles that of the abstract expressionists in the latter half of the 20th century, a manifestation of rapidity and power. Guðrún did not pursue this path, however, but went back to painting in oils, which requires a different approach to the potential of the material, and provides the opportunity for less hurried methods. For six years she painted monochrome white or black pictures; at the end of this period she departed from that rule, with a few works in which she used black and white in the same painting. She also made tiny, generally monochrome, paintings in two or three dimensions; these works, which are reminiscent of small works of sculpture, are not confined to black or white.
As the monochrome period progressed, the texture in her works acquired subtle variations. The texture reflects both the complex, delicate aspects of landscape, and the more rugged. Her handling of the material evokes a strong sense of the hard, shiny texture of black obsidian, the jagged surface of a lava field, the patterns formed by compacted firn ice and glaciers – undulating, flowing forms. A parallel is drawn between creation of land and of art. The dynamism and power of nature inspire the works.
The patterns, the endlessly-duplicated natural forms shaped by Guðrún in her monochrome pictures, are nonetheless confined within the rectangular frame of the painting, and thus strongly recall the minimalism or geometrical abstract art of the early 20th century. The connection is obvious when one considers such works as Black Square (1915) by Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). Black Square is, as the title implies, a square of black painted on a white ground. In its time it embodied the idea of origin, the quest for the starting point. The work was a utopian signpost into the future, yet it has suffered the inevitable predations of time. With its surface now riven with cracks, it has become a modern “antique.” Malevich’s art is based upon repetition and series; he initiates a rule, and all the forms refer back to the primary form, the black square. The square itself is a reference to universal laws, and a higher reality which transcends humans and objects; Malevich called it “the zero of form.”2
While there are many differences between the black and white works of Malevich and of Guðrún Einarsdóttir, they have features in common. In both cases the works mark a starting point, based on studies of form in white and black. Although Malevich makes the black square his starting-point, behind it lies another, more concrete image, in colour; and Malevich stated that the square was not empty, that it was “full of the absence of any object: pregnant with meaning.” He went on to add certain colours to his work, on his own philosophical terms, not unlike the way that Guðrún has more recently applied colour on nature’s terms.
When Guðrún returned to painting with colours other than black and white, generally one colour at a time, this was in conjunction with the three-dimensional texture which is so characteristic of her work. The colour refers to a certain impression or force of nature; the works become organic, and an expanse of pattern seems to flow over the entire canvas. But the pattern effect does not only have a resonance in nature. It also recalls the continuous ornamental textures found in mass-produced wallpapers or upholstery fabrics, while evoking textures in architecture. Hence the works do not allude solely to nature and landscape, but also to the design tradition.
Mass production of ornamental patterned goods for interior decoration started at the dawn of the industrial revolution, and as early as the 19th century it was criticised for superficialising the environment of modern man. All over the world, Art Nouveau movements strove in the first half of the 20th century to bring together art and craftsmanship, with the objective of counteracting the monotony of mass-produced consumer goods – of which the leaders of the movement strongly disapproved. They worked on the principle of a consistent work of art; all aspects of the home, furniture, utensils and even clothing should be in harmony, forming one work of art. Paradoxically this led to the widespread view that art, as conceived by the Art Nouveau movement, was degraded to the level of mere gaudy ornament.
This friction regarding repetition and ornament brings us to Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). He was determined to avoid ornamentation in his work, which focussed on necessity, idealism and purity. His work comprised clean lines – vertical and horizontal – and rectangular shapes. He used only the primary colours – yellow, red and blue – plus black and white. He avoided centralised composition and symmetry. He wanted to depict an inner, spiritual reality, not the manifestations of natural phenomena. He wanted to bring out the permanent, not the capricious; the masculine, not the feminine. He refused to use green, for instance, regarding it as a signifying nature.3 Yet in addition to his geometrical paintings Mondrian painted pictures of flowers, as his bread-and-butter work; he attributed this to another necessity, the needs of the body. Mondrian wanted to depict the finite, not the infinite, and hence he sometimes painted over the ends of the black lines at the periphery of his paintings, so that the pictures could not be interpreted as part of a larger entity, and hence reminiscent of ornamental art. He failed, however; not because he reduced his subjects to simplified forms, but due to his extreme purism, verging on the dogmatic, ultimately leading to pure pattern.4 In time Mondrian’s geometrical works gained popularity as models for design and pattern.
