Art that helps you feel less overwhelmed

Between the holidays, in December I finally got the chance to visit the Hirshhorn Museum. It's been a few months since I last went there. The Scandinavian Pain exhibition - a solo show by Ragnar Kjartansson - was a great find.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s art brings you to a deep consideration of things that feel simple and elemental. It’s exactly what I need to see once in a while, to avoid getting overwhelmed. One of my favorite things in 2016!

The artist gave each piece enough room, and this is what I think makes them so good to counteract the feeling of business, or having too many options with too little focus. Each piece has the space it needs, many pieces took a long time to make (like the daily paintings he made for many days in a row) or showed many attempts at the same subject until it feels fully explored and considered (like the starry sky paintings)

Scandinavian Everything

I enjoyed this exhibition because it addresses each subject in a complete, no-frills way. It is divided into rooms, and each has a well curated experience. Because of the materials used, it feels modern and minimal, all the things I enjoy. Painted canvases, shiny gold lamé hanging decorations, or photos - it doesn’t matter what it is, but the materials all feel well chosen and suitable for the subject.

Many of the ideas Kjartansson uses are stereotypical art-making situations: a painter and his model interacting over time, or a plein-air painter (smoking cigars, drinking beer, reading Nabokov) as we imagine an impressionist might work in his (usually, “his”) suburban estate.

Many things together look better

I was particularly attracted to the presentations of the landscape paintings, and the paintings of the model. The landscapes (that look unremarkable by themselves) make an interesting, textured scene together. An even number of black & white photographs are framed together with a handwritten description to make a cohesive piece. Somehow, even the white frame they’re in feels accessible, like I could get one at IKEA and have myself an artwork just like that.

Most of the pieces emphasize the duration of time they took to make. 140+ canvases, each painted quite quickly, make a cohesive statement together. It took discipline to explore the same subject, and the same painting style, for so many days straight. The colors look particularly interesting together, in the edges between canvasses. And again, looking at this huge installation makes me think I. too, could do something like this - and it doesn’t feel intimidating. It feels bright and hopeful instead!

Self aware stereotypes?

Another reason I’m attracted to the exhibition is - it feels self aware and playful around gendered roles. For example, the Woman in E piece is a live performance by a musician playing a single chord - in a gold goddess-like outfit within a gold lamé circular curtain. The gender role of the glorified female beauty is almost too obvious, and the piece makes me notice it and how it’s different from my everyday life. The same goes for an exaggerated image of a white male artist working plain-air. Beer-drinking and cigar-smoking (I don’t think the artist does those normally) add to the image. He even seems to wear a sort of costume while painting. Both male and female seem more like characters than serious social requirements. The exaggerations are what makes them feel approachable for me.

Go see some art!

If you don't have a chance to see Kjartansson’s work in person, a good second choice is this exhibition overview. The show definitely has a Scandinavian aesthetic, and I find myself attracted to it in particular in late winter. The clear, bright colors and lots of white space between pieces make the show feel airy and open. And because each piece feels almost within my reach to make myself, the entire show makes me feel hopeful. Enjoy!

Video walk-through with commentary:

Maria Matveevasixth-9