Published July 26, 2018
Þrándur Þórarinsson opens the door of his studio and quietly says hello. Dressed in a blue grandad-collar shirt and maroon cords, his shy, curious eyes peer out from under the brim of a flat cap. He’s an unassuming presence who carries with him a certain sense of calm, like he’s just been out for a stroll, or awoken from a reverie—or, indeed, has just wandered into the waking world from one of his dreamlike, halcyon paintings.
Other than a smudge of white paint from where he’s been thoughtfully tugging his earlobe, you’d never guess that the humble Þrándur is one of Iceland’s most in-demand contemporary painters. His works—whether serene Reykjavík street scenes, poised neoclassical tableaus, or reworked situations from Iceland’s Sagas, history, mythology and contemporary life—are often sold before he’s even finished them.
The studio is in an old building in Vesturbær, set back from the street through a gated yard and up a flight of creaky stairs. The first room is a dusty storage area where canvasses lean against the walls amidst teetering piles of sketchbooks, board games, newspapers and assorted ephemera. The second is, he says, with a self conscious half-smile, “where the magic happens.”
There aren’t many paintings in the studio. Þrándur explains that he packed off most of them recently for an exhibition at the North Atlantic House in Copenhagen, where he lived for several years. “The space is great,” he says. “It’s an old warehouse that’s probably 300 years old, or more. It has a beautiful interior, on two floors. It was extremely satisfying to see the paintings hung beautifully, and well lit.”
It is, perhaps, surprising to hear that such an occurrence is the exception rather that the rule. Þrándur has been a well-known artist on his home turf for a decade. His paintings have repeatedly gone viral—not a term you’ll often associate with fine arts. Especially successful is the strand of his work that relates to current events, offering witty and sharp-eyed social critique. But his exhibitions in Iceland—though well attended—have generally been small-scale, DIY affairs, and despite his burgeoning popularity, he’s yet to exhibit in any of the country’s major art institutions.
Go big or go home
“I’ve never really gone the gallery route,” he says. “I had my first big solo exhibition in 2008, right before the crash. It was my friend Svavar Pétur’s idea, who you might known as Prins Póló. He became my agent, or something of the sort. He said ‘You’ve been working at this long enough—it’s time for you to get a show going. Go for it.’”
They got permission to hang his pieces in an abandoned coffee factory. “I hadn’t shown anything before,” says Þrándur. “They were mostly large, two metre paintings. Lots of them were taken from the Icelandic sagas. A lot of people showed up, which surprised me. It gave me a big boost.”
The concept, back then, was to “fill in the blanks” of Icelandic art history by painting local history and mythology in the style of the Old Masters. “I was replicating what they have in the history of European painting, but about the Icelandic sagas,” says Þrándur. “There were some about ghosts and folklore, and the sagas. But then, I also had a self portrait as a British lord, so that was silly and humorous.”
Filled with confidence after a blockbuster turnout, Þrándur’s next exhibition further developed this subtle sense of humour. “I goofed around a bit more in the second show,” he smiles. “I had a painting of me as a 19th Century noblewoman—and the Grýla painting.”
Grýla is the macabre giantess of Icelandic yuletide mythology, and the mother of the infamous Yule Lads. Legend has it that she steals and eats children, but she’s most often portrayed as a cartoonish monster with a gap-toothed grin and a sack that’s presumably full of kidnapped kids.
Þrándur’s 2009 painting, however, is a chilling image that portrays Grýla as a hunchbacked, blood-splattered, vacant-eyed monster, gnawing on the limbs of a child in its crib as a parent throws open the bedroom door and discovers the scene. It’s a haunting, nightmarish vision that remains his best-known work.
“It didn’t receive that much attention until a few years later,” says Þrándur. “Somebody posted it on Reddit, and it went viral. It has a life of its own now. It pops up a lot, especially around Christmas. I saw it on a Facebook group called Classical Memes, where the child had been photoshopped out as a pizza. And I thought: ‘Oh, okay! I’m part of the Classical thing.’”
