Icelandic Art Today Hatje Cantz Verlag 2009
When Hulda Hákon first emerged on the scene as a visual artist in the 1980s, much was in the making: Postmodernism, figurative NeoExpressionism of the Neue Wilde, feminism, American Realism, work by minority artists, and art from far-flung countries. Developing countries had also gained the spotlight. One of the defining features of the decade was the rich interaction between word and image.
Text in visual art has resurfaced throughout various art-historical periods. Among the first examples of words on the picture plane can be found in medieval paintings, where words written within a painting express the Holy Spirit’s revelation to the Virgin Mary. In the twentieth century, text reemerged in visual art through the potency of Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism.
Such styles fell out of favor by mid-century, when Modernism dictated the purification of painting
from all connections to recognizable reality, but words regained a place on the canvas through Pop Art, Fluxus, and the conceptual art of the latter part of the century.
In the Modern Art Department of the Icelandic College of Arts and Crafts, Hulda became acquainted with the work of Dieter Roth and other artists associated with the Fluxus movement; their approaches to merging text and image instantly appealed to her. The way Hulda uses text is equally based in Iceland’s storytelling tradition and a personal desire for selfexpression. Her subject matter is her immediate surroundings, whether cosmopolitan New York, where she studied in the 1980s, or a small fishing village in the Westman Islands, where she has her studio. In her art, these two worlds collide.Hulda often creates models in clay, and this direct touch, the unimpeded relationship between the mind and the hands, is important in her work. She does not aim for smooth and technical perfection, just as the goal of the Neue Wilde in its heyday was not to create texturally beautiful paintings but rather to breathe life into art. Contrary to the ideals of Romanticism, where the artist must be unique and art a result of inspired genius, Hulda takes pains to avoid any indications of a trained hand. The imperfect form is one of the ways she desanctifies art and allows a lay audience to experience art on equal footing.
The imperfection in Hulda’s work is the imperfection of life. We see this in lines that are not completely straight, as well as through forms that neither attempt to precisely imitate reality nor emulate the spirit of Classical sculpture’s sophisticated aesthetic.
One source of Hulda’s personal morphology is Icelandic folk art and knowledge: woodcarvings, old illuminated manuscripts, genealogy, and miscellaneous annals. Storytelling—folktales and stories of ghosts and monsters—may also be included under the rubric of folk art. Hulda is further influenced by South American folk art, which is also largely shaped by both form and narrative.
Folk art has the capacity to appeal to everyone, regardless of background or education. These qualities—national traditions, techniques, as well as the ideology of contemporary society—are all means through which Hulda captures the everyday, to change it and imbue it with meaning, as her art contains both poetic homage and social criticism.
Hulda’s texts are mostly presented as statements. Sentences on canvas take the role of titles, but are likewise clues pointing viewers in a certain direction while leaving them hanging and on their own to piece together a complete narrative. The interaction of words and images creates ambiguous meanings; both stand equally on Hulda’s canvases, thus opening her work to multiple levels of interpretation. Hulda’s works that bring humans and animals together are at once sharp and subtly humorous. A likeness of a goose paired with the statement “Ignorance is elsewhere” conveys an obtrusive truth about homogeneous communities. In societies like these, rumors can blow everything out of proportion, spreading like wildfire: such a phenomenon can be called a “flight of ideas.” There is a great sense of intimacy when everyone knows everyone; individuals expect warmth and security, while at the same time they may find themselves in dire straits.
In recent years, Hulda’s art has become all the more pointed in its social critique. Her focus has shifted away from works that contain goodnatured humor with sardonic undertones toward works that corner the viewer while nevertheless retaining their wit and personal perspectives. Hulda’s art may allude to contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and the multifaceted approaches of young British artists to visual art, partly based on the use of everyday objects in artistic creation.
Hulda’s art is ever observing, searching, and analytical. Her work is personal and appeals to the viewer as an equal, and in her art she cleverly succeeds in connecting Icelandic history with contemporary local and international events.