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Why Three Artists from SVA Are Exhibiting with One of Iceland’s Most Famous Female Sculptors

Aside from blue lagoons and the Northern Lights, a trip to Iceland this summer affords the opportunity to visit a unique, years-in-the-making exhibition from three members of the SVA community. Ragnheiður Gestsdóttir, Theresa Himmer (MFA 2011 Fine Arts) and BFA Visual & Critical Studies faculty member Emily Weiner (MFA 2011 Fine Arts) met while in the MFA Fine Arts program; their show in Kópavogur, Iceland’s second largest municipality and just south of Reykjavik, brings them together once again, initiating a new phase of their ongoing conversation about their individual practices and joint interests in communication across history, place and media.

“The In, With and Between Us” opened in early June at Gerðarsafn, a modern and contemporary art museum founded around the work and legacy of Gerður Helgadóttir (1928 – 1975), Iceland’s most well-known female mid-century sculptor. Helgadóttir’s voice has been added to the friends’ discussion in the form of archival access and pieces from the museum's collection, joining new work in sculpture, film and painting from Gestsdóttir, Himmer and Weiner. It is on view through August 20.

Weiner’s paintings are described by the show’s curator as interested in “how symbols move between the collective unconscious and individual perception.” I spoke with her about the origins of such an international experience and what it means to work in direct conjunction with others, close contemporaries and otherwise.

Could you describe a bit more the relationship you have with Theresa and Ragnheiður?

I met Theresa and Ragnheiður in graduate school at SVA in 2010. Ragnheiður, from Iceland, already had a master's degree in visual anthropology and was working out related ideas in film at the time. Theresa, who is Danish but lives in Iceland now too, was trained as an architect, and enrolled at SVA to pursue more abstract ideas about space, culture and temporarily. Meanwhile, I was trying to get my ideas to fit together with the images I was painting in oil. I was very grateful to have these two artists nearby as critical influences.

Our conversations started there, and picked up again almost five years later when I visited Reykjavik on a stopover back from an exhibition in Copenhagen. We started talking about an exhibition at Soloway, the gallery in Brooklyn I co-ran with three other artists. At first we were planning to do a big group show bringing together a transatlantic, NYC-Reykjavik community, but the more we talked via Skype in brainstorming sessions, the more we realized that our own work had a lot in common conceptually: while each of us were still making work in different media, we were asking similar questions at the core of our respective practices, about imagery’s ability to speak about human expression across barriers of language, nations, cultures and time. That’s when we started to get excited about what it might be like if we collaborated on a show of our own work together. The conversation became a three-artist show at Soloway, which took place in November 2015 called “Speak Nearby.” The title came out of a film by Tinh T. Minh-ha, who calls out the impossibility of speaking for or representing someone other than oneself; one can only speak nearby, in the language that one has available.

And how did the current museum exhibition come about? What are you showing in it?

Following the 2015 show in Brooklyn, the curator of Gerðarsafn invited us to collaborate again, this time in Iceland. The museum holds the largest permanent collection of work by Gerður Helgadóttir. It made sense to open up our conversation about place and temporality to include Helgadóttir, whose life's work reflected parallel infatuations to ours: she had studied in Paris and Florence, and found inspiration from her travels to Egypt and Europe. In the case of this show, our work aimed to speak nearby one another, as well as through the ideas circulating between us: my language was painting, Ragnheiður's sculpture and Theresa's was film.

For the exhibition I made a new series of oil paintings (which juggled imagery ranging from the Mona Lisa and Pierrot to ancient Greek erotica), as well as several large painted fabric pieces, which acted as backdrops for paintings and other works in the show. In keeping with the theme of cultural juxtaposition—and pulling from Helgadóttir’s imagery bank of geometric shapes and Egyptian hieroglyphs—these backdrops and paintings focused on icons and geometries which have been repeated and reshaped over different cultures and times. I also hand built ceramic frames for the paintings (using the large kilns at Greenwich House Pottery in NYC) to attempt a tactility akin to Helgadóttir’s stained glass and sculptural works. The paintings I made were meant to ask: How are representational images shaped, shared, reproduced and translated? How do they travel between cultures and time periods?

What was different about working together again for this exhibition, compared to the group show in Brooklyn?

One of the biggest differences between the Soloway show and the museum show was size of space: at Gerðarsafn we were given two very large museum galleries to fill. We were also working with an outside curator, the brilliant Malene Dam from Denmark, as well as with the presence of Helgadóttir—and all of these factors pushed us to expand our ideas both figuratively and literally. In the run-up to this second phase of the show, we did more reading and research, and Malene selected work from the museum’s permanent collection to interact with our own in an entire floor of the museum.

Considering the interest you all share in traversing time, space and contexts, did you have in mind taking the show on the road, as it were, and what it would be like to show again together elsewhere?

While producing the first show, we didn’t imagine that we would be doing a second in a big museum space, but the project took on a life of its own. With the momentum we’ve built, it would be great to produce another iteration of this exhibition. It is a conversation that keeps changing, and it would be really exciting to see what the next evolution might be.

“The In, With and Between Us” is on view through August 20. For more information, click here.

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