Unfulfilled Promise

 September 29 | Unfulfilled Promise: The Pleinairism Exhibition in I8 Gallery

For its “pleinairism” exhibition, I8, one of the oldest galleries in Reykjavík, gathered together 38 artists from different countries, who work in different media, are of different ages and are at different stages of their professional careers. The title “pleinairism” refers to the technique of working outside under natural light, and the exhibition explores the meanings of this concept in modern times.

What do you envision when the press release for an exhibition has the word “pleinairism” in its title? For those who are familiar with art, the light saturated paintings of Renoir, Monet, or Alfred Sisley will immediately spring to mind.

What do you expect when on top of the ambitious title the gallery promises to show the works of 38 artists, among them such established ones as Hreinn Fridfinnson, Ólafur Elíasson, Ragnar Kjartanssson, Peter Diog, Fransis Alÿs and Tacita Dean to name a few?

Courtesy of the gallery.

My high hopes were shattered as soon as I saw Peter Doig’s work. He is a well-known artist, whose first retrospective exhibition was shown in London this spring. His painting “White Canoe” was sold at auction last year for GBP 6.1 million (USD 11.1 million, EUR 7.7 million), which is quite a record for a living European artist.

This gave me reason to expect some high quality art. Doig’s work is represented by four pieces in a series called “Swimming Heads.” Considering his credentials, the quality of the work presented is, to put it mildly, puzzling. A few half-hearted childlike strokes on an otherwise bare surface was not what I expected.

“Swimming Heads,” 2008 by Peter Doig.

A look around the exhibition shows that most of the artists offered pieces that are very different from their typical styles. Ólafur Elíasson, who usually works with installations and large-scale immersive environments, is represented by an unusually modest series of drawings—“Tilted Light and Grey Disks.”

Tacita Dean, who has worked with different media but is best known for her 16mm films, presents snippets of text from her notes of 1986/1987. Ragnar Kjartansson, who has been chosen to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2009, takes a similar approach, offering his open Moleskine notebooks to viewers.

The idea had a much more interesting angle when it was posted on YouTube as part of the Detour exhibition. There you were able to see the pages turn and the sketches come alive before your eyes, but at this exhibition Kjartansson’s notebooks are simply notebooks, lacking depth and vitality.

“Sketchbooks,” 2001- 2006 by Ragnar Kjartansson.

The brochure that accompanies the exhibition states, “The exhibition ‘pleinairism’ is, with some exception, a selection of work on paper by artists, most of whom are rarely associated with plein air activity.”

It was indeed truly interesting to observe the flights of fancy of the participating artists. There are watercolors drizzled by rain, drawings on the bark of a birch tree, cutouts from a magazine arranged in an erotically charged collage, a paint trail left by the corpse of a bird on a bright yellow napkin, insects glued to paper, texts both handwritten and typed, paintings, photos and sketches.

General view of the exhibition; photo: copyright Valdís Thor. 

My personal favorite in this regard is a patina* painting by Karen Sander. In the words of the author, “The primed image carriers are taken, without prior manipulation, to a selected location and remain exposed there for a period of time to be determined. This process of absorption can continue infinitely or be interrupted at some point. Duration, the name of the location […] determine the painting and provide its title.”** You can judge by the title, which is “1 hour rain,” what had been done with the canvas this time.

“1 hour rain”, 2007 by Karin Sander.

But if most of the aforementioned techniques are amusing there is one piece of ready made that left me wondering about its author and the reasons why it would be included in the exhibition, aside from the fact that the artist, Elín Hansdóttir, is represented by the gallery.

It is a receipt from a store in Berlin. It strikes me as a galling attempt to convince the public that anything at all can be called art as long as an artist insists that it is so. On the bright side, there should not be any arguments about the cost of this work of “art.” It is stated plainly on the receipt itself.

“Receipt,” 2008 by Elín Hansdóttir.

There are some traditional offerings like ink drawings by Oliver Lutz, two small sun-lit paintings by Fransis Alÿs, a watercolour of Johanna Fauerso and photographs by Jeremy Deller and Michael Snow. They provide a lively contrast to the more perplexing pieces and keep the viewer engaged.

“Lapin,” 2008 by Michael Snow.

You cannot speak about the “pleinairism” exhibition without mentioning the contribution of Hreinn Fridfinnsson, a classic of Icelandic conceptual art. His photographs “Studies for Drawing a Tiger” were especially interesting to me. Two photo images are shown side by side—the author as a child and again as an adult caught in the act of drawing.

To me these images symbolize the promise of the exhibition to explore the connection between past and present, artists of different generations, form and substance. Technically the exhibition fulfills this promise—there are artists of different generations present; some pieces on display are more then ten years old while some are brand new; each artist was offered cart blanche to explore the topic—but the results sadly stress quantity over quality.

“Studies for Drawing a Tiger,” 1971 by Hreinn Fridfinnsson.

All in all, “pleinairism” is an interesting exhibition in the sense that it is obviously inviting viewers to an open discussion on what is considered to be art in modern times, on where to draw the line that prevents art from becoming a self parody.

If the goal of the exhibition, on the other hand, was to introduce some new artists to Iceland, some of the choices of works are questionable at best. Considering the fact that it is held in one of most respected galleries in Reykjavík, this exhibition was disappointing to me; I expected higher standards from I8.

The “pleinairism” exhibition is on display until October 26.

Gallerí I8
Klapparstígur 33
101 Reykjavík
Tel (+ 354) 551 3666; (+354) 690 5706
Open Tuesday to Friday, 11 pm – 5 pm
1pm – 5 pm Saturday and by appointment

* Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “patina” as: a) an usually green film formed naturally on copper and bronze by long exposure or artificially (as by acids) and often valued aesthetically for its color, b) a surface appearance of something grown beautiful especially with age or use.

** The quote from Karen Sander was taken from a press release of her 2005 “Gebrauchsbilder” exhibition at Galerie Nordenhake, Berlin, Germany



One thought on “Unfulfilled Promise

  1. I live in tropical Australia where the sun is very bright. I wonder how it would be to paint in the beautiful soft light of Iceland. Thank you for your informative post!

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