Puffin plague on Laugavegur
Since then, Þrándur’s painting have captured the public imagination several times. One such work, entitled (roughly translated) “Puffin Plague on Laugavegur,” adorned a 2017 cover of The Reykjavík Grapevine about the touristification of downtown Reykjavík. It shows a seemingly historic Laugavegur scene—there are no streetlights, cars or billboards—with pedestrians beset by a swarm of puffins that cover the pavement and harrass passersby.
It’s also a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds,’ which might seem like an odd decision—but, in this context, it chimes perfectly with the message. Like in ‘The Birds,’ the citizens of downtown Reykjavík are being terrorised by a force beyond their control. The combination of references is a clever sleight of hand, and it rings true.
“I am pleased with this painting,” says Þrándur, who thinks of it as his “magnum opus.” “It’s so many things at once. It’s jokey, visually interesting, and it has an aesthetic. It’s not angry commentary, like ‘those damn puffin stores!’ When art is openly critical towards society, it can get simplified. I like to do it in a visually appealing way.”
Þrándur likes to let his paintings do the talking, but when pushed, he says that he’s more resigned about Reykjavík’s tourist situation than angry. “I don’t think there’s much you can do with what’s happening,” he says. “But you can draw attention to it, at least.”
Stripping the bones
Þrándur’s most recent social commentary, painted earlier this year, is another bird painting. This time, it’s vultures—referring to the much-maligned property and finance company Gamma. It’s a bleak and bloody scene in which a body is being picked bare in a grim garret by several gore-splattered vultures.
“The word ‘Gamma’ means ‘vulture’ in Icelandic,” Þrándur explains. “Gamma is a company that buys up apartments and rents them out very expensively, even though they’re shithole apartments. So it’s an extremely poorly chosen name. I think they had in mind the Greek letter Gamma, which means something else in some economic sense. But ‘vultures’ is what we call exploitative companies, in Icelandic. So I thought of a bunch of vultures: gammar.”
Þrándur wasn’t sure what kind of response it would provoke. “I think, in the end, it was the most discussed [piece] in my last show,” he says. “These concepts like gentrification, touristification, banking, and exploitative companies—it’s not easy to put ideas like this into a painting.”
“Gamma are quite proud that they support the arts,” he continues. “At the same time as this was going on, Ragnar Kjartansson had his big show at Hafnarhusið, and they were the main benefactor of that. But they’re quite often in the news because people hate them.”
Two of Þrándur’s other viral works are even more overtly political. One depicts Arion Banki executives disembarking a plane, looking like Nazi officers. “I really didn’t think that one would sell,” he says. “But I had to paint it because it was so funny. Sometimes these paintings are ideas that are too good not to paint. But it turned out there was a law firm that had a lot of cases against Arion Banki, and they bought it so their clients could come into their office, see the painting and laugh, and say, ‘Yeah, scumbags.’”
The other is a macabre work that is, perhaps unsurprising, yet to sell. It depicts Iceland’s Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson pulling on a pair of necropants. “I didn’t know about the necropants story until recently,” he smiles. “It’s an old folk belief. The story goes that you had to carve up a dead person below the waist, all in one piece, and wear the skin. Then you’d steal a penny from a poor old lady and put it into the ball sack. Then you’d become rich. But you had to be careful not to die in the pants, or you’d go to hell. When I read the description, I thought, ‘I have to paint this… but who should be wearing them?’ And, well. Bjarni was the first person that came to mind.”
“These painting are the ones that people talk about,” he continues, thoughtfully. “The thought process behind them is different from the city paintings. I just have to wait for the ideas to come for the political satire paintings. If I try to force it, it could get banal. It’s satisfying when it happens, but it makes me a bit more self-aware. If I think ‘okay, I need another hit,’ then it’s like the pop business. So I try not to think too much about it.”
