EVE ERIKSSONby John Yau
KRISTIANSTADS KONSTHALL | KRISTIANSTADS, SWEDEN
April 1 – May 30, 2010
The Swedish painter Eve Eriksson (1910-1992) would have turned 100 this year; and to mark the centennial of his birth, Thomas Kjellgren, the director of the Kristianstads Konsthall, has mounted a selection of more than 50 of the artist’s paintings and drawings (all untitled), most of which were done between 1978 and 1992, when he lived in Malmo. Hardly known even in Sweden, with this exhibition (though less than comprehensive) Eriksson’s work receives a longer, deeper look than it ever got during the artist’s lifetime, with the possible exception of his retrospective at the Lunds Konsthall (1991). I certainly had never seen any of his work before, and I was immediately and thoroughly taken by what I saw: impasto paintings in which the artist repeatedly returns to a handful of motifs, as well as goes off in unexpected directions, and two kinds of drawings. The first kind consists of small, quickly made sketches in which, with his eyes closed, the artist made an image out of one unbroken line. Often they are whimsical, but seldom more than that; they reminded me of Shel Silverstein, but more fluid. The second consisted of abstract drawings, one of which stood out from all the rest. It was a grid of open, irregular, vertical rectangles. In each rectangle, Eriksson repeated a cluster of vertical marks. This drawing shared something with Martin Ramirez’s obsessive patterning, and made me wish I could have seen more examples from this side of Eriksson’s drawing practice.
Although it wasn’t immediately apparent, and it only became clear after I went through the entire exhibition once, Eriksson kept finding ways to restate his motifs, to push them in new (for him) directions. His self-imposed constraints never became a crutch. By using motifs as a structure for his impasto paintings, he was able to explore the shifting relationship between paint’s materiality and its capacity for light.
Eriksson’s motifs include an empty sofa chair whose edges and planes make it seem more suitable as a sculpture; squares, rectangles, and parallelograms arranged and doubled to form the corner of a room with a window and a box-like form; the silhouette of a plain windowless house with a severely peaked roof. In other words, there is nothing extraordinary about his motifs, and that is part of their power. The paint has been applied with a palette knife, and the palette ranges from tonal grays, pale blues, and browns (in a single painting) to primary colors mixed with white, brown, and occasionally gray. The artist makes no attempt to be expressive through color and composition.
The work bears out Eriksson’s avowed purpose: “I have never sought a style.” It would seem that in response to the reductive tendencies that gripped postwar artists in both America and Europe, and that led many to make unitary paintings, Eriksson concluded that conflict was a necessary component of his work. In the paintings in which primary color prevails, the artist uses a palette knife or other flat instruments to lay down the paint, as well as to signal the tilt and direction of the interlocking planes. A thickly smeared tactile surface flips into a Piranesi-like space made up of geometric forms, and, just as quickly, dissolves back into a smeary welter of paint. In the largely gray paintings, it was as if Vilhelm Hammershoi had become a minimalist. Whether it was intentional or not, it crossed my mind that the juxtaposition of a room’s corner and a window could be read allegorically: had painting gotten itself stuck in a cul-de-sac or was there a way out? This would explain why Eriksson never sought a style, which for him would have been a kind of death.
In other, more severe paintings, a few interlocking planes conveyed an empty platform in the corner of a room or a deep-ledged window seen from an odd angle. The tension between the fullness of the paint and the emptiness of a room recalled houses newly built and not yet lived in, as well as augured the emptying out that all domiciles undergo. The light emanating from the paint is full of a hushed pathos bordering on, but not ever sinking into, gloom. Perhaps because it was late spring, but Eriksson’s work seems connected to that season, while Hammershoi’s feels wintry.
With its tau-like arrangement of two forms, another painting, dated 1983, brought to mind a painting by Olga Rosanova (1918–1996), who was a member of the Russian artists’s group Supremus, led by Kazimir Malevich, as well as Brice Marden’s paintings from the early 1980s, when he arranged monochromatic panels in a tau cross and doorframe. I feel that Eriksson found his way to these compositional possibilities on his own, in part influenced by his day job as a house-builder, as well as by forms and runes used by the Vikings. What is clear is that his work more than holds its own when it is seen in dialogue with the paintings of other artists. That he was able to do this with a stripped down vocabulary is significant, because his work never feels like a generic abstraction. Although Eriksson seems to have spent little or no time in Paris, and his travels to Spain were largely because of work, he is a thoroughly sophisticated artist. Perhaps this exhibition will spur others to become more curious and, in effect, rescue Eriksson’s work from oblivion.