Birgir Andrésson’s eclectic, thoughtful and coolly humorous works, oftentimes dealing in complex questions of national identity, have solidified his reputation as a top Icelandic artist. Throughout his career, Andrésson (1955–2007) explored combinations of text, image and color, and found novel uses for historical materials, in wall murals, photographs, paintings (for instance, magnified and distorted images of 1930s postage stamps of Icelandic geysers and waterfalls), sculptures and “portraits” of anonymous individuals involving short, descriptive texts. Had he left Iceland for a more mainstream location, Andrésson would likely be much better known internationally, yet his decision to remain made perfect sense. He was energized by his remote, volcanic homeland in the North Atlantic and alert to Iceland’s relationship to the outside world. When he exhibited abroad his works typically brought something of Iceland with them.
This exhibition featured two wall paintings, both from 2006, expertly executed by two students from Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts according to instructions left by Andrésson. The paintings are from his “Icelandic Colors” series, for which, with his characteristic deadpan humor, he claimed various colors as uniquely Icelandic, although they exist everywhere. Made with house paint, the large, rectangular paintings occupied one long wall in the otherwise empty gallery. One was a subdued grayish green, precisely the kind of matte color that you often see in Iceland on the corrugated metal exteriors of houses. Near the top were the words “pouring rain” in muted orange, while a brief list at the bottom identified the colors: Icelandic 0560-Y20R and Icelandic 4010-B90G. The other painting was a deep, lustrous black with the words “blackest night” in the same green used in the other painting.
Straightforward and empirical, like giant-size color swatches at the hardware store or online, these austere paintings prove surprisingly evocative and poetic. “Pouring rain” and “blackest night” are clichés, intentionally wielded, that nevertheless suggest the powerful environment and history of Iceland: long, long winter nights; buffeting rain that comes from every which way; ancestors hunkered down in leaking turf houses. Together, these two terms amount to an ultra-taciturn description of a wild, stormy night, but also seem like a snippet of some story or ancient fable from which all other information has been deleted. The interplay between colors was quietly dynamic. You wanted to look at these paintings for a long time, as they subtly responded to shifting natural light and summoned the Icelandic landscape, connoting an immense sky, black lavascapes in the distance, coastal fog rolling in, the undulating ocean.
Photo: Birgir Andrésson: Two wall paintings, 2006/2011, from the series “Icelandic Colors”; at Foksal Gallery Foundation.