Not all of Þrándur’s works are so controversial. He also paints idyllic street scenes—soothing environments free from modern-day intrusions. Þrándur admits that he’s more attracted to the old Reykjavík than the new.
“I think it’s a shame when you have a neighbourhood that’s in harmony, then all of a sudden there’s something ugly and modern,” he says. “Here, and in other cities, people tend to visit the old town, because it’s more pleasing.”
As well as being a form of resistance to the changing city, there’s also an economic reason for Þrándur’s more sedate images. “It would be very easy to paint hideous dystopias of modern architecture, but I try to go the other way, and paint what it could look like, instead of pointing out the ugliness,” says Þrándur. “And it makes more sense financially. People wouldn’t buy dystopia paintings. I haven’t received any grants, or anything like that, so I have to keep it in the back of my mind.”
However, Þrándur is mindful of putting in curveball details to break up the scene. “I try not to get too stuck in nostalgia, so it’s only that and nothing else,” he says. “I like to break things up with some anachronistic details, and so people have to ask when the painting might be set.”
Who drew it better
Þrándur didn’t have a particularly art-centric upbringing. His mother is a Norwegian translator, who also had a stint as a midwife—”she’s also interested in painting, but that came later, I guess because of me,” he says—and his father is a steel worker, union member and “extreme left wing person,” based up in Akureyri.
There is, however, another artist is the family—his cousin Hugleikur Dagsson, Iceland’s irreverent enfant terrible cartoonist and comedian. Hugleikur influenced Þrándur from an early age. “He has a lot to do with it all, actually,” he says. “He used to draw a lot when we were kids. There was a bit of competition between us. Once or twice a year we’d compare sketchbooks, and I was always very excited. We’d collaborate on comic strips. And that’s where it began.”
Today, their work couldn’t be more visually different, with Þrándur’s painterly canvasses forming a strong contrast from Hugleikur’s vulgar stickmen. “He went the minimalist way!” he laughs. “But there are a lot of subjects we have in common.”
Odd nerd room
Another big influence on Þrándur was the painter Odd Nerdrum, who he refers to as “my master.” After dropping out of art school—because “the way I was painting didn’t fit in with what they were teaching”—Þrándur was taken on as a pupil by the eccentric Norwegian painter, who had taken up residence in Iceland in the old library building.
“I was a pupil of his for three years,” Þrándur remembers. “He’s an eccentric person. I had my little space in his studio. I would more or less paint self-portraits for those years. That’s what he recommended, because that way you always have a model. Hugleikur had the idea that we should put a sign on the door saying ‘odd nerd room.’”
Þrándur became part of a small like-minded family that blossomed around Odd’s studio. “He liked having company, and wasn’t fond of being alone,” he says. “There were always people there, and if there wasn’t, he’d call me and say ‘Come over, let’s watch a film.’ His family was there in the house too. He called himself a ‘kitsch painter’—he felt like he had been kicked out of the art scene, which is why he called himself ‘kitsch.’ It became almost like a ‘kitsch society.’”
Inching to the future
Despite his slow and meandering outsider’s path, Þrándur’s endless patience, his dedication to his craft, and his artful combination of historical street scenes, intelligent politically-minded works, and what he calls “splatter paintings” have found him an ever-growing audience that isn’t going anywhere. His paintings are selling as fast as he can make them, and he has a show planned later this year at Hannesarholt, to mark his fortieth birthday. A collaborative exhibition with Hugleikur is also in the works.
It seems only a matter of time before he’s invited to produce a large scale solo show in Reykjavík. He smiles at the idea. “My biggest problem would be to come to peace with my earlier work, instead of thinking I could have done them so much better,” he says. “Some of my early work, I just don’t want to see. I’ve always been very self-critical. When I was 20, I’d be critical of my drawings from when I was 16. But it’s part of maturing to see that it’s just what you were doing at that age.”
And with that, our time is up, and Þrándur vanishes back up those creaky stairs into his studio, his daydreams, and the arresting world of his paintings.