Erla Haraldsdóttir | Galleri Konstepidemin, Sweden.
Galleri Konstepidemin, Gothenburg, Sweden.
Opened on November 26th, runs through December 18th 2016.
The question of creativity is a recurring theme in the work of Erla S. Haraldsdóttir. One might say that she ceaselessly questions the idea that an artist can create ex nihilo (out of nothing) and the romantic notion of ‘divine inspiration’. For many years she has been creating fictional systems as tools for her artistic processes, as is perhaps most evident in her paintings. This process consists essentially of creating a space of artistic freedom through self-imposed restrictions such as instructions given to her by friends or specifically devised systems. The themes of her works can be described as a sampling of art-historical references that implicitly questions the hegemony of Western art. This exhibition is no exception. As the title suggests, it draws on the story of creation as portrayed in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. A well-known theme in the history of Western church art, it is a common subject of commissioned and self-determined work by artists and artisans throughout history.
The starting point of this exhibition is a compilation of medieval iconography from drawings made by Icelandic draughtsman between 1330 and 1500. Most artists in the Middle Ages and in early Renaissance compiled model books, or exempla. However, few of these books have survived, with only thirty such medieval manuscripts known in Europe today. In Scandinavia only one of them survived, Islenska teiknibokin, or The Icelandic Model Book, which was recently compiled and re-published. The series of paintings that forms the core of Haraldsdóttir’s exhibition is based on the seven drawings describing the seven days of the story of creation as found in this book. In Genesis, Haraldsdóttir appropriates both the subject matter of the drawings and the pattern surrounding them – a ‘frame’ that replicates early Islamic art and can also be found on Tarot cards. Using this frame as an instruction for her series, she articulates her own story of creation, while also reflecting on her own creative processes.
Haraldsdóttir’s paintings merge the pattern of this frame with a pattern used by the Nbdele people in South Africa in beadworks and murals. As with most of the artist’s works, they incorporate numerous associative and seemingly eclectic art-historical references, including to Art Nouveau, ancient Egyptian reliefs, Jewish mysticism, frescos by Michelangelo, woodcuts by Katsushika Hokusai, as series of mystical watercolours by William Blake and the landscapes of the Icelandic painter Þórarinn B Þorláksson. Several of these references can also be found in the artist’s paintings of recent years and seem to form a kind of meta-narrative layer throughout her practice. Genesis consists of six paintings of equal size (150 x 90 cm) and one larger canvas (150 x 180 cm). They depict recognisable elements from the story of the Genesis of the Earth but also from the artist’s formal vocabulary: reflections, water mirrors, tropical plants, falcons and fish are combined with iconic motifs from art history, Icelandic landscapes and personal snapshots. Using a characteristically bold palette of thick paint, each motif is articulated on a complementary sublayer so as to achieve an effect of glowing from within reminiscent of stained glass windows.
Each of the seven paintings is accompanied by a smaller, vivid and abstract composition (30 x 30 and 30 x 50 cm, respectively). Together with four art students, Haraldsdóttir also executed a series of mural paintings based on Islenska teiknibokin. These abstract painting experiments, applied directly on the walls of Konstepidemin, were made with residue paint from Genesis series. The palette used here, and more explicitly the colours used to portray the hand of the creator that appears as a large patch of colour in the background, point to another recurring theme in the artist’s work, namely, the sephirot colour scheme. This scheme is depicted in the Tree of Life, a composite symbol representing the cosmos in its entirety and showing how it relates to the human soul. Colour symbolism plays a defining role in the Tree of Life diagram (and in all systems of magic): the colours each represent a human concept as well as the stages of creation and how things come into being. Haraldsdóttir’s abstract paintings also remind us that the pioneers of early and mid-twentieth century painting (Kandinsky, Klimt, Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko, Rozanova . . .) shared a common spiritual motivation to develop an art that expressed a reality beyond the material, a consciousness similar to that of a meditative state in that it transcends everyday reality.
