Big Fish Art in Small Pond Luleå

A truly big fish has made a splash in Luleå´s small cultural pond. Internationally renowned artist Karin Mamma Andersson, who grew up here, is currently exhibiting at the Culture House. We can thank the people behind Emma and Karl Olsson`s Memorial fund for it, as they awarded Mamma Andersson a scholarship three years ago with the condition that she exhibit here in 2013.

Mamma Andersson was honored with a doctorate at the university in 2010, which was the first year my husband was dean, so she was the first honorary doctor he got to crown with a hat. Even I have had the pleasure of meeting her a few times, and she really is what everyone says: the nicest, humblest, chattiest, most generous person. Not that she in the least tries to diminish her own importance. She has a sturdy confidence, or so it seems, anyway. Everyone likes her a lot, and as hard as it can be to get recognition in one´s own home town, I haven´t heard anyone say anything negative about her art, even though it´s clear that what she does is challenging.

I have already been to see it three times, first a quickie glance alone, then with a friend, then with another friend (Anneli, my artist chum) - and this time we took the half-hour guided tour, which was very interesting. It was great to see the enthusiasm of the guide (whose name was also Victoria, and she did a great job!), and really illuminating to hear more about how Mamma Andersson works. There is also a ten-minute video showing non-shop in a corner of the exhibition hall, an interview done with her for a collection she did a few years ago, "Dog Days".

This exhibition feature a selection of work from different shows from the last few years, borrowed from the owners. In the exhibition catalogue she calls it a kind of "mixed tape" or "best of album". In Sweden, most of her work is exhibited at Galleri Magnus Carlsson, and their website displays more of her paintings (and much better photos of it, I just snapped a few illustrations from the exhibition catalogue).

What I understand from having listened to her talk, and from what the guide also said, Mamma Andersson is a keen student of other artists, and has a serious interest in photography. Many, perhaps most, of her paintings are based on photographs. She is much interested in homes and the things that we surround ourselves with, but she wanted to go behind the idealised home-scapes, so to speak, behind the glossy images of interior decorating magazines and the edited version of our homes that we show our friends, to what our homes look like on a Thursday when no one is coming. (Confess, we all clean up when Mother is coming to visit. And if we live in a show home all the time, there is probably something about us that needs attending to. Or perhaps Mother makes surprise visits.) Mamma Anderssons solution was to use photos from crimes scenes, from old books about real crimes.

She has also worked with the Royal Dramatic Theatre, and in their archives she has found images of old stage designs, which is perhaps a faked reality, but a recreated "real", even heightened, reality. Of course, she doesn´t copy other people´s work, she makes her own painting, subtracting and adding elements to the composition.

Many artcritics have commented on how many of her paintings communicate an absence. Like something has just happened, or something is about to happen. Someone has just walked out, or is about to walk in. There is some kind of tension in there. Some find it disturbing, others find in it a kind of comfort. As if Mamma Andersson is saying that this is how it is, and it´s ok. Of course, we don´t know exactly what she is saying. I suspect she is listening more than preaching.

The absence is tangible in this piece on the left, where the person who was in the original photograph has been edited out, but Mamma Andersson has left a black shadow in his or her place.

The gallery guide told us that when she was very young, not yet in art school, she would spend a lot of time in an art shop, looking at pictures. Years later, as she was searching thorough some flea market or other for more pictures (she has an extensive archive), she found an old picture of that very art shop, bought it and turned the motif into a painting called "Samla tankarna" (collect one´s thoughts).

After the guided tour, Anneli and I remained in front of it for quite a while, and she pointed out some details in the foreground that didn´t quite make sense. You can see this in many, if not most or all of her work. She messes it up, lets a background bleed into a foreground object, or some such thing, that really can provoke the viewers sense of order, neatness, and expectance of technical skill. It´s like a poke in the side of the viewer, saying don´t look at the painting, think about the picture, will you?

Our guide said that Mamma Andersson is a slow working artist, at a pace of 16 or 17 paintings a year. Well, that´s something like one painting every three weeks, and that doesn´t sound slow to me! She clearly puts a lot of thought into every picture, and she works in projects, every exhibition is made up of paintings that all belong together, that are united around one theme. Of course, as they are sold they are also scattered, but perhaps that´s the point too, that each painting changes with the context it´s shown in.

I was recently introduced to William Eggleston´s photograps, and it struck me that their work has many similarities. Illustration editor Mark Holborn has said of his work:

"[Eggleston's] subjects are, on the surface, the ordinary inhabitants and environs of suburban Memphis and Mississippi--friends, family, barbecues, back yards, a tricycle and the clutter of the mundane. The normality of these subjects is deceptive, for behind the images there is a sense of lurking danger." (From Wikipedia´s article on Eggleston.)

Not in the exhibition, alas, but in the catalogue: my favourite.
This is not unlike what you see in Mamma Andersson´s work. It´s like both of them focus on what others choose to edit out, and not just in photography, but as we see, really. I´m personally often surprised when I see something of interest and take a photo of it, how much crap is around it and in the back- and foreground that I didn´t really notice in the moment, as I was so focused on the object that I was interested in. Trying out my new telephoto lens was a joy, as it allowed me to capture the world as I see it. And I´m not the only one walking around myopic, or partially blind. Which is why Mamma Andersson and Eggleston are so interesting and challenging and important.

Some critics, like Eudora Welty said of Eggleston, suggest that artists like these bring out the beauty in the "ugly". But I feel that´s not right. Why does it have to be beautiful and pleasing to be of worth, to be interesting, to be important? Why must we always like art, be it paintings, installations, performances, music, to appreciate it? Can´t we rise above our feelings, our prejudices, our likes and dislikes, and challenge our minds a bit? Thinking is more than a bit underrated these days. How many (myself included, probably) doesn´t use the word feel, when they actually mean think? I feel think that this is something to consider. And for sure, the way we think affects how we feel.

It´s all very much about the eye of the beholder, isn´t it? I find that their art is an appeal to go with them out of our comfort zones and look at the world from another perspective. I think what we do, inside our every-day-scape, is that we identify with it, and that way, it becomes invisible to us. It´s like looking at a picture of oneself, something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: is that what I look like? We are more comfortable with what we see in the mirror, but that is distorted, not only by the fact that the image is reversed, but the way we always meet and greet our own image when we know it´s coming. Kind of like we clean up for Mother. We are always very cordial to our own image (and protective of our ego), and catching ourselves unawares in the morning (in the laptop screen when it goes black for a second as it starts up: oh my god, I need to pull myself together) is rarely a pleasant experience. I have known people who need that first fag and cup of coffee to be able to face the bathroom, no kidding.

I have seen more than one person go quiet, and close up, in front of Mamma Andersson´s work. And I have read a few reviewers who focus more on her international successes and "apparent" genious, without really adressing her work. Like I said to begin with, she is a big fish. And I have heard that she sniggered at the praise from the representatives from the local art school during the vernissage (which I couldn´t attend). When she applied there in the 80´s, she was not accepted.

Anyway, bottom line: this is great stuff. It´s challenging, it´s work worth starting a conversation with. It can be infinitely rewarding. 

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