On ViewTibor De Nagy Gallery
May 5 – June 17, 2016
Iceland has been punching well above its weight in the cultural arena for the last twenty years. With a population the size of Santa Ana, California, it has produced more than its fair share of musicians, and artists, including the odd alt-pop diva. Tibor de Nagy’s pairing of two artists from Iceland shows the country’s impact on their sensibilities. At first blush, they seem quite different. Louisa Matthíasdóttir (1917 – 2000), two generations older than Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jonsson (b. 1963), made representational paintings whose geometric severity borders on Cubism. Jonsson, an abstract fabric artist, bases her fluid, organic forms on photographs of nature in her native country. Both artists, however share a taste for vibrant hues and strong, simplified forms. What’s more, each, in her own way, pays tribute to Iceland’s unique natural beauty—its mountains, surreal volcanic outcroppings, and treeless vistas.
Matthíasdóttir’s career began in Iceland in the ’30s, where she established herself as a member of its avant-garde scene. In the 1940s she moved to New York and studied with Hans Hoffmann; she influenced fellow Hoffmann students (Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, Robert de Niro, Sr., and others) to revive representational painting from a perspective informed by Hoffmann’s theories on abstract art. In Matthíasdóttir’s case, she expressed her synthesis of abstraction and representation by dividing the picture plane into discrete sections of color, as if she were creating a map.
In the current exhibition, there are fifteen paintings from her mature period between the 1970s and 1990s. They are all paintings of Iceland, where she regularly returned with her husband, the painter Leland Bell. Her surfaces, switching freely between thick and thin passages, show a quick, decisive hand with little evidence of pentimenti or erasures. The subjects alternate between scenes of sheep grazing in the countryside, views of Reykjavik, and small seaside villages. Her compositions work best where her abstract and representational tendencies are in almost perfect balance. Icelandic Village (1991) shows a number of small buildings pitched at odd angles by the ocean-side; Matthíasdóttir creates a strong effect in the way she combines their shapes. The procession of brightly colored polygons, axes just slightly off-kilter, makes for a jazzy polyrhythmic dance in the foreground. She offsets all of this activity with the gently curving shoreline, and then above that the flat horizon line of the ocean, which creates a foil for all the energetic goings-on below. Reykjavik Harbor (1987) succeeds in much the same way: Matthíasdóttir makes a nice contrast between the densely packed angular buildings in the foreground and the graceful horseshoe of the seawall that seems to float above the city in the distance. Mountain and Sheep (1989) has lyrical color passages of mountain peaks looming in the distance, but it lacks the expressive tension of compression and expansion in the two previous paintings.
Jonsson’s fabrics in this show are the same size as Matthíasdóttir’s easel paintings. Unfortunately, the gallery could not include one of her larger works, which make a great visual impact. She creates the shimmering images in her silk textiles through a process similar to ikats. She organizes the warp (vertical) threads on a loom, detaches them, and paints her image. After painting the threads, she reattaches them to the loom and weaves in the weft (horizontal thread) to create her fabric. In the process of weaving into the reattached warp, the painted threads run ever so slightly off register, which accounts for the shimmer. As the titles in this exhibit suggest, Jonsson based most of the images on her close-up photographs of lichen formations. Yet the images themselves have an indeterminate scale: they could also be aerial photographs of islands off a seacoast. Lichen 2 (2016) has a rich palette of saffron-yellow patches on a saturated burgundy-red background, a color pairing that occurs throughout this series. Jonsson offsets the intensity in Lichen 2 and other pieces with light touches of other dyes, which emphasizes their fluidity. Jonsson’s ability to work wet dyes into wet gives her fabrics a painterly appeal that ikats lack, as they depend on resists to create their patterns.
One thread that runs through both artists’ work is a strange, otherworldly beauty, which aptly describes Iceland’s rural scenery. In Matthíasdóttir’s work, the influence of that scenery is more obvious, as her paintings actually depict it. On a subtler level, the sharp contrasts that she brings to her color and shapes also convey the bleak, seductive rigor of the landscape. Like Matthíasdóttir, Jonsson returns to Iceland every year for thematic inspiration. Apparently, she also returns to reconnect with the land itself. There, everything, including the very earth, which is located as it is on a tectonic boundary, is in a perpetual state of becoming, flowing from one form to another. Flow also appears in Matthíasdóttir’s work, where her compositions seem to follow a powerful lateral pull created by the mountains, sea, and even the buildings on the landscape. This is another thread, the pull of the Iceland’s natural world, at times austere, at others times stunning, that weaves its way through the work of these highly accomplished artists, binding them to their native land.