There is a lot of information in Haraldsdóttir’s images, and a lot of information that can be drawn from them. But contrary to traditional depictions of Genesis, they radiate a sense of tranquility. In the Islenska teiknibokin and in Blake’s And God Blessed the Seventh Day and Sanctified It, God on the seventh day of creation appears as a sanctifying figure, and in Michelangelo’s six paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he is never shown resting. Haraldsdóttir, in turn, makes the seventh day the most prominent painting of the series: at twice the size of the other six paintings, it becomes an ‘altarpiece’ of sorts. The motif of this centrepiece is based on a smartphone photograph of the artist’s legs, taken while she was lying in bed. It is framed by a pattern composed of what appears to be tubes of paint, and encompasses a wide spectrum of colours. While the rainbow symbolises the second creation, the sign of the covenant between God and all life on earth (Genesis 9:17), it is the background that immediately catches the viewer’s attention: here we see the vernacular depiction of an untidy apartment with a paintbrush stuck in a vase and a lopsided frame on the wall.
Theological discussions generally contrast the notion of creatio ex nihilo with that of creatio ex materia (creation out of some pre-existent, eternal matter) and creatio ex deo (creation out of the being of God). With this final painting in her series, Haraldsdóttir proposes to combine the three. Kazimir Malevich once claimed that laziness has been branded the mother of all vices when, in fact, it should be regarded as ‘the mother of life’. Mladen Stilinović ends his seminal text The Praise of Laziness (1993) with the words: ‘There is no art without laziness.’ Similarly, Haraldsdóttir seems to suggest that the seventh day is not a well-deserved rest after a job well done – it is ultimate creativity. (Text, Jonatan Habib Engqvist)
The Icelandic artist Erla S. Haraldsdóttir works with painting, animation, video, and photomontage to appropriate and restructure reality. An academically trained painter, she has been focusing on figurative painting in which the physicality of the paint and the use of color to create space, light, and shadow play an important role. Haraldsdóttir’s work combines photorealistic motifs with painterly excellence and humor to explore how memories, emotions, and visual perception interact. A unique combination of concept-based methods, energetic brushwork, and a vivid palette make her recent works, such as Make a Painting of Trees Growing in a Forest (solo exhibition at Kalmar Konstmuseum in 2015) and Visual Wandering (solo exhibition at Listasafn ASÍ in 2014), unique motivic studies.
Methodology is central to Haraldsdóttir’s painterly practice. To create her process-driven works, she invents systems and techniques based on what she likes to call the “freedom of restraint.” This denotes a combination of rules and restrictions, impromptu choices of places or stories, and tasks assigned to her by other people. She extends these methods into her teaching as well as into her complex collaborations, such as the workshops she has held in art schools in Iceland, Sweden, and beyond. The publication Difficulty of Freedom/Freedom of Difficulty (Reykjavík: Umeå Academy of Fine Arts and Crymogea, 2014) retraces this part of her work through a workshop at the Living Art Museum (2013) and at Verkligheten art space in Umeå (2014). Her latest publication, Make a Painting of Trees Growing in a Forest (Reykjavík: Crymogea, 2015) further highlights the systems underpinning her paintings.
Haraldsdóttir has exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide, including at Kalmar Konstmuseum (Sweden), Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Akureyri Art Museum (Iceland), Kunstverein Langenhagen (Germany), Bielefelder Kunstverein (Germany), Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin), and Berlinische Galerie (Berlin). Her work is represented in public collections in Iceland (Reykjavík Art Museum, Akureyri Art Museum, Así Artnuseum) and in Sweden (National Public Art Council, Moderna Museet). She has completed numerous residencies, including at Künstlerhaus Bethanien (Berlin), Cité des Arts (Paris), and Ateliers ’89 (Oranjestad, Aruba). Her recent exhibitions include Just Painted (Reykjavík Art Museum, 2015), Project Metropolis (Silesian Museum, Katowice, 2015), Visual Wandering (Listasafn ASÍ, Reykjavík, 2014), (In)dependent People, Reykjavík Arts Festival (2012), and Moment-Ynglingagatan 1 (Moderna Museet, 2011.
Haraldsdóttir studied at the Royal Institute of Fine Art in Stockholm and at the San Francisco Arts Institute, and obtained her degree from the Valand Academy of Fine Art in Gothenburg in 1998. Born in Reykjavík, she currently lives and works in Berlin. From 2011 to 2015, she was a guest professor at the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden.