Review by Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine. Photos courtesy of the museum. This month choosing a subject was a challenge. In contrast to the period exhibition Existence, 1968-1982 (until August 25, 2013) by the regional painter Eiríkur Smith (b.1925) from Hafnarfjörður, two other hip and versatile exhibitions by Icelandic artists from younger generations caught my attention, but I felt unable to write about them for different reasons.
In the Sand, 1981.
Instead, I headed to see Existence at Hafnarborg with slight reluctance, because it was not my top choice, but my feelings changed more positively in the course of my research. All I could recollect was that the artist Eiríkur Smith is of my grandfather’s generation and a household name in Iceland. I thought, I have seen abstract work by him (which is not incorrect), but this exhibition turned out to be mostly realism. Realism does not send me to cloud nine of enthusiasm, because it can be a slightly trite and limited mode of expression, although it is a great source of learning and many Icelandic younger artists have solely found a revived interest in the mannerism of this old-fashioned type of painting, such as Þorri Hringsson (b.1966), Stefán Boulter (b.1970), Þrándur Þórarinsson (b.1978), among others. At least, I thought, knowing that painting as a medium is my strongest point, and I doubt, I can ever fall out of words about any kind of painting, was enough of a reassuring fact, that Existence must save the month as a subject for this art review. Yet, my immediate reaction of seeing this exhibition was only nauseatingly negative (I literally went out to take fresh air). And I questioned myself if I have the right to express my disapproving opinion openly towards a well-established figure in the Icelandic art world. I have always tried to avoid being too harsh in my reviews, because everybody has feelings and the easiest thing is to criticize. Added to the fact that some time ago when the artist, critic and writer Ásmundur Ásmundsson (b.1971) attacked another colossal art figure in Iceland, the artist Rúri (b.1951), I wrote in her defense, that where we are today, we owe it to the road paved by the previous generations and the people from the future have the advantage that time does improve our perspective on things.
But on the other hand, the most valuable aspects of an art review are honesty and constructive criticism, apart from being informative. An interesting fact: when I do research, whether about local or international artists, I very seldom find real criticism, as if these days art critics fear that if they criticize, they would be accused of dogmatism. So I decided to express my ‘sugar-free’ opinion, and if Mr Smith happens to read it, it is just a subjective experience. I have a huge admiration for the fact that he has never been afraid to experiment with styles. (In 1957, he even went to the extreme of burning his earlier artworks of geometric abstraction , when a new passion for nature and realism dawned on him.) Very few artists dare to go out of their comfort zone, once they find the golden formula which keeps selling the same type of work over and over again, which is a very sad and counter-creative habit. To be more specific, I started my visit at the second floor, where the curators held a talk at the opening. Firstly, I found the subject matter of seamen, seagulls, abandoned houses and rusty ships, or Icelandic landscapes with huldufólk ('hidden people') painfully overused without adding any new insight, dimension and challenge.
With few exceptions, the compositions seemed overloaded with elements, and all of them were equally sharp-focused, which is visually overstimulating and lessens the impact of the subject matter. I played a game by cropping parts of the pictures to simplify the canvas and pacify my aching eyes, such as with ‘Migrants’ (1980, oil on canvas), ‘Remembrance’ (1981, oil on canvas) and ‘Shipwreck’ (1976, oil on canvas). Personally, I favor simplicity and breathing space, when detailed elements are being juxtaposed by broad empty areas, such as in ‘On the Sand’ (1981, oil on canvas) and ‘An Old Sailor with a White Boat’ (1971, oil on panel). I just don’t think that realism is Eiríkur Smith’s best period. I even wondered whether the artist is self-taught, which is not the case, according to my research based on the books Of Spirit and Remembrance and Eiríkur Smith, both by art historian Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson. I was glad to find out that my hunch was not totally wrong. The artist admits in the Chapter ‘The Call for Realism’ of the book Eiríkur Smith (page 60, in Icelandic), that: “In abstraction, it is definitely easy to fake a lot, reach over the limit, but realism demands a full command of all aspects in art. I had to begin to reeducate myself, practise more draughtsmanship, look at colors in a new way, and this reeducation is by no means over.” The geometric abstractions with figurative elements from 1968 on the first floor were, perhaps, more imaginative and appealing that the landscapes on the upper floor, but I found the raw primary colors and bold compositions in large scale equally nauseating with their arrogant primitivism. I had a hard time deciding whether I have a favorite painting among them, and I couldn’t reach a conclusion. In general, Eiríkur Smith is a man of conviction, well-educated, well-informed, curious, dedicated and spiritual person, and has done astonishing masterpieces in his career, but maybe not in this exhibition. Personally, I love his latest works, which were exhibited in Hafnarborg in 2002 (and are not part of Existence), where there is unprecedented effortless freedom of a matured master: where geometric order and poetic chaos merge in perfect blend of fine detail versus generalization, saturated patches of color versus subtle hues and hints of motion and emotion. The exhibition Existence, Eiríkur Smith, 1968-1982 runs until August 25, 2013. Admission is free. Closed on Tuesdays. Hafnarborg, the Hafnarfjörður Centre of Culture and Fine Art, is located on Strandgata 34, 220 Hafnarfjörður.
Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine – kremenan (at) gmail.com Kremena Nikolova-Fontaine is a passionate collector of art books, dedicating every spare moment to learn more about art while dreaming about having an exhibition of her own. She studied graphic design at the School of Visual Arts in Akureyri from 1999 to 2002. In college she realized that she didn’t want to be a designer or commercial artist but rather an illustrator and writer. At the moment she’s experimenting with her first graphic novel.