Erla Þórarinsdóttir’s art stands apart from most of what her contemporaries are doing. Its intense forms and deep spirituality are far removed from the cynical presentation and facile eclecticism of much of what we see in museums and galleries these days where artists sometimes seem most concerned to distance themselves from whatever symbolism and meaning their works may carry. That attitude can be interesting in a analytical or rhetorical sense but it also severely limits the ways in which we, the viewers, can approach and appreciate what is being done. All too often we find that the most we can get out a work of art is sharing in the joke or else feeling left out. Built into the rhetoric is a kind of defence mechanism which allows the artist to sidestep any attempt at interpretation, allowing all but confirming none. In the absence of such devices, Erla’s works can seem almost vulnerable and fragile, despite their clear and uncompromising formalism, but this is also why they can also be so profoundly unsettling.
Erla Þórarinsdóttir was born in Iceland but grew up in Sweden and received her art education there and in Amsterdam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the mid-1980s she lived in New York before returning to settle in Iceland. While her early work reflects to some degree the heady anarchy and freedom of the time, there is a remarkable constancy to her output, an almost stubborn attachment to the same explorations of forms and colours and gradually evolving shapes. Best known in recent years for her paintings, she has also worked continuously on three-dimensional pieces, some sculptural, such as her recent work in granite, some more ephemeral like her installations of light and coloured shapes. Already in the 1980s she had started to use metallic paints and the use of silver leaf was to become perhaps the most easily recognisable feature of her painting from the 1990s and up to today. She does not apply the silver as ornamentation or only for accents but uses it on large shapes, sometimes broken up into complex surfaces, and has harnessed the natural process of oxidation to lend these metallic surfaces a remarkable depth on the canvas, often in combination with a single rich and deep colour.
Erla’s most comprehensive exhibition of this technique was in 2004 in the Reykjavík Art Museum, titled Corpus Lucis Sensitivus or the Light-Sensitive Body. The title refers to the process by which Erla has allowed the silver leaf in her paintings to be transformed by daylight and oxidation but also to a deeper reading of the work which associates them with a more mystical or spiritual aspect of the world. The paintings highlighted not only the painstaking precision and detail of Erla’s method, but also the urgency and depth of her symbols. Emphasising the corporeal, some canvases appeared to be drenched in blood and the depth of her surfaces – silver and oil paint – seemed to evoke much more than form and fields of colour, something like a mystical body, not a mere symbol but a living transcendental body born of light and shapes. Silver is perhaps the most appropriate material for such an evocation with its rich and ancient mystical associations, secret alchemical history and varied use in magic and rituals around the world. Yet Erla does not refer back to this history in her work, or only very obliquely. She does not work with symbols and their readings based on some arcanum or ready interpretation. Rather, she always seeks to exploit the symbolic properties of the materials and forms themselves, not merely referring to them or evoking their associations but seeking to recreate the experience that must have given rise to them in the first place. In Erla’s art, this finds expression in highly-crafted paintings and sculpture, but also in her more loosely assembled works of photographs and installations that often have a reference to personal history.
This is why one feels somewhat uncomfortable speaking of the mystical aspects of Erla’s work, though not to do so would be to ignore the very thing from which they derive their impact. Part of the problem here is the cynical way we tend to treat our symbols nowadays, piling them up casually but without any real commitment, as a rhetorical exercise or merely as ornaments, denying them any metaphysical content and thus any real relevance to our lives. In this way, we have ‘tamed’ the metaphysical realm and no longer feel either its pull or its dangers. In her paintings, however, Erla seeks to rediscover the primordial, the sublime and always dangerous experience of something inexhaustible and sacred that has no name and no cipher but nonetheless belongs to our world and is, indeed, its very essence.
Erla Þórarinsdóttir is nothing if not determined, and she is also well aware of the risks involved in her metaphysical investigations and the need to place her work in the context of contemporary art practice. Though highly individual and often aggressively formalistic, her works are open to cultural influences and, as she is proving more and more often, can be expressed in a variety of media. Recent visits to China, for example, have allowed her to undertake more ambitious sculptural projects, working with local materials and learning from local craftsmen. These visits have also allowed her to widen the cultural references of her works, bringing about a kind of fusion of Nordic austerity and oriental abundance in colourful installations and photographic series. Gradually working these elements into her art, she proves the consistency of her ideas and her ability to carry them forward in new materials and present them in new contexts.
LIST Icelandic Art News. Page last updated 15 January 2008. Texts and images copyright © 2008 by the authors. For inquiries and contact information see about us.