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Skidmore College

Tang features Icelandic artist Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson

September 16, 2013

For its 25th Opener Series exhibition, the Tang Museum is featuring the lush paintings on woven silk of Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson, a Cleveland-based artist whose work is inspired by the distinctive landscape of her native Iceland.

Opener 25: Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson, which runs through December 29, explores the overlap between painting and textile with shimmering paintings on hand-dyed, woven silk thread. Often monumental in scale, her work takes its imagery from a range of sources, including brain scans, celestial objects, and most frequently characteristics of the Icelandic landscape.

Hildur jonsson at the Tang
The works of Hildur Ásgeirsdórttir Jónsson at the Tang

Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Jónsson has lived in Cleveland, Ohio, for 30 years, returning yearly to her native country to hike and take photographs that become starting points for her artistic process. She selects details, such as mountainous silhouettes, glacial crevices, or rock formations, which she then isolates, enlarges, and transfers to woven paintings in her studio.

The complex process includes hand-dyeing the threads before weaving together warp and weft on a 10-foot-wide loom. Each work is carefully planned, says Jónsson—“I’ve made it in my head before I’ve made it with my hands”—though she points out that “there is always a note of surprise, and I think that’s absolutely necessary for the work to be successful.” Ultimately, the original geologic shapes are abstracted, as the paintings suggest a range of imagery from nonrepresentational lines and shapes to elemental forms such as cells, rocks, and galaxies.

At the time of her 2008 Cleveland Arts Prize Mid-Career Award for Visual Art, Jónsson talked about her process on this video: “I kind of think of the warp and the weft as the two hands playing the piano. The warp would be the melody, the right hand … whereas the weft would be accompanying in a way. And when it goes through the loom, there’s a little bit of shifting—not too much, though, if there’s too much shifting I don’t like that—the shifting gives me that kind of feathery look.”

Jónsson’s works at the Tang, all dating from the last five years, are being shown together for the first time. The opportunity to exhibit in a gallery of this size came at an opportune time for the artist as she began her recent exploration of larger-scale works. Finding an artist at such a pivotal moment is part of the mission of the Opener Series, says Dayton Director Ian Berry: “Hildur fits perfectly into the Opener Series as she has been working for some time to master her process and is now realizing a turning point in her studio. It’s the perfect time to look closely at the amazing results of this shift.”

For her part, Jónsson says, “I am thrilled beyond belief. It’s just a great honor to show here.”

While her artistic process begins with photographing the landscape, Jónsson says she is not particularly interested in exhibiting the corresponding photos with the finished paintings.  “I hope that knowing about the photo is not necessary to enjoy the work or get something from it,” she says.

In that spirit, says Berry, “We aren’t offering too much explanation on the labels for the exhibition,” beyond a bit of setting about geology and Iceland “as a place to start.” Indeed, the works are either untitled or bear one-word titles—“Core” (2013), “Island” (2011), “Surge” (2013). Keeping the text spare is important, Berry explains: “We don’t want to describe each image as a rock, or a glacier, or a volcano, because the artwork offers much more than that initial source; it starts from an experience of nature, from an experience of life, and not one particular moment or detail.”

Hildur Jonsson at the Tang

The geological “starting place” for appreciating Jónsson’s work opens new avenues for cross-disciplinary connections at the college. “For Skidmore this will be a great collaboration with the Geosciences Department,” says Berry, noting that every student in Geosciences 101 is going to see and discuss the show and many will meet with the artist in October. Jónsson, accustomed to meeting with weaving and painting students, is eager to talk with the young geologists. 

“There is something about the landscape in Iceland,” says Jónsson. “I think it’s almost fair to say all Icelandic artists are influenced by it and it comes out in their work in some way. The raw nature is so much a part of everyday life.”

Jónsson studied architecture at Kent State University before switching her focus to studio art and studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She later returned to earn her BFA and MFA from Kent State. Her work, which includes silk painting, drawings and embroideries, has been featured in numerous exhibitions throughout Ohio and Iceland.

The exhibition is organized by Tang Director Ian Berry in collaboration with the artist. The Opener series is made possible with the generous support of the New York State Council on the Arts, the Overbrook Foundation, and the Friends of the Tang. The show will travel from the Tang to Iceland, where it will be on view at the Kjarvalsstadir -Reykjavik Art Museum from February 8 to May 18, 2014.

The Tang Museum will host a Fall Exhibitions Reception on Oct. 19, 5:30-8 p.m. to celebrate the Jónsson  show and other Tang exhibitions. The public is invited to a Dunkerley Dialogue with Jónsson and Skidmore geosciences professor Kyle Nichols on October 21 at 7 p.m., as well as noontime curator's tours of the exhibition on Oct. 15 and Dec. 10.

For more information,visit the Tang site here.

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