Imagining Women's Lives in Painted Dreams
In her surreal, thoughtful paintings, Swedish artist Karin Mamma Andersson explores historical conventions for shaping the female mind and body, from corsets and dollhouses to strip clubs and brothels.
Mamma Andersson. Photo by Patrick Miller
Try to recall a dream by explaining it, and often the dream will dissolve. Set it in sequence, and its story breaks down, revealing unbridgeable gaps. Stockholm-based artist Karin Mamma Andersson's paintings simulate the dreamer's willingness to dwell in those gaps, to be in several places at once, immersing the viewer in an incomplete or suspended story that nevertheless feels very familiar.
The Swedish artist is a master of using paint to capture contradictions: interior and exterior, flatness and depth. Illusionistic washes and graphic lines coexist in her images, which encompass dreamy landscapes and domestic interiors. Her work refers to folk art and poetry, and is often oriented towards the past. Andersson paints with a muted palette and draws from old photographs and films, as well as theater sets and period interiors.
In recent work Andersson has turned her hand to historical conventions for shaping the female body—both physically and socially. Her 2015 exhibition Behind the Curtain at David Zwirner included paintings of busts, corsets, stays, and statuettes: objects for forming the body, or of the body, already formed. Like much of her work, these paintings reveal an interest in artifice: The two stiffly posed figures on stage in Ceremony could be marionettes, especially read beside the jointed limbs of the dolls in Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie. Subtle tensions like this give the work its psychological depth. Andersson may be asking the question of what is real and what is not, but that doesn't mean she wants the answers. Representation, it seems, is much richer without them.
BROADLY: A lot of your work draws from language-based traditions like poetry and folk tales. What is the relationship between words and images for you?
Words belong to the art of writing; pictures usually lack words. But words are often involved in making sense of a picture—they can steer your comprehension, [just] as a title, a review, or a private analysis of art does.
Do you title your works with a narrative dimension in mind? Are you thinking of them as stories?
I have always been amused by the peculiar effect of a title. With one single word, suddenly a painting acquires multiple levels and meanings. The title can shift the focus from one direction to another. In my case, a working title can exist, and sometimes I keep it, but more often I find a new one when the painting is finished. Poetry is often a source, but musical lyrics or something else can be useful. Titles are so open—why not play with that possibility? For me each exhibition has its own narrative and mood, as does every individual picture. Which is not to say that there is a beginning and an end in the classic sense of a story.
So you want a title to open itself to interpretation, rather than to determine it?
Working in images is full of risk. One can read into them whatever one wants. Everyone does that from their own perspective. When we look at old paintings, sometimes many hundreds of years old, we read them via our time, our gender, our age, our experience. When the painting was painted, the world looked entirely different; it is fantastic, a trip back in time.
My initial inspiration was a mix of old china dolls and strippers—different images, or maps, for how to be a woman.
Your paintings offer that in a way, a trip back in time—you often work with historical or found images. What kind of source material are you most drawn to?
The image-well whose waters I dip from first and foremost is the "art well." The water can be crystal clear but also slimy and turbid. I also turn to adjacent areas like music, film, literature—everything that unfolds in dialogue and dreams. The artists I'm most preoccupied by now are the painters Léon Spilliaert and de Chirico, and the photographer Miroslav Tichý, who made thousands of pictures with homemade cameras of women in the Czech Republic.
Many of your paintings blur the distinction between interior and exterior, or appear like stage sets. Is there a connection between the spaces created by theater and the spaces created in painting?
About ten years ago, I became extremely interested in questions of space during creation—both interiors and exteriors. The initial inspiration came from old scenographies, crime photos, archeological sites, and the like. Today my focus has moved on; it's perhaps more difficult to corral.
What are you looking for in painting?
You ask this, I ask this. Perhaps it's just to find the bottom of myself.
Does a painting ever completely deviate from your original intention in the course of making it, or do they tend to be quite carefully planned?
In the process there is a mixed-up plan from the outset—it's never too clear. Because the plan is so unstable, it can in principle be developed in all kinds of possible directions. That is in itself a freedom, but also a danger. The whole thing can collapse in the blink of an eye.
Tell me about the paintings in your 2015 exhibition at David Zwirner, Behind the Curtain.
Behind the Curtain dealt with being a woman and social ideas of how one is expected to be a woman. Some years ago I found a bunch of books about different doll collections and dollhouses, mostly from the previous century. In them I could interpret and see what was expected from girls in the bourgeoisie at that time. I thought a lot about my own upbringing in the 60s and 70s and the role Barbie dolls had played in it. Around the same time I found the doll books, I found a book of reports from a German brothel (early 70s). So yes, my initial inspiration was a mix of old china dolls and strippers—different images, or maps, for how to be a woman.
You made paintings of corsets, sculptural busts of women, the silhouettes of female statuettes. Were these ways to explore the female form as a decorative object?
Perhaps, but the road that gets you there is not always so direct—the connections can be unexpected. I found a Czech book about athletics from around the same time. In it, there was a series of pictures of a female high jumper who took off another piece of clothing in each frame. It was a sort of concentrated striptease, the girl completely unaware of the huge audience following her every little movement. Her only focus was to get herself over the bar. It was sort of the opposite of a striptease in a sex club, where everything revolves around the gaze of the audience. When I was young, I was a high jumper. Funnily enough, I can identify with each of these pictures, the complicated nature of being an artist, woman, or man, or human.