Interview with Anna Joelsdottir: Painting Dualities

I interviewed Anna Joelsdottir in her studio a few weeks ago. She's an artist who skillfully transforms her thoughts about the dualities in her life into abstract expressions on canvas. Born and raised in Iceland, Anna moved with her husband to Chicago in 1992, completed her MFA at SAIC in 2002, and has since shown with Stux Gallery in New York and Zg Gallery in Chicago. Her acrylic and ink paintings depict free-flowing geometric planes entangled with sprouting organic structures of incredible complexity.

Retrospect 2
retrospect (detail), 2007. Courtesy of the Artist and Zg Gallery, Chicago.

ArtStyle: Let's talk a little bit about how you're bringing your cultural heritage into your art?

Anna Joelsdottir (AJ): The process of doing art helps me bridge the gap between the worlds I live in. It keeps me grounded and sane. I'm in a constant dialogue to connect those two worlds — my family is there [Iceland] and I'm here. In my head, I'm constantly bridging two worlds.

In my work, I'm trying to capture the landscape of the brain or mind or memory. I ‘m trying to capture what I remember about color, form, all kinds of things from Iceland, and sometimes I capture fragments, but I'm not always aware of it.

ArtStyle: I can see the influences of Iceland and the Chicago cityscape in your work. You seem to be incorporating your cultural heritage abstractly into your vision of the cityscape.

AJ: I see people living within the influences of a big city. There are representations of control and rational play against the chaos, and the structures you need to hold them together are there. I use the visual forms to represent my thoughts. I'm not thinking of skyscrapers, but they are in my vision.

ArtStyle: How have your paintings evolved since you started?

42N 66N #11
66 degrees N / 42 degrees N #11, 2004
Collection of Andrea Schnabl and Stefan Stux, New York

AJ: Up until now I had been painting roadways or stripes as hard edge rational forms against the chaotic drawing. There was always a two-way path, meeting chaos, and going somewhere else. There was always some hindrance and then overcoming it. Recently these forms have evolved and become planes.

ArtStyle: This painting [walls] really looks like cartography, maps.

Walls #1
walls #1, 2006. Courtesy of the Artist and Stux Gallery, NY.

AJ: This work [walls] is on many levels. When I was painting, I was thinking about the world itself and my father's illness. I saw the generation I grew up with changing. I was concerned about the world. Although something is eating at the walls, they could also be re-built.

ArtStyle: This painting [running out] looks like the consciousness of the mind itself.

Running Out
running out, 2007. Courtesy of the Artist and Stux Gallery, NY.

AJ: I think it's mapping my own mind and the universal mind. This is my first attempt to move away from the hard edges and to integrate them to make the drawing meet the painting, and the painting meet the drawing. It was hard for me to do this. I put 50 hours into this. I was getting good at the planes because I had been doing it for years. Basically I'm blowing up the drawing and showing more detail.

The difference between this painting and my previous ones is that this one is multi-dimensional. There are layers and layers of the planes. It's much more complex.

ArtStyle: Let's talk about losing ground.

Losing Ground
losing ground, 2007. Courtesy of the Artist and Stux Gallery, NY.

AJ: I had a hard time with this. I was lost. I was struggling with this for days and days. I call this losing ground because it's a metaphor for what was happening around me personally and in the world. Where are we? Where am I? My sense of being was kind of lost and sad. I'm putting a face to it, trying to show what my mind was doing with it.

The element of disconnect and trying to glue things together also has to do with my hearing impairment. I'm very often in a situation where I'm trying to keep track of what people are saying. I'm trying to fill in gaps because there's something missing. I think this is a life-long pattern in the way I process information — filling in the gaps and putting little fragments I don't quite see together into a piece.

ArtStyle: The other thing that I noticed in this painting is that the planes are now in the background and the colors have moved away from the planes into the organic forms. But at the same time, this provides a great deal of depth. In a way, it does show the maturity of your process.

Speaking of process, do you prepare drawings or sketches before the actual painting?

AJ: These are my journals. I do my journaling in accordion style books. I just sit down with pen and paint, and I do whatever comes to mind. This is like visual writing. Here I called it “brain graph.” Recently I wanted to know if I could transfer this kind of work and process it onto canvas. It is only possible up to a point. A book is a book and always has a reference to writing. Canvas is canvas with all its historic baggage.

Day Journal 12-05 to 3-06
Day Journal 12-05 to 3-06. Private Collection.

These journals were done in 2005. When I viewed them later, I realized here is where the planes were born. Obviously, they had been brought into my consciousness when I started painting them two years later.

ArtStyle: I wanted to ask you about studio practices.

AJ: Usually I get up and go straight to the computer and see if there is anything from home. And then I open up the Icelandic newspaper to get a sense of what's going on. I get dressed and then I read the New York Times and look for anything about art. I have espresso with my husband and we talk. I come down here (studio is on the ground floor) and get a little nervous. I find something else to do and then come down and do one little line and go up and come down again. It's like a little dance. Once I'm in the zone, I'm fine. It's like a shift in parts of your brain to go from one thing to another.

ArtStyle: What do you want people to get out of your work?

I am trying to communicate something. I can't tell people what to see. I think there is information here that is familiar to almost everyone. Everybody knows colors, forms, and lines. I'm sure that different people can see different things. I cannot expect someone to totally understand what I'm doing because I don't totally understand it myself, but I like to have a dialogue about it.

ArtStyle: So you're having a dialogue with the person through the art?

AJ: I'm hoping I'm giving enough information for the person to have something to engage in. There is something that I have in common with that particular person that we can have a little conversation about.

ArtStyle: When people go in and look at your work, they'll say what does this all mean? If they have an understanding of what you thought about in creating it, then they can see it, too. They'll understand it better. To me, if you can understand what the artist was trying to do, there's more of an appreciation of the creativity, the creative aspect of it.

AJ: No, I disagree. The dialogue I look for is about the work, not what was in my mind. Art is the pulling together of all of the resources from your experience, memories, dreams, fleeting thoughts and to make something with it. To make something new. To make something that's yours.

ArtStyle: What is your vision of your future art?

AJ: To keep pushing, growing, and challenging myself and to get closer to understanding what it is I am trying to say.

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