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Aspen Art Museum shows Mamma Andersson exhibit

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Skeppner Collection/courtesy Galleri Magnus Karlss
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ASPEN – Mamma Andersson likes the theater, but she doesn’t enjoy it in the way most people enjoy the theater – watching the story unfold, relating to the characters, listening to the language being created in a partnership between playwright and actors. For Andersson, the appeal is not in what happens on-stage, but the stage itself: “I like the theater sets without the actors on them,” she said.

Andersson’s peculiar attraction to the theater is evident from the fact that, several years ago, she got in the habit of going, every Tuesday for six months, to the biggest theater in Stockholm. What attracted her was not the on-stage drama, but the library located inside the theater. In a building defined by action, dialogue, relationships and resolution, Andersson found for herself a corner marked by quiet, stillness and the absence of people.

Good thing, then, that Andersson became a visual artist, and not a dramatist.

Still, her paintings are highly suggestive of theater. The current exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum – the first one-person museum show in the U.S. devoted to her work – features several dozen pieces, and all of them are marked not so much by a lack of action, but by the potential of action. The large majority of the paintings feature no people, and in the few that are populated with humans, the people are benign – pushed to the edges, made small, their faces turned away from the viewer. But Andersson thinks the characters aren’t so much absent; it is just not their moment in the scene.

“You can have a very strong feeling that someone has been there,” Andersson said. “They’re not empty. They have been used, and they’re going to be used.”

There is a common artistic term, of course, for paintings that feature scenery without people. They’re known as landscapes. But Andersson doesn’t see herself at all as a landscape artist. In fact, when she started out as a painter, studying at the Royal University College of Fine Arts, she did make landscapes. She thought them not very good, and she ended up abandoning landscapes altogether, in search of a different form. “I think I was bored to make landscapes,” she says now.

While landscapes focus on what is in the scene, the art Andersson has made over the past decade or so rests on things that are less certain and tangible. “I’m not working with one detail, and that’s unusual,” she said. “I’m seeking a vibration, a vibration you cannot read or describe, you can only feel them.”

Adding to the aura of ambiguity is what Andersson does put into her paintings. Her scenes, commonly feature windows or other paintings, which tend to serve as a reminder that there are other worlds just outside her canvas. In other paintings, the intrusions on the scene she has created are even more abrupt and surreal. In “Gone for Good,” for instance, the placid interior of a den has flames shooting up in one corner of the room, and smoke spreading along the ceiling.

Among Andersson’s favorite techniques is to juxtapose the indoors and the outdoors to create an otherworldly habitat. “Radjur/Roe-deer,” from the current exhibition, features a group of ghost-like deer, inside a room, surrounded by paintings. A woman and a young girl look in on the deer, and toward the edge of the canvas is equipment that suggests a studio, or a theater.

“It’s a sort of leaking – maybe a leaking of memory. It could be their memories,” Andersson said of the human onlookers.

The strongest piece in the exhibition – one that is being used by the Aspen Skiing Company on a limited-edition lift ticket – is “Sleeping Standing Up.” The painting, from 2003, features a building that has been essentially whited out; all that is left to actually see are numerous windows. The invisible building – Andersson says it was a tuberculosis hospital from the village where her father was raised – is surrounded by trees, and set on a hillside swirling in colors. The effect is of things fading and faded, but also of the things that remain very much intact, and of snowy, chilly settings.

“It has to do with time,” Andersson said. “It’s things from your life that are coming back to you all the time – you can’t escape it.”

This is about as specific as Andersson will get in describing her work. While her paintings can be seen as theater sets, where drama or comedy can take place, she leaves the element of plot out of the frame.

“I never want to close any doors and say, ‘Here’s the story, and you must read it this way,'” she said. “I want to be open. That’s very important for me.”

Andersson would rather not even suggest that there is a story being told in her paintings. Instead, her work is meant to convey the feeling that something took place, or will take place, or could take place in the scenarios she has created.

At one point, Andersson brings up the topic of crime scenes, and this might be the best analogy for her work. Crime scenes are largely void of people – except for those on the periphery, looking in on the scene and wondering just what went down. The use of the word “crime” suggests a heightened, maybe even bizarre, story lurking, just waiting to be conjured. And like a crime scene, Andersson’s works are filled with visual cues, waiting to spark the imagination.

“I’m not so interested in the crime,” Andersson said. “It’s the room where the crime has happened. It’s the kitchen, the dishes. You can put the people there by yourself.

“You must trust the room, must think it’s reality.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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