For An Icelandic Conceptual Art Pioneer, Home Was His Inspiration


REYKJAVÍK, Iceland — My educated guess is that Birgir Andrésson (1955-2007) — one of the most significant and innovative Icelandic artists of the past several decades — will be unfamiliar to most Hyperallergic readers.

Often called a conceptual artist, Andrésson exhibited internationally in his lifetime (and continues to be exhibited), including representing Iceland in the 1995 Venice Biennale, but most of his shows were in Iceland, far from the art world limelight.  

Had Andrésson left his country for a more visible location he likely would be much better known worldwide, yet remaining made perfect sense. Iceland was his deeply felt home. He was steeped in its ways and lore, landscape and history. It was also his complex subject and an energizing force. With ardor and irony, precision and droll humor, he investigated and challenged Icelandic identity and history, and found novel ways of inserting his island nation into a global context. 

Birgir Andrésson: As Far as the Eye Can See, curated by eminent American art historian Robert Hobbs, provides an engrossing overview of Andrésson’s work in multiple mediums. The exhibition coincides with the monograph Birgir Andrésson In Icelandic Colours (Distanz Verlag, 2022), which features an illuminating, thoroughly researched essay by Hobbs and a memorable forward by Ragnar Kjartansson, Andrésson’s former student. 

Installation view of Birgir Andrésson: As Far as the Eye Can See at the Reykjavik Art Museum Kjarvalsstaðir, 2022. Pictured, “Here Comes the Sun, Here Comes the Moon” (2006), wallpainting in two parts, size variable. Collection of Dorte and Nils Stærk, Copenhagen.

For his renowned wall paintings in house paint, Andrésson boldly (and no doubt ironically) claimed colors from the NCS universal color system as specifically Icelandic; he did the same in other works with Pantone. This is, of course, nuts; such colors can be anywhere. Still, the matte tones Andrésson favored — russet, gray, green, yellow-gold, and light blue, among others — are prevalent in Iceland, and also lodged in the national psyche. They are in the landscape, on the metal exteriors of houses in Reykjavik’s old city, and elsewhere, on fishing boats and ships in the country’s many harbors, on farm buildings and rural churches (including the famous red and white one in coastal Hellnar, where Dieter Roth, an immigrant and a polymath precursor to Andrésson, is buried). 

In “Blackest Night” (2006), the title is painted in grayish green lower-case text on a black ground; below, in the same color, are “Colours: ICELANDIC 4010-B90G” and “ICELANDIC 8505-G20Y.” (The exact hues Andrésson used can be found in NCS.) Seemingly impersonal, this painting recalls an absurdly oversized color chip at a hardware store. It is also immersive and curiously sublime.

While “blackest night” could be the name of a paint tone, it also conjures long, dark nights in Iceland’s long winters. It could be the beginning of a poem, story, saga, or song in a country that abounds with all of these. It could indicate a fraught psychological state; Andrésson’s conceptual works are often poetic and evocative. 

Installation view of Birgir Andrésson: As Far as the Eye Can See at the Reykjavik Art Museum Kjarvalsstaðir, 2022. Pictured, Nearness, Knowledge, Reading (Big House Poem) (1993), 80 cut black cardstock paper, each 12.2 x 8.66 inches. Collection of the Reykjavík Art Museum.

Another wall painting is a yellow and green diptych (colors reverse in the two parts) that reads HERE COMES THE SUN (think George Harrison, the Beatles, and global pop culture) and HERE COMES THE MOON, which shifts from pop song to cosmic bodies and planetary rhythms. In Iceland, often gray, windy, rainy, snowy, and cold for weeks on end, the sun can be rapturous: pure health, warmth, and vitamin D. The same goes for the moon, which is often obscured by dense clouds. 

“Nearness” was important to Andrésson, a term he frequently cited and included in some titles.  Though well versed in international art, he often worked with things from his very particular environment and culture: colors, as well as the national flag, turf houses, lava, old-time photographs, stamps, historical materials, and even canned goods. By no means did nearness imply comfort or familiarity. Instead, he de-familiarized his subjects, investing them with ambiguity and complexity.

Turf houses, once common, remain an enduring symbol of old Iceland, although they have long since vanished, save for a few preserved as historical sites. For “Nearness, Knowledge, Reading (Big House Poem)” (1993), Andrésson rendered the layouts of turf houses, as revealed in archaeological ruins, in black cardstock paper; each component is individually framed. Arranged on the wall, they are like hieroglyphs in a large, enigmatic poem connecting the deep past and present, visual art and literature.

Birgir Andrésson, “Nýbúar (Grenada fruit from Iran)” (2004), Diasec print, 18.5 x 12.2 inches (courtesy the Estate of Birgir Andrésson & i8 Gallery, Reykjavík)

Photographs of green plants growing from Ora produce cans in Andrésson’s Transplants (2003) series are riveting and hilarious: Granada fruit from Iran bursting from a can of asparagus, tamarillo from South Africa climbing from a can of carrots and green peas, Fiji apples from China in a can of mushrooms. Yet the striking photographs entice viewers into his conceptual concerns. For centuries, vegetables were scarce in Iceland, especially in winter. World War II brought an economic boom, and in 1952 the Ora company began marketing canned vegetables, which soon became quintessentially Icelandic, feel-good staples at Christmas dinners. In the photos, exotic plants from faraway countries (“farness” was also important for him) inhabit Icelandic cans.  

