Published May 3, 2018
Gabríela Friðriksdóttir arrives at Hverfisgallerí on a sunny afternoon, bright-eyed and smiling. The sky is clear and blue as the spring approaches, and her mood is buzzing and ebullient. She steps into the gallery office to greet Sigga, the owner, and I’m left alone for a moment with the sixty paintings that make up her solo show, entitled simply “Gabríela.”
A menagerie of creatures stare out from the walls. Masked, red-caped clergymen sit alongside a key-bearing owl, a squadron of assorted toys, and a slumped jumping jack. Colourful chattering heads mingle with bizarre hairy animals, knobbly tree trunks with staring eyes, and odd beings inhabiting surreal melting landscapes. There are several scenes of mysterious congress; gatherings of creatures in bejewelled masks, often joined together by swirling, dotted patterns that could be seeds, cells, or planetary orbits. It’s like a peek through a doorway into a parallel dimension that’s at once familiar, inviting and completely alien.
The falling moon
Gabríela returns, and begins to explain the different scenes in an open, freewheeling style. Her universe of imagery, it turns out, has its own internal logic. “This one is called politics,” she says, gesturing to an image of brightly coloured talking heads. “It’s a meeting of figures in society, with the sun behind. It was just before the elections for the city council. My father was a politician for many years, and my mother was the head of the Icelandic theosophical society.”
On the opposing wall is a painting of mountains depicted as towering melting cakes. “These are the Alps,” says Gabríela. “As you can see, the ice is melting, and the ski lifts are broken. This one is a little political too when it comes to the environment.”
We move on again. “This one is a lemur holding up the moon,” she continues. “It’s a little childish, but people understand this message: if you take out the lemur, then the moon will fall down. If there are no bees, then there are no more seeds—the message is innocent and cute, but it can also be sharp, in a way.”
Some images become motifs, such as crescent moons, gold, hats, keys, hairy protrusions, and bright toadstools. One such repetition is the sun chariot—a golden vehicle that sails unaided through the sky of various works. “Most of the time I use black and white, and then the bright colours, like liquorice allsorts,” says Gabriela. “But the sun chariot had to be gold. I was shy to use gold at first, but then I started to use it more and more. In the end, I was really brave, and made this sun god, who’s counting all the gold.”
As Gabríela talks about her paintings, a web of connections starts to appear between them. There’s an evident theme of love and trust for nature, and a fear for its future; there’s also a suspicion of human machinations, financial power structures, politics, greed and industry. And there’s a sense of something deeper: an archetypal, instinctive, and somewhat magical structure of understanding, forming discrete links between the works.
“The concept here was to avoid being too conceptual—to paint as you are, without a concept of any kind,” says Gabríela. “Everything painted here came out freely. I didn’t leave any dirty children under the sofa. I put all the paintings from this series into the show, and let them flow out in a natural way.”
The paintings were made in Gabríela’s home studio in the time between bigger film and installation projects. “They were kind of domestic,” she explains. “Something I’d go home to. They help me to think about how the world is, and what’s coming next, and how to organise myself. I used to make big paintings on wood, but this is the first time I’ve shown these works on canvas.”
The smaller, more personal artworks seem to show a rough outline of Gabríela’s broadly environmentalist and left-leaning beliefs—but she maintains that their meaning is left intentionally ambiguous. “I’ve never been into being overtly political, or making my work into propaganda,” she says. “If you make art about the politics of today, in a couple of years you could be like… “oops.” So you have to be careful if you’re sending a message about the times through the art. If you get caught in a certain set of opinions, it poisons the purity of the art.”
This open-ended attitude, along with the use of familiar, childlike imagery in bright colours, led to strong responses in some viewers. “At the opening, people said they could feel the colours inside of them, physically,” Gabríela continues. “There was a lady who asked if she could embrace me because it felt so good to have those colours coming through her. I was going to cry! I had to go outside. But it was really powerful. I wouldn’t have imagined it before, but people get really moved by colours, forms, and situations. There is so much hope in light pink and light green. There’s something really healing about them. I can’t stop loving them.”
Lots of mess
Gabríela was born in Reykjavík, and spent her childhood between the city and her extended family in Hnífsdalur in the Westfjords. Her mother’s side of the family is from there, and the place had a formative influence on her. “I’d go to school there when my parents were abroad, so I’m half from there,” she explains. “We are really connected to this place. It was really a nice place to be as a child, and very inspiring.”
She remembers being energetic and creative from a young age. “I was always making something, and making lots of mess,” she smiles. “I always wanted to make something from bread dough, or do drawings. My first painting was of a house when I was six. I made it on an easel, on brown paper. I remember that moment: I took it very seriously. It probably only took me five minutes, but it was precious—it felt like a long time and a really big painting. My mother still has it. It’s really small.”
Something from nothing
Living in a fishing and farming community, Gabríela was soon helping out on the harbour. While there wasn’t much going on in the way of formal art practise or education, she was constantly exposed to the quotidian creativity of her relatives.
“My grandmother would make beautiful things out of nothing,” she recalls. “She’d collect these plastic milk bags from the co-op store, rinse them, and weave things. It was more like crafts, but they were really nice things. My great-grandfather was creative with a needle; because there were no shops, you had to repair everything. I got inspired by his wooden food bowl, with a broken lid—he had no glue, so he sewed it together with a string. I started to sew together different things, like pieces of wood.”
