Wolf at the Gate
If one ventured to describe the character of the Icelandic painting produced during the last few decades, one would probably call it „introverted“ in the very broadest sense. Describing it in art historical terms we would certainly be able to use adjectives such as objective, figurative, abstract, conceptual or expressionistic. But no matter how aggressive this painting purports to be, it remains first and foremost inwards-directed, centered on the artistˋs internal reckoning rather than external reality. However topsy-turvy the world may appear to him, the Icelandic painter will need to thoroughly process what he sees and feels before reacting to events. Even „new expressionism“, as it was practiced in Iceland during the 1980s, was concerned more with personal existential matters rather than societal or political constrains, as was the case with its Continental variety.
There is one great exception to this state of affairs, though it is perhaps not totally valid, since the artist in question has for decades been more of a Continental artist than Icelandic. I am of course referring to Paris-based Guðmundur Erró. But I would still like to mention him in this particular context, since he has long been one of the favourite artists of Úlfur (Wolf) Karlsson, whose work is now on show in the Reykjanes Museum. Karlsson frequently mentions Erró in interviews, praising his for the open-mindedness and political awareness that characterize his complex „scape“ paintings with their panoramic view of current events. Of himself Karlsson says: „My works are like a timeline with a scattered views of events, depending on whatˋs happening in the world around me and where I happen to be standing at a given moment in time.“ The paths of these two expansive „extroverts“, Karlsson and Erró, have actually crossed a number of times, both here in Iceland and in Austria, where they both belong to the stable of renowned gallerist Ernst Hilger.
Karlsson calls his present exhibition The Fence, referring primarily to the proximity of the Reykjanes Museum to the metal fence which for decades enclosed the large American Naval Base on the outskirts of the fishing village of Keflavík. This fence became the dividing line between Icelandic culture and U.S. cultural products, the point at which the Icelandic Sagas rubbed up against Marvel Comics, where traditional Icelandic ballads met Rock ´n Roll and sheepsˋheads were supplanted by Hersheyˋs chocolates. But Karlssonˋshow is also about fences in the abstract, the barriers between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, islands and continents, the local and the international, the known and the unknown. In its individual fashion, and with great intensity, it tends to confirm Erróˋs conclusion that neither fence holds up anymore. A butterfly in the Far East flutters its wings and a cyclone is created on the other side of the planet. The violence and upheavals that occur out in the wide world become a part of our reality in an instant, thanks to a mobile phone app.
But for artists this state of affairs can also be a rewarding one. Far-sighted and resolute artists of the caliber of Úlfur Karlsson and Erró donˋt have to look for subject matter, the subject matter seeks them out. There has been a tendency to classify their portrayals of modern excess as exclusively polemical. But letˋs not forget the almost sensual pleasure that comes with feasting on the cornucopia of world events and popular culture, being invited to sample everything that takes our fancy. Itˋs also easy to simply deride a creature such as Donald Trump, but more useful, difficult – and in the long run more meaningful – to put together a visual compendium of the many-sided folly that he represents.
Not that Karlsson is particularly concerned with Donald Trump, though he nods in his direction a few times. He takes more pleasure in deploying lesser known characters, real and fictional. They tend to be devious, cruel and unpredictable, and their virtual world has more exists and entrances than our own. They are engaged in colourful encounters or collusions that take unexpected turns. The dividing line – the fence – between reality and fantasy is usually unclear. The action is brought to a close, but never resolved. We are left with a number of questions and conundrums to ponder, long after the pictures have left us.