Anna Jóelsdóttir’s striking canvases can be almost violent in their directness, a hard-edged jagged stripe running across the field and seeming to plow right through the surface in places, causing ruptures that spew forth chaotic colors and lines in billowing clouds of confusion, all of this in sharp contrast to a pristine white background. The colored stripes indicate a speedy journey, a cartoon-like race across the canvas, while the chaotic ruptures attest to a more complex underlying reality, a realm where lines curve, colors blend and confusion reigns. This brutal contrast of clear abstraction and polymorphous detail is what informs Anna Jóelsdóttir’s paintings and makes them so engaging. Though the structure and dynamics of the compositions are revealed, as it were, at a glance, these paintings also reward a closer reading that in the end will bear upon that viewer himself as much as it will uncover the artist’s intent and thinking.
Abstraction does not begin with non-objective painting. It is in play whenever we seek to extract a general truth from a particular instant, be it a hue of blue or the temptation of St. Anthony. The formalism that attended the development of abstract painting in the 1910s presented a more focused study and a move away from metaphorical representation to a kind of meta-language where, instead of evoking abstractions by showing instances or emblems, they were pared down to the absolute minimum and presented, as far as possible, without adornment. We need only think of Malewich’s Black Square and contrast it with any handy painting of the crucifixion to realize how different these two approaches are, yet they both achieve the same conceptual shift whereby the locus of meaning is shifted from the figures represented on the canvas to a higher perspective where we expect to find the true object of the painting. This object or aim has been variously thought of as its moral, its ideal or its harmonic, reflecting the concerns and vocabulary of each historical period.
The noble lifting of the mind or soul to the contemplation of more general, even eternal, issues is the generally accepted reason why we think art is “a good thing.” Yet there is a darker side to art where discontent seems forever to thwart our desire for clarity. Demons and fantastic animals intrude on the saint’s suffering, war and famine bring artists to the edge of despair, and alongside the harmonic clarity of the constructivists’ paintings there developed an anarchic tradition of unrestrained opulence in the use of color, materials and concepts. One side seeks to encompass meaning and reduce it to its logical essence while the other responds by producing ever more and even more confusing material, the meaning of which we are then left to work out.
The best of contemporary art combines these two approaches with often mind-numbing effect as we struggle to comprehend it with the uneasy feeling one always gets when asked to believe many contradictory things at once. It offers thesis, antithesis and resolution in one gesture, employing a rhetoric of figures that reduces most critics incomprehensible when they try to explain it. To engage with such art one is tempted to react as a rhetorician might by adding one’s own cynical twist to the plot, providing a missing reference or pointing out a hidden allusion. Art appreciation can become a game of one-upmanship where we compete to add to the already hardening layers of meanings that encrust the artwork. If we give in to such temptations we may ironically achieve both the pinnacle of abstraction and utter incomprehension in the same moment.
Anna Jóelsdóttir’s paintings are striking because they present both clarity and confusion, the two contradictory tendencies of abstract painting on one canvas. While we are used to artwork that cleverly comments on such divisions we tend to look for the synthesis – either the artist has tried to resolve the contradictions or somehow cancel them out. The impression one has from Anna Jóelsdóttir’s work is that the war is still on, there has been no resolution to the dispute and the space that separates the warring factions is only a paper-thin veneer of white. Rather than attempt a rhetorical resolution, she seeks to portray the dynamics of the conflict, to find on the canvas a configuration that transforms formal contradiction into movement. Like a rolling stone, these works gather no moss. They do not accrete allusions and obscure references or lend themselves to easy interpretations. They journey forward and the twists and ruptures come with the terrain.
What is most refreshing about the paintings and gives them force is that they present a specifically painterly approach to the problem instead of dwelling on the theory. Instead of offering yet another level of abstraction the painter resolves the elements within the dynamic of the painting. The formal tension between the elements is perfectly achieved by manipulating figure and ground to apparently rupture the very skin of the painting, its white background. The stripes race through the field, extending beyond the canvas to indicate a much larger, perhaps infinite space in which the same drama is continually being played out.
It is inevitable that we draw comparisons to the landscape of the artist’s native Iceland, famously home to many active volcanoes and in large part covered by lava and glaciers, riven by deep and ever-forming fissures. Growing up in Iceland one certainly learns to recognize change as the only abiding feature of nature and there is no reason why we should not see the paintings as part of Anna’s own journey through the shifting landscape of art and life. We can also take the same perspective ourselves and recognize in it the impetus of our own journey, whatever it may be. In any painting, the viewer is the absent figure whose gaze completes it but our gaze provides only a momentary rest in the struggle taking place on Anna Jóelsdóttir’s canvases. They refuse to be resolved into any sort of stasis and impel us, too, to keep moving.