A reflection on the art of Anna Jóelsdóttir

By AÐALSTEINN Ingólfsson

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twilight picnic / dúkað á dimmum sandi    /  Detail / Acrylic and ink on French cotton

twilight picnic / dúkað á dimmum sandi / Detail / Acrylic and ink on French cotton

Now that painterly abstraction has again gained firm foothold amongst Icelandic artists, Anna Jóelsdóttir regularly reminds us of the methodological and conceptual changes that have taken place in what we might call “the workplace“ of abstract artists during the last three decades. During that time Jóelsdóttir herself alternated between her native Iceland and Chicago.

For most of the 20th century, abstract painters mostly rationalized their approach to art with reference to three inherently abstract phenomena: nature, music and geometry (with frequent stop-offs in esoteric disciplines such as theosophy). Today we are privy to greater knowledge off these phenomena than ever before. ”Nature“ no longer refers simply to what we used to call the natural world, for it now encompasses the macrocosm of seemingly limitless space as well as the microcosm of the molecular world, along with the processes that science has developed to enhance their visibility. Both music and the whole idea of sound have now been absorbed into the painted field, and Euclidˋs geometry, formerly an aid to artists intent on working either on the two dimensional plane or in three dimensional space, is now practiced by scientists in more dimensions than we ever imagined. In addition the digital revolution has both unlocked a Pandoraˋs box of new imagery to artists and given them the tools to manipulate reality to a frightening fragmented degree. All of this has irrevocably changed the face of abstract art.

With this fragmentation of imagery and the expansion of fields of reference, abstract artists have had to find new ways of working. The onslaught of visual stimuli is so relentless and disorderly that the artist no longer has recourse to the tried and tested methodology of Modernism, the process of step-by-step progression, where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken, leading to evidence-based conclusions.

On the blurred borderline between reality and imagination stands the conflicted artist, caught between the artefact and its idea, doing and being, creation and observation, revelation and concealment, every one of those options opening up to creative vistas too numerous to enumerate.

In her foray into the limitless world of abstract imagery Anna Jóelsdóttir has chosen to embrace fragmentation and disorder – chaos – rather than subject it to a rational process of thought and resolution. Yet the basic building blocks of her works are the same that every abstract artist has had to contend with: plane, colour, lines, rhythm, harmony. But the fulcrum of the action that Jóelsdóttir unleashes in her works is the friction that ensues every time the worlds of geometry and free forms collide.

Whether the artist works in two dimensions on a painted field or extends her work into the gallery space itself, her approach is resolutely non-linear. The process, be it fragmentary or unitary, is characterized by expansion in multiple directions rather than one, based on the concept that there are always a number of starting points from which one can proceed. The apparent chaos sets off unforeseen transformations, transient states where indefinable visual “events“ take place, not only through the friction of the known and the unknown, but also in the intervals between them. Inevitably the viewer is reminded of the well-known parable of chaos theory, where a butterfly fluttering its wings on one side of the world is seen to foment a typhoon on the other side.

Jóelsdóttirˋs site-relational installations are logical extensions of the investigations into unpredictability that we find in her two-dimensional work. They are made possible chiefly through her use of Mylar, a special type of semi-transparent film made from stretched polyester. The artist covers this film with acrylic colours and ink, shapes it by hand and staples them into startling organic forms – bundles, balls, weird blossoms, even wings - which she distributes around her exhibition spaces, where they beautifully illustrate the order which exists within apparent chaos. As the fragmented forms move over and around the corners and curves of the polyester “fabric“, the installations also seem to suggest the workings of space-time, what we know as gravity.

March 2019

Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson is an Icelandic art historian, critic and curator, currently associate professor in art history at the University of Iceland. He is the author of some 30 books on Icelandic art and artists.