Exhibition at The Reykjanes Art Museum (solo), November 2017
If one ventured to describe the character of the Icelandic painting produced during the last few decades, one would probably characterize it as „introverted” in the very broadest sense. Describing it in art historical terms we would certainly be able to freely bandy about adjectives such as objective, figurative, abstract, conceptual or expressionistic. But no matter how aggressive this painting purports to be, it remains first and foremost inwards-directed, centered on the artists internal reckoning rather than external reality. However topsy-turvy the world may appear to him, the Icelandic painter will need to thoroughly process what he sees and feels before reacting to events. Even „new expressionism”, as it was practiced in Iceland during the 1980s, was concerned with personal existential matters rather than societal or political constrains, as was the case with its Continental variety.
There is one great exception to this state of affairs, though it is perhaps not totally valid, since the artist in question has for decades been more of a Continental artist than Icelandic. I am of course referring to Paris-based Erró. But I would still like to mention him in this particular context, since he has long been one of the favourite artists of Úlfur (Wolf) Karlsson, whose work is to be seen in the Reykjanes Museum at the present time. Karlsson often mentions Erró in interviews, praising his for the open-mindedness and political awareness that characterize his complex „scape paintings” with their panoramic view of current events. Of himself Karlsson says: „My works are like a timeline with scattered views of events, depending on whats happening in the world around me and where I happen to be standing at a given moment in time”. The paths of these two expansive „extroverts”, Karlsson and Erró, have actually crossed a number of times, both here in Iceland and in Austria, where they belong to the stable of renowned gallerist Ernst Hilger.
Karlsson calls his present exhibition The Fence, referring primarily to the proximity of the Reykjanes Museum to the metal fence which for decades enclosed the large American Naval Base on the outskirts of the fishing village of Keflavík. This fence became the point at which Icelandic culture and typical U.S. products converged, Icelandic Sagas came up against Marvel Comics, traditional Icelandic ballads clashed with Rock ´n Roll and sheep’s heads were supplanted by Hershey’s chocolates.
But Karlsson´ show is also about fences in the abstract, the barriers between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, islands and continents, the local and the international, the known and the unknown. In its individual fashion, and with great intensity, it tends to confirm Erro´s conclusion that neither fence holds up anymore. A butterfly in the Far East flutters its wings and a cyclone is created on the other side of the planet. The violence and upheavals that occur out in the wide world become a part of our reality in an instant, thanks to a mobile phone app.
But for artists this state of affairs can also be a rewarding one. Far-sighted and resolute artists of the calibre of Úlfur Karlsson and Erró don’t have to look for subject matter, the subject matter seeks them out. There has been a tendency to classify their portrayals of modern excess as exclusively polemical. But let’s not forget the almost sensual pleasure that comes with feasting on the cornucopia of world events and popular culture, being invited to sample everything that takes our fancy. It’s also easy to simply deride a creature such as Donald Trump, but more useful, difficult – and in the long run more meaningful – to put together a visual compendium of the many-sided folly that he represents.
Not that Karlsson is particularly concerned with Donald Trump, though he nods in his direction few times. He takes more pleasure in deploying lesser known characters, real and fictional. They tend to be devious, cruel and unpredictable, and their virtual world has more exits and entrances then our own. They are engaged in colorful encounters or collusions that take unexpected turns. The dividing line – the fence – between reality and fantasy is usually unclear. The action is brought to a close, but never resolved. We are left with a number of questions and conundrums to ponder, long after the pictures have left us.
Curator, art historian, author and lector.