Just when you think you know Laugavegur like the back of your hand, having walked up and down a million times, you discover a hidden gem: the large gallery window at Laugavegur 37 turns out to lead to three floors filled with art, books on art and devotion to art.
The exhibition presents works from the private collection of Pétur Arnason, a businessman whose clothes shop was located in the house, and his wife Ragna Róbertsdóttir, an artist.
Pétur Arnason had a keen interest in art since his childhood. In 1960s he began to travel to Amsterdam on business and became even more aware of what was happening in contemporary art. In 1969 he married Ragna Róbertsdóttir, whose critical eye checked and chanelled his collector’s enthusiasm.
The collection has been steadily growing for over thirty years now, and was presented to the public in 2000 The excellent catalogue from the exhibition held at Kópavogur Art Museum is on reference at Gallery. In the 1990s Pétur Arnason and the artist Ingólfur Arnarsson ran a gallery on the second floor of the house and many works are actually acquisitions from the ‘Second Floor’ gallery exhibitions. One of the artists remarked what an excellent museum the building would make, with its many diverse rooms instead of one giant open space, and Pétur took the idea up. The couple moved out, the shop was closed, and after a reconstruction of the house Gallery was opened in spring 2003.
You won’t find much ‘oil on canvas X inches per Y inches’ on display at Gallery. The exhibition presents drawings, paintings and, in particular, mixed-media installations that all work with phenomena outside of the frame of a painting, such as the relationship of time and space, where the work is divided into two parts and is only seen complete after the visitor has walked down a flight of stairs, or the relationship of sound and sight in the parallel setting of Hekla pumice, which as ashfall obstructs the view after a volcanic eruption, and the noise of FM waves that have blended together and obstruct the clear sound of a single radio frequency. Some works explore the role of accident, as two dozen china bowls of different sizes float in a children’s pool and create a continuous melody clinking as they collide.
Another builds on the artist’s personal experience, represented by pebbles he had gathered on his Iceland travels and arranged in a pattern that changes depending on the viewer’s position relative to the work. Some of the works were created specifically for a given place, including works created for this particular exhibition. All the exhibits place emphasis on the concept of the work, the artist’s initial idea and the finished work’s communication with the viewer. Conceptual art is a notion many have difficulties coming to terms with: when the SUM group was founded in Iceland in 1969 as a reaction to the sweeping influence of abstract expresssionism of 1940s, many regarded it arrogant and offensive, and indeed it might have been. Conceptual art does not serve its message on a silver platter, it requires the viewers’ involvement in order to finalize the work. It shocks with the intention of forcing the viewers to pause and think but, unfortunately, many pause and walk angrily away.
Inevitably, the works by SUM members such as Kristján Guðmundsson and Hreinn Friðfinnsson can be found in the collection. Several other Icelandic artists are also represented, such as Ólafur Elíasson, whose ‘Colour Vision Kaleidoscope’ is one of the latest acquisitions, although the majority are artists from USA, Holland, France, Britain and other countries. The age span ranges from those born immediately after the second world war to artists in their early thirties, but the exhibition also presents a painting by the Icelandic painter Hörður Ágústsson (b.1922)
The current exhibition is a cross section of the entire collection. Starting this autumn, the plan is to choose one artist at a time and offer a more comprehensive presentation of his or her work, with exhibits both from the collection and on loan from other galleries. Further more, Gallery intends to invite, every year, one or two foreign artists not represented in the collection, as well as present the work of renowned foreign artists and young Icelandic ones.
Unlike many other exhibition spaces, Gallery places emphasis on education. Surprisingly enough, while Iceland’s art scene is alive and kicking, general art awareness is not very high: Neither schools nor daily newspapers give visual arts the same amount of attention as they give, for example, literature or music. Gallery intends to provide space and material for students, researchers and anyone interested in art. The current exhibition is supplemented with leaflets in Icelandic and English with basic information about the artists and the works. In addition the owners have made their extensive library available, with books mainly about the artists represented in the collection but also on art in general. Eventually a computer with internet access will be added for research and there are also plans to organise public lectures.
‘I don’t want to be an artist, I want to be happy’ is the title of Ben Vautier’s work from 1992, and its message is cristal clear to me: art is not a profession you adopt, art is what you live and explore and the joy of the search. Similarily, Laugavegur 37 Gallery is not a museum you walk through ticking paintings off your ‘to see’ list. For years the house has obviously been a place where art was lived, where artists met to think and discuss and create. It is an inspiring enviroment that has now opened up to share its experience and love for art with other visitors.