PAINTING THE FLOOR
Like most painters, Eggert Pétursson hangs his paintings on gallery walls.
But unlike many paintings, his works are not openings to an illusory space.
Very often they seem to be almost devoid of all representations of
three-dimensionality. This is not the same as saying that they are without
depth. I remember the moment of seeing the room in Kópavogur Art Museum
with his paintings from 1997, those near-white works which from afar
brought to mind something done by Robert Ryman. As I approached the works,
however, they went through a series of dramatic alterations, changing from
cool minimalistic canvases to rich flower paintings and finally, at a close
distance, to tactile little brushstrokes in that strangely glimmering
mother-of-pearl paint. It was a fantastic voyage from the macrocosmos of
minimalistic art to the microcosmos of porcelain-painterly surfaces,
unashamedly kitsch-like. I had experienced some of Eggert Pétursson’s
paintings before, so these wild in-built contrasts did not come as a total
I mentioned space. It somehow seems to be missing from Eggert Pétursson’s
paintings. Viewed in passing and several metres away, they appear as flat
surfaces – nothing wrong with that. And yet they are very much
three-dimensional works. The paint often builds up like little mountains,
telling its own topographic tales. At close range, Pétursson’s paintings
can turn into a spectacle. It is true that nearly all paintings, old and
new, have similar qualities; the physicality of the medium reveals itself
in most painted works if we only study them close enough. However, in
Eggert Pétursson’s works it plays a leading role.
Perhaps the apparently missing space of the paintings finds its
explanation if we consider how the paint actually works in Pétursson’s hands.
It seems to me that instead of simply looking into the painting we are
asked to observe the space that exists between the canvas and the viewer.
For example, a work seen from one distance might appear as an almost
monochrome painting, from another distance as a figurative flower painting,
and from a very close distance like an aerial landscape of some sort. Three
things in one, or, more likely, only one thing triplefolded. Eggert
Pétursson is not an innocent artist. He knows very well what he is doing.
Eggert Pétursson’s paintings are not windows to another world. Neither are they
abstract works. We all know he is a flower painter. Yet in another
environment even flower paintings might have a background, a horizon, a
point where all the lines meet. What is it that makes his paintings somehow
peculiar? I cannot help thinking about the family likeness between two
English words, floor and flora. Pétursson does not see his flