ANNA JÓELSDÓTTIR DISCOVERED she had a hearing impairment when she was in her mid-30s, in about 1982. She was having dinner at home in Reykjavik, Iceland, and her husband asked one of their kids to turn off a game-playing device because of its annoying sound. She couldn’t hear it. Tests revealed that she had a problem with high-frequency sounds, possibly a lifelong condition. “It explained a lot of things,” she says. From an early age, and without realizing she was doing it, she’d been reading lips. She’d long disliked large social gatherings — and came to think it was because it was hard for her to understand voices in a crowd. That struggle to discover ordered communication within cacophony is one of the influences on her recent work at Zg, seductively complex paintings composed of orderly stripes and extremely intricate, almost clotted line drawings.
As a girl Jóelsdóttir worked in her family’s greenhouses, a source for her paintings’ planes of pale green and gray; she says these are also the colors of the Icelandic land and sky. Her art may be influenced too by several years of teaching young children in Iceland. “They would draw scribbles and explain what was happening. Kids have this wonderful imagination that’s usually suppressed by the time they grow up. When I went to school, teachers would say, ‘That’s just a bad scribble—throw it out.’ But in it is a kind of hidden adventure, something the child sees and knows. I really identified with the kids, but I still had no idea that I wanted to make art myself.”
Soon after discovering her hearing problem, Jóelsdóttir was going through a divorce and enrolled in an art therapy class, where she made some work showing women with animals or with a “male lying in the corner, inactive or dead.” She says the process “helped me find some meaning in the chaos of my life,” but she didn’t pursue art seriously until she moved to Chicago with her second husband in 1992. She started by attending art classes for free at National-Louis University, where he taught. Later, taking figure drawing and painting at the School of the Art Institute, she’d come home and create abstractions based on her drawings of the models. She received an MFA from SAIC in 2002. In her first two years she experimented, she says. Then, the day after 9/11, she went to her studio. “I wanted to use this horror energy to transform all those terrible feelings I was having,” she says. “I took a canvas and made horizontal stripes all across it. I had no idea why. At the bottom I added tiny broken lines, the chaos of something lying there.” Soon most of her work had similar elements: both stripes and less orderly drawings, in pen and paint, derived from the tiny broken lines.
“The first way I understood the stripes in my work was as having to do with logic, rationality, and predictability, a given path or direction,” Jóelsdóttir says. “Some have sharp bends, and I see those as violent. After finishing the stripes, I begin to work on the drawing, which comes more naturally for me.” In Heima? / Home? #2 several straight bands resemble two-toned roadways, with “center lines” dividing gray from green, while snaking through the white space are jagged, spidery networks of fine lines and colors. Heima? / Home? #5-#11 are small oval canvases marked with thick black lines between light green and gray fields while other areas contain organic shapes made up of fine lines. Seven Sticks on Pedestal consists of seven long, uniformly shaped square rods standing on end, covered with seemingly chaotic colors and lines. With her hearing impairment, Jóelsdóttir says, “I’m always guessing, filling in information. If you look at my work, there’s a white part, nothingness, which is quiet, and then there are fragmented drawings that the viewer has to assemble into some kind of meaning. This is a pattern in my life, making meaning out of fragments.”