From the archives: an essay on Mamma Andersson

Essay for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Cry by Karin Mamma Andersson at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 2009.



In Mamma Andersson’s sensuously ambiguous recent painting Cry, a pairing of powerful river-torrents seems to offer a surging evocation of natural, emotional or aesthetic release: two white waterfalls in full flood, streaming down the sunken cheeks of an ancient, weathered rock-face. Beyond, the scene is more subdued: a forest of pale, lanky birches; a patch of unpeopled pasture; muted, granite-grey sky. The picture has a harsh, desolate beauty, a ragged vitality, seeming at once to honour natural power and process while also reflecting mournfully on a landscape that may be tending towards decay (sections of the sharply sloping foreground seemed scarred and tender, while there is an almost malignant blackness to some of the foliage edging around the foaming falls). The emotive trigger of the title certainly prompts us to perceive something tragic in this setting, but a spirit of disturbance is also registered, here and there, in the turbulent materiality of the paint itself, in the swirling density of the eroding earth’s unstable representation.

Perhaps, however, to say that something is ‘released’ in this painting is not quite right, or not quite enough, since for all the ostensible expressive fluidity of the cascade, for all the rough energy of the central, environmental drama, there is — as in much of Mamma Andersson’s compelling, mysterious art — a strange reticence, a mood of uneasy restraint, a disquieting absence. Andersson has talked of how a valued therapeutic potential arises out of her working practice — a profound, personal ‘source of energy’ — yet there is an equal and opposite holding back, a concern for slowness, for distance, and a respect, it would seem, for difficulty. Such difficulty has little to do with the achievement of technical expertise: Andersson has gratifyingly voiced skepticism about ‘those virtuosos who find it all so bloody easy’, who ultimately, she says, ‘don’t achieve anything’(i). Rather, the essential difficulty she deals with might be further traced in the fraught intimacy of these diverse views, in their silences and secrecies — and in the realization of the everyday as enigmatic. Frequently, the paintings seem both cryptic and elegiac — as in the tentative painterly topography and mixed messages of the very recent work Stump Up, with its delicately imprecise appraising of an isolated mid-winter terrain. Here we discover, amongst other variously fragile natural features, a faint reading of very faint human presence: in a region of cleared forest (implying an unseen population or low-level industry) we find resistant remnants of felled trees, their broken trunks now almost completely covered by a beautifully obliterating snow. There is an uncomfortable, hardly consoling softness to this snow-blinding scene — any wintry serenity seems only partial or provisional — while the glowing white-on-white paint seems to push the represented moment, the living reality, towards abstraction, leading to new imaginative terrain, well beyond narrative content. (The punning title causes a secondary fracture in this scene’s illusion of aesthetic bliss: distracting or subverting by invoking a crude economic demand).

Such isolated Nordic territories are, of course a recurring, lovingly anxious focus of Andersson’s work. As the film critic Anthony Lane has said of the melancholy landscapes in the art of Andersson’s fellow Swede, Ingmar Bergman, ‘nowhere in Europe can you quit civilization and find yourself in wilderness with such speed’— and such ready proximity to the notionally distant, Lane suggests, prompts ‘dreams of escape’ for Bergman, while also bringing forth ‘nightmares about what we may discover in our isolation’(ii). Often in Mamma Andersson’s paintings, the spaces of civilization — of culture, work or domesticity — are presented in unnerving proximity to a vivid, uncontainable ‘beyond’. Structured, routine experience is regularly paired with, or torn apart by, ‘other’ worlds. In the pared-back scenario of Sunday (from 2006), for instance, four young women in sportswear stretch in preparation for exercise; but the bleak, bizarre place they inhabit could well be on an alien planet. Similarly, in the three horizontal layers of Rooms Under the Influence (also 2006) we encounter compared horizons of possibility and comprehension. The central level of the painting shows separated parts of a modest apartment, framed by indeterminate zones of intense, dark space, and opened out to the world as an austere stage-set. Below, we see a scratched, inverted reflection of this peculiarly frozen and fragmented interior — a disintegrating, unreliable ‘memory’ of an already eerily estranged environment. Yet crowning the painting is a widescreen vista of land edging onto sea, our eye being led ultimately to a mesmerizing, glowing mountain range in the far distance. Each apparently individual or unlike element of this work seems to overlap with, or find reflection in, another: the pale acrylic colours spill from outdoor to indoor, from landscape to living room, from exhilarating Northern sky to reflected domestic fixtures. All trusted spatial distinctions collapse. In some subsequent work, such as the extraordinary Dollhouse (2008), in which once again we see multiple parallel ‘layers’ of everyday life and where once again we gaze into spaces seemingly constructed for the acting out of domestic fictions, there is less visual drift between the painting’s trio of mise-en-scene: the three tiered, opened rooms are more strictly ‘contained’ in space and yet there is a quality of the Gothic to this painting that is more ominously manifested than before, dark stains spreading (in varying intensities), across the floors and walls and ceilings of all of these simple, unadorned, rooms.

The uncanny treatment of the ordinary here — the investment of the mundane with a quality of troubling unknowability — could return us, then, to the question of ‘difficulty’ in Andersson’s art and to our response to her work’s subjectively unsettling ‘cry’. For perhaps what comes to be at stake in the engrossing instances of visual disorientation and uncertainty that we find in her paintings, in the collisions of represented inner and outer realities, is the difficult necessity of loss — of accepting the loss of the world’s presence. Everyday reality seems to be approached in these works as something which exists for us as loss, as absence. In this regard, perhaps, Andersson follows the flow of philosophical skepticism in her art, viewing the world not as something to be known, but to be merely acknowledged or forever queried — and a required outcome of this mode of thought is a further acknowledgement of separation: from the world, from others. Intriguingly, in the context of considering some of the most recent paintings by Mamma Andersson, a corollary of any such seeming loss of the world’s presence — as so many major thinkers after Freud have argued — is that we struggle to regain the world each day in our routine encounters, we live our lives through repetition, endlessly seeking the returned presence of the world(iii). Again and again, Andersson prioritizes painstaking re-making and un-making of scenes; carefully repeating, unpicking and redrafting (and so perhaps striving to make more accurately present), intimate images of places in the passing world. Lately, this has taken the form of a kind of transformative mirroring, the scenes of homely comfort and treasured familiarity in paintings such as The Lonely Ones or Snug being split into contrasting half-versions, one or other of the two imperfect parts being an inversion or improvement or degradation of the other: colours change or are scraped away; objects appear or disappear. Each take is, like each of our memories, no less of an invention than the next. We begin and end in such paintings with a movement between things, with a constant shifting between ideas and definitions — and with an artistic preparedness for the loss, the mourning and the repeated remaking of the everyday world.

(i) From a conversation between Karin Mamma Andersson and the dramatist Lars Norén. Published in Mamma Andersson (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 2007).
(ii) Anthony Lane’s essay on Ingmar Bergman appeared in The New Yorker magazine on June 14th, 2004.
(iii) A number of observations here have been informed by Stanley Cavell’s essay ‘The Uncanniness of The Ordinary’.

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