by Michelle Grabner
MCA 12 x 12 : Published in ARTPAPERS
Nov / Dec issue 2004, p.50
Robert Storr, when reflecting on the work of Guillermo Kuitca in an essay titled Luftmench wrote, “I am thinking of a child’s inherent ability to know the location of his bed in the cosmos… And I am thinking of how this ability survives in the adult, such that while looking at a map an instinctive homing device clicks on in the mind, and the imagination navigates the abstract patterns with an inexplicably precise sense of how near or far from that point one is, how intensely the impulse to flee or return to it holds sway at any given moment.” This poignant observation and its emphasis on mapping, celestrial space, time and the imagination came vividly to mind when viewing the many paintings of Chicago-based artist Anna Jóelsdóttir at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Jóelsdóttir does shares some sensual visual vocabulary with Kuitca, but it is her interest in mapping that creates an affinity between their practices. Her abstract painting are a type of cartographical language that is not reduced to identifiable locations, to territories or landmasses, but to proximities with vast spaces, intimate spaces, strange landscapes and familiar ones. The title of her show and the paintings that comprise it, 42??qN/66??qN reference the geographical latitudes of Chicago and her native country of Iceland. The paintings drastically vary in the scale and orientation. Some works are tiny and hung in clusters among strikingly vertical and horizontal canvases while a few large-scale paintings anchor the whole of the installation. In addition to the cadence of paintings that ring this rather contained and cavernous gallery, Jóelsdóttir also displayed two sketchbooks, each stretched out in accordion-style in a long glass vitrine intersecting the middle of the gallery. These daily sketchbooks function as a kind of map key to the array of graphic and organic marks that comprise her paintings.
Tight graphic characters such as dotted lines and miniscule architectural-like symbols are amassed over washy fields of colored ink stains. Lyrical marks, elegant arabesque squiggles and other obsessive clusters of faux cartographic symbols build and swell over pristine white grounds. With inks and acrylics she employs a full chromatic palette in her aerial mapping of unnavigable space. She also develops a complex relationship with light and pictorial illumination as she implements a variety of transparent and opaque methods of mark making. This creates a dense mass of abstract information that rhythmically undulate over the surface of her canvases, sometimes abruptly cropped by the stretchers edges, sometimes wrapping around it.
It is the relationship between these labyrinthine masses and the vacuity of the white gesso fields that is the crux and the location of meaning in her work. It is the site in which space becomes organized and disorganized; it is the location where landscape is unraveled and reconstructed.
It is here, where the friction of matter and nothingness generate ruptures and passages, transformations and obstructions. It is potentially as volatile as seismic geographical shifts or as predictable as continental drifting. But it is also social in its metaphor. Her masses of elaborate mark making move through the harsh whiteness of her grounds at times with assertiveness and direction and at other times with confusion and hesitation. Jóelsdóttir’s visual vocabulary can also signify population migrations, collective thoughts, or even suburban spawl.
Jóelsdóttir’s own identity is comprised of two unique cultural experiences and physical landscapes: Iceland and Chicago. Neither one of these places unique geographical or cultural characters is represented specifically in her paintings but discontinuity and fluidity are innate to her painting atlas. This brings us back to Robert Storr’s compelling quote concerning mapping and just how the imagination is capable of navigating abstract patterns and how intensely the impulse to flee or return to the map and the places it evokes holds sway.