In contemporary art nature is viewed far more favourably, and nobody is much concerned about the ornamental qualities of works of art. Purism is no longer the touchstone of aesthetics. The allusions to forms of nature in Guðrún’s art have quite a different significance from such allusions in early 20th-century art. They include mosses, algal masses, fungi and lichens in many forms, always alluding to the infinite, like a fragment of a larger whole. Green in various shades plays an important role in some of the paintings, along with red and blue. The colours are “woven” into the picture plane; the artist plays with transparency and flow. The colour evokes a variety of phenomena in nature, symbolic or visible, and Guðrún focusses on the surface of the earth, the first layer of “skin” which grows over newly-formed land. Here we see a semiotic system entirely different from that which typified the pioneers of modernism in art.
Nature´s Delicate Skin
The surface of Guðrún’s works generally appears untouched. There are no visible fingerprints: the image appears to have grown spontaneously – like a fertilised ovum which has attached to the uterine wall. Guðrún applies the paint to the canvas using a brush or other implement, but without visible brushstrokes. She opts to allow the works to “grow,” rejecting the rapid expressionist approach. In the 20th century artists tended to focus on the processes of decay and destruction in nature; this was in keeping with the modernist interest in the deconstruction and decline of form and meaning. In contrast, Guðrún is more interested in the process of formation and growth, in which decay is just one aspect of the larger process. Her paintings make allusion to nature, the body, the skin, but never in destructive terms. They always relate to the natural processes of development, solidification (as from molten magma to solid lava), decay and creation of life, all within the equilibrium of nature. In traditional Icelandic landscape painting, mountains had a symbolic significance as landmarks and a symbol of national pride. Guðrún takes whole mountain ranges and reduces them to thickened scars in the earth’s skin, patterns of line. In 2000 Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson wrote about Guðrún’s exhibition at Gallery Sævar Karl, under the headline Allt er verðandi/A State of Becoming:5
It has sometimes occurred to me that there might be some kind of “biology of art works,” dealing specifically with the spontaneous, organic art which attains a life of its own, independent of the artist, its creator. It may not even matter who the creator is, provided that the life force of the work is sufficient. This energy may arise from the interaction of human biology – say neurobiology, cell biology, and so on – with the exterior ecosystem, ranging from geology to physics.6
Guðrún uses the chemical properties of oil paints in such a way that in many of her paintings the surface of the paint forms a crust as the oil dries, forming a combination of textures of varying thickness, reminiscent of solidifying magma, and also of wrinkled skin. In the process of successive experiments with the proportion of pigment to binder and filler, time determines the outcome, and Guðrún consciously continues to work with it. The process of solidification in the paintings may take a long time, even years. Guðrún is conscious that the paintings continue to change; that they may even begin to decay, while in the process of formation. Thus the inevitable cycle of life and death is placed in a broader context, geological time, which extends over tens or hundreds of millions of years. A connection is drawn between human efforts and the forces of nature, and the bond between the two is underlined.
The vegetation to which Guðrún makes allusion in her paintings is invariably the primal vegetation of the earth: algae, bacteria, mosses, lichens. Guðrún has found inspiration in the lichens which form colourful patches on rocks; on the canvas their shapes and textures appear fused to the surface. Lichens are a unique life form, a symbiosis of fungi and algae. Algae are autotrophic organisms, i.e. they transform inorganic substances into organic ones, using solar energy; living mainly in water, they are the fundamental basis of life in the sea and fresh water. Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica, in fact a lichen) and reindeer lichen (Caldonia arbuscula) are familiar fruticose or shrubby lichens in Icelandic nature. Foliose or leafy lichens generally grow near water, or on the sea shore. Lichens can be seen on rocks and cliffs, on the sea shore and up in the mountains: they gradually break down rocks and non-organic soil, while building the foundations of life and growth.
Guðrún does not depict specific species of lichen; she employs memory to evoke emotions, visual parallels and the concept of touch. Guðrún does not imbue nature with meaning: she permits nature to imbue man and culture with meaning. Her works address creation itself, contemplating and praising nature and its multitudinous powers.
In this sense, Guðrún is political. Her works are part of a global awakening to the importance of permitting nature to continue to be nature, on its own terms; and of the conservation of large expanses of unspoiled nature. And it is not least today, in our times, that man needs to have within his view nature that has not been altered by development and utilisation. The contemporary view of nature is premised on man being a part of the world, a part of the environment, and on the duty of humans to act responsibly in the world. It is this fundamental perspective on nature and our surroundings which distinguishes the work of artists like Guðrún Einarsdóttir from the deconstructive art of the 20th century. The passion of life is reflected in her passion for the medium in which she works; and the observer cannot help being enchanted by the technique of her work, and at the same time by the nature which inspires it.