Those early crafts and materials are still present in Gabríela’s output today. Her work is full of earthy and particularly Icelandic textures such as worn driftwood, string, bread dough and hay. Her drawings are full of the seaweed-ish tangles of nature, mossy hair, and creatures that look like they might have been washed ashore from the depths of the ocean.
“Raw canvas was used to wrap stockfish when it was dry, and they would take a string, tie it, and pile it up,” says Gabríela. “It’s something specific to this little cultural spot where I am from. I never questioned the choice, really—I just used it a lot. I never thought “why are you using this?” But I feel that there’s something essential about it, possibly because it used to wrap that nutrition. It’s something root-connected.”
Gabríela did once try to define the meanings of all her various materials, like a personal periodic table of elements. “I tried to map it, like a nervous system,” she says. “The strings were the mind, and the hay bale was the house; it was strategic. But it was too rigid, and timid.” She laughs. “It seemed like a great idea, but it all leaked out in other directions.”
Instead, Gabríela tries to tease out meaning through a conversation with each medium, to find out what it wants to become. “That’s how it works, for me,” she says. “You’re walking on a shore, or in a forest, and you pick up a twig or a stone. That’s where you start. It says “Hello, I’m here.” And then you start to have a conversion, and they politely ask you to continue. And then they become something or someone.”
The inspiration well
An instinctive and curious mysticism runs throughout Gabríela’s work. From the questioning of her materials through to the use of overtly mythological, philosophical, religious and occult iconography, her work is rich with symbolism and attains a certain gravitas as a result.
“You have to build a universe around an idea,” she explains. “Spirituality is a source and a fountain, and you have to look where that water comes from. It’s about human behaviour, how people create beliefs, and going back to the roots. You have to understand yourself—to use art as a mirror, in a way. There are so many beautiful keys you can use to open doors into spiritual systems that mankind has been developing since the caves. You can delve into, say, numerology; then everything opens up, and you can see new aspects. For me, this is a really visual process. Spiritual systems around the world are so similar, but they have different imagery. I’ve gotten to know people who use this the same way as me, whether they’re musicians, or dancers, or something else—they open doors, and peek inside to find inspiration.”
Calls from the universe
The task of actively learning, decoding and expressing culture and spirituality is a big part of what Gabríela’s art is about. She talks widely about her world of influences, which includes everything from Jungian philosophy to Greek and Roman history, and from Matisse’s musings on originality to the surreal films of Armenian director Sergei Parajanov.
“I think of an artist’s work like being at a reception desk,” she says. “I feel like we’re always receiving something, and we take it inside and mix it with something else, and then it comes out as something else. It’s a mixture of the outside with the inside. It’s like the “móttaka” at a fish factory: the place where you give and take. This is the pure meaning of the art itself—to get inspired, take something in, and put something out. It’s like a dance or a battle, and you end up with a video, or a painting, or a sculpture, or whatever.”
Making and doing
Gabríela’s art education took place at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts in the late nineties. She specialised in sculpture, but often found herself restlessly running between disciplines, techniques and departments. After starting to show her work in Reykjavík, she considered furthering her studies in the United States.
“I was thinking of enrolling in a master’s degree,” she says. “I met the dean of the School of Visual Arts in New York, and I showed him all my work and explained what I was doing. He looked at me and said, “Gabríela, why don’t you go home, and just make art?” And so, that’s what I did.”
She never really stopped studying, nonetheless. “I think I’m a bad scholar, anyway,” she laughs. “I want to make my own way through it all. When I was reading art history, it was all about the great white man of Europe, with only tiny sections for African and Asian art. I thought, “this is not true.” I had to make my own way through history, and make my own university. I made a lot of effort to study, like an amateur scholar.” She smiles. “I think I’m always studying, actually.”
First, we take Venice
In 2005, Gabríela represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale. It helped to bring her work to the attention of European gallerists, critics, museums and art institutions. “I was lucky that the European galleries were into my work in Venice,” says Gabríela. “It’s nice to have the opportunity to work with museums as well as galleries. Museums are more into scholarly work, research, and the historical. I love to work with museums—it’s the best. Since then I’ve shown all over the world. It’s quite nice.”
But still, she doesn’t like to get too comfortable. “We’re a little spoilt here in Iceland sometimes, with our clean water, and healthy children, and no war,” she says. “I’m showing some work in Belgrade Biennale this fall—it’s called the Oktobarski Salon. It used to be very locally oriented, but the curators, Danielle and Gunnar Kvaran, are opening it out to be more international. I like the title: “The Marvellous Cacophony.” I’m interested to go there and see how the effect war has had.”
The strange world
In the meantime, she has plenty of time to continue learning, dreaming—and worrying. “The world is really strange,” says Gabríela, furrowing her brow. “We humans are stupid, and strange in our dreams. I worry about a lot of things, but I try to turn it into something creative, or I wouldn’t survive. When you’re far away from the turbulence, it’s so easy to close and pretend it isn’t there. Then you think: “What am I doing, just making my monkey paintings?” And then you’re like: “No! That’s my purpose.”
“You have to know where your place is,” she finishes. “You cannot be a doctor without borders when you’re a painter—that’s not what you’re about. You have to give out your message, and that can perhaps help others’ souls. Because when someone gets freedom in their soul, then they’re halfway out of misery. You have to continue, and maybe break some boundaries and make a certain thing that wasn’t there before. You cannot be miserable when you actually have the freedom. That wouldn’t help anyone.”
The “Gabríela” exhibition is showing at Hverfsigallerí until May 19th.