When he made these works, Iceland had a small but growing immigrant population. Now, more than 15 percent of the country is foreign born. The photographs both encapsulate and anticipate a radically changing, increasingly multinational society. Andrésson also slyly critiques what is Icelandic. The non-native peas, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, and other foods in Ora canned goods are transplants, as were the original Norse settlers.

Installation view of Birgir Andrésson: As Far as the Eye Can See at the Reykjavik Art Museum Kjarvalsstaðir, 2022. Pictured, Stamps (2002), oil on canvas, 30.31 x 40.55 inches each (courtesy the Estate of Birgir Andrésson & i8 Gallery, Reykjavík)

His colorful paintings, silkscreens, and prints of Icelandic stamps, including ones from 1930 that commemorate the thousand-year anniversary of the Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, are deceptively straightforward. From a distance, images including a Viking ship, the national flag, and a map of the country are clearly legible, but up close they become elusive and unstable, breaking down into thousands of pointillist dots. These works are anything but patriotic. Some of these stamps did not originate in Iceland (designed in part by a German living in Austria); some were canceled — phantom stamps. They address history and national identity as blurry, mutable constructs, influenced by ideologies and fantasies from within and outside the country.

A distinguishing characteristic of Andrésson’s idea-driven works is how acutely visual they are, how they seem to revel in the sheer act of looking. His unusual biography factors in. From the Westman Islands, a remote part of already remote Iceland, as a child he moved with his father — who became blind from drinking a modest amount of tainted alcohol — to Reykjavik and eventually into the Blind People’s Home. The sighted child of blind parents (his father and stepmother), Andrésson conveyed the visible world to them and to others. This influenced his precise attention to colors, materials, images, and typefaces, and to the power of words to create mental images.

Birgir Andrésson, “Portrait #6 (Slightly more than average height)” (1999), silkscreen on paper, 31.49 x 23.6 inches (courtesy The Estate of Birgir Andrésson & i8 Gallery, Reykjavík)

Andrésson’s text portraits in either Icelandic or English are short paragraphs that objectively describe the physical appearance of a person or animal. “His head is large and his jaw prominent, and he breathes through his mouth and often sticks his tongue between his teeth,” one work declares. Another describes a woman: “Her face is long, the nose rather big and oddly angled, the eyes are blue-gray and tilt outward ….” Many of these texts are based on 18th- and 19th-century descriptions of criminals and missing people in the Parliamentary Gazette, which the artist would alter and sometimes combine. The “Icelandic” colors are usually from Pantone. The combination of a text in one color and a rich, saturated monochrome in another is simply marvelous. 

Andrésson employed his “Icelandic” colors in eclectic ways. Each painting in Black and White Classics in Icelandic Colours (2004-7) features the title of a famous non-Icelandic black and white film, among them Metropolis, Casablanca, Gold Rush, and Spellbound. Little Iceland, reaching out to the big world, has colorized these classics and affected the world. Displayed in a horizontal row, a bit like a film strip, these differently colored paintings are enchanting. 

Birgir Andrésson was a keen thinker, daring artist, boisterous drinker, provocateur, devoted friend, jokester, and a charismatic figure in the small yet vital Icelandic art scene — the epitome of what Ragnar Kjartansson calls in his forward “bohemian standards.” An early photograph, “Náttúruspjall” (1976), or nature chat, shows the artist himself prone in the landscape, seemingly conversing with overhanging turf, which resembles an open mouth. His colored pencil on paper drawings of the ocean’s surface, from his last year, are empirical, mysterious, and exquisite.

Birgir Andrésson, “Black and White Classics in Icelandic Colour (Spellbound)” (2005), oil on Canvas, 23.62 x 23.62 x 1.96 inches. Collection of Lucille and Ron Neeley, New York.

Enlarged, grainy, black and white vintage photographs of individuals cover much of one wall in the exhibition. These photos, from the Different People series (1991-2006), picture obscure figures from Icelandic history: vagrants, traveling poets and musicians, a shark hunter, a prankster/thief. Only names are provided, although descriptions appear in other versions of the series; some can be found in the monograph. Oddur Sigurgeirsson, wearing a bowler hat and with ragged teeth, was a “Fisherman (on Schooner)/Brawler/Drinker/Publisher”; Ingibjörg Sigurðardóttir, smiling and wrapped in a shawl, was a “Vagrant/Poetess/Minstrel”; Sólon Guðmundsson, standing outside with a scythe, was a “Designer and Builder of Bizarre Houses/Poet/Genial Host.” 

In a history-minded country that for centuries was highly stratified and oppressive (“feudal,” Hobbs calls it), Andrésson focused not on average or famous people but instead on marginal eccentrics, many of whom were artists in some sense. I’m surmising that he felt much kinship with this alternative national lineage.

Birgir Andrésson: As Far as the Eye Can See continues at the Reykjavik Art Museum Kjarvalsstaðir (Flókagata 24 105 Reykjavík, Iceland) through May 15. The exhibition was curated by Robert Hobbs.


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