There is no escape from matter.
There is no escape from the physical
nor is there any escape from the mind.
Robert Smithson, Sculptor
Hildur Bjarnadóttir erases the line between physical matter and the mind, between object and concept. She works within a post-Conceptual framework that calls into question traditional notions of high and low art, gender and technique. By introducing new materials into traditional needle-art forms, she subverts notions of the sanctity of artistic categories such as drawing or painting.
Manipulating thread is second nature to Bjarnadóttir’s way of thinking; she learned from her mother to knit, crochet, and sew without patterns starting age four. Today she uses these traditional techniques of women’s work to create rigorously reductive artworks that are rich with cultural association. She moves freely among traditional models of utilitarian and decorative Icelandic textiles to reinvent, in the form of drawing and painting, entirely new objects of conceptual power and allusive material seduction. In her latest series of woven pieces, the artist uses eight-pound monofilament fishing line to create what appears to be a bordered linen handkerchief and several translucent sheets of lined notebook paper, which are presented pinned directly to the gallery wall. She brings these common items into a state of being different from their original sources, and through her materials and process, she heightens the mysterious power of simple things to open the mind to a new understanding.
The monofilament works are the same size as their sources, but the pulled-thread work with a grid pattern and a red-thread edge crafted from a square meter of embroidery linen is immediately recognized by Icelandic viewers to be a larger-than-life pastiche of a traditional cloth baby diaper. This shift in size and material increases the work’s immediacy and impact and suggests an ironic relationship between traditional women’s task of caring for children and the modern art grid that has been imposed of the cloth through laborious thread pulling. Seen on the wall in the context of a painting, the work continues the artist’s intellectual assault on received notions of high art and questions not only form, but also the nature of function.
Bjarnadóttir’s most recent works in the exhibition break new ground materially for the artist. Using photographs of elaborate old, handknit, triangular woolen shawls with new computer imaging programs, she has created a group of large-scale photographic images that dislocate craft and assert the formal beauty of the knitting patterns. As Los Angeles-based artist Mike Kelly uses old stuffed animals to create sculptures imbued with the emotional history of those much-loved, now-discarded toys, Bjarnadóttir finds in the old woolen shawls both a record of a woman’s pride in her elaborate, invented patterns, and a sad marker of cultural change that no longer values the effort and individuality which spurred their original owners to knit them. Re-seeing a traditional form of women’s fancywork through the manipulations and mirroring of a digital image, Bjarnadóttir invents a new trope for fiber art that questions the role of craft in the making of the artwork and highlights a core change in traditional culture’s values. Like much of her work, the photographs are a post-feminist critique of received values and form that illuminates our present understanding of the world with a bright, white light.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Portland Art Museum, Oregon.