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Arngunnur Yr @ Public Policy Institute of California

Psychic Sprawl, 2013, oil on canvas, 48 x 60"
 
by Maria Porges
 
Contemplating the wild and vivid landscapes depicted in Arngunnur Yr’s recent paintings revives memories of a childhood trip to Yellowstone — my slack-jawed wonder at the impossible, fake-looking colors of the mineral pools and the plumes of steam and water erupting from the rocky ground. Only this experience makes it possible to know that Yr’s visions draw on reality as well as fantasy, bringing them together in views crowded with mountains faceted like jewels, spewing lava and smoke into Turneresque skies. In some pictures, famous peaks from Yr’s native Iceland are juxtaposed with landmarks from the Sierras, where she has spent time over the three decades she has lived in the Bay Area since attending art school here. Although Yr has experimented with figuration and abstraction, landscape has long been the predominant subject in her work—most often, scenes dominated by sky and/or sea, depicted with an almost hallucinogenic vividness. Yr’s way of working involves building up many layers of color and then scraping or sanding back through selected areas, a process suggesting the geologists’ investigation of time itself. It is only in recent years that mountains have come to dominate these scenes, evoking something that could be described as an intoxicated sublime.  
 
Le Fardeau (detail), 2013, oil on canvas, 48 x 60"

In a recent interview, Yr reminded her interlocutor of the relative youth of parts of Iceland; that, in fact, the famous volcano Mt. Hekla’s familiar profile is only three or four thousand years old. Iceland’s landscape, in other words, is remaking itself constantly. Yr’s playful juxtaposition of various mountains together in a single composition reflects both her experience working as wilderness guide for many years in Iceland and in Yosemite, and her own brand of, well, magical realism.  Like its literary equivalent, Yr’s transformation of the landscape suggests "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe." Even when the shapes of rock formations or clouds seem plausible, the color stretches our imaginations to the breaking point. 

 
As with the very different works of American magical realist painters Paul Cadmus and Ivan Albright, Yr means viewers to experience undertones of sex and death.   The six paintings presented in this exhibition, all part of the Blow series from 2013, picture something that can only be described as orgasmic volcanic eruption. Beneath roiling purplish clouds, lava courses in cascades and rivers or, as in Psychic Sprawl, like a spreading

 

 

Painter's Paradise, 2014, oil on panel, 48 x 60"

stain. In Le Fardeau, Yr brilliantly deploys an exuberant palette of complementary psychedelic hues to depict adamantine peaks in green and magenta, contrasting them with a soft, cloud-filled sky punctuated by passages of orange and blue. 

Yrs’ title for the series is intended to refer in part to what she describes as “the San Francisco hippie era, a dance of exuberant joy with the suggestion of unrealized ultimate freedom and optimism, that inevitably unattainable ideal that we in our contemporary times, with the weight of experience and history, nevertheless cling to and aspire to.” Inevitably, the word blow invokes other meanings: exploding volcanoes, Ahab’s obsession with the great white whale (“Thar she blows!”), and, of course, the perennial party drug, cocaine, popularly known by that name. In the end, the impression that these paintings most strongly evoke is of the untamable forces of nature—the beauty of fire or funnel clouds, hot lava rivers or tidal waves—and of a power we can try to dance with at our own peril, recognizing both the risks and the rewards of doing so.  
 
Arngunnur Yr @ Bechtel Conference Center, Public Policy Institute of California, through June 17, 2014.  Note: Visitors must first check in with PPIC's lobby guard before being admitted to the Conference Center.   
 
 1. Matthew C. Strecher, Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki, Journal of Japanese Studies, Volume 25, Number 2 (Summer 1999), pp. 263-298, at 267.
 
About the Author
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 60 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts in the graduate program in Fine Arts.

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