Layering and Its Discontents


Layering and Its Discontents

Bird of the Night (1968), by Karl Kvaran. Photo: Guðmundur Ingólfsson.

If you stand at a short remove, taking in the paintings in first room of the Karl Kvaran and Erla Þórarinsdóttir exhibition “Layers of time” simultaneously, certain inter-artist similarities become obvious. The undulating lines of Karl’s Color White (1979-84) are echoed in the wavy lines of Erla’s East-West (2016) and the overlapping circles of Karl’s Untitled (1978) re-appear as intersecting circles in Erla’s Oxidation in the Crack (2016). Indeed, several of the dominant colors in Untitled and Oxidation in the Crack are identical. Yet one work in the space—a magenta oval on a near-white background (Karl Kvaran’s Form (1974))—seems to stand solo.

Of course, the piece is not really alone. Mounted at the end of the hall, but visible through two open doorways, is Erla’s Shelter (2016), a similar-sized, pale pink canvas foregrounding a silvery elliptical form. This semi-hidden—yet super-planned—correspondence is emblematic of the meticulous design of the show. It also highlights some of the exhibition’s flaws.

The works on display by Karl, who died in 1989, include both gouaches, made in the late 1960s, and oil paintings, made in the 1970s. In both media, the artist laid down strong lines, often in black, and filled many of the gaps in bright color. But the gouaches use blocky, hard-cornered forms, whereas the oil paintings are based on billowing curves.


Karl Kvaran, Reputation (1974). Photo: Guðmundur Ingólfsson.

The gouaches also have rough surfaces with clear layers; the effort that went into them is immediately apparent. The oil paintings have a smooth clarity that makes them seem inevitable. But a closer look at the canvases reveals unevenness of color and over-painting— it seems that they were made by a human hand after all. This only makes them more exciting: not only are they a joy to look at, but the apparent spontaneity of their creation suggests they were a joy to make. We can imagine the artist in his studio, music and inspiration flowing.

Several works by Erla, a contemporary artist, consist of simple, oil-painted forms overlaid by silver leaf. The silver is allowed to oxidize, creating an uneven surface; a coat of lacquer is eventually applied to halt the reaction. In these works, which include Shelter, Oxidation in the Crack and Transmutation (2010), the layers are not a record of the artist’s hand but the work itself—creation by chemical process.

Generations by Erla Þórarinsdóttir.

Erla Þórarinsdóttir, Generations (2006). Photo: Guðmundur Ingólfsson.

The show also incorporates two series of works by Erla based on lines. In Silverliners (2016) and Oneliners (2014), form is no longer entirely dominated by surface, as in the oxidations. Still, the shapes are vaguely familiar, home décor-like, missing the adventurousness found in Karl’s work. The pieces are also shiny: in the Silverliners, the paint is silver, and in the Oneliners, the surface is aluminum.

A group of bronze and black granite sculptures stand out among the works by Erla. Some of the shapes are similar to those used elsewhere, but unlike many of the other pieces, they don’t try to impress you with their prettiness. Instead, the works’ simplicity allows them to accumulate meaning. Generations (2006), made up of tear-shaped forms nestled inside one another, evokes Russian nesting dolls, an artichoke sliced lengthwise, or the rings of a tree.

The exhibition offers plenty of pleasure (Karl’s lively compositions, Erla’s shiny embellishments). But the juxtaposition of the artists ends up emphasizing a major difference: Karl is obsessed with form, whereas Erla’s preoccupation is surface. Any shape and color similarities between the two appear incidental, a party trick.

“Layers of Time,” curated by Aðalheiður Valgeirsdóttir and Aldís Arnardóttir, remains on view at Listasafn Árnesinga through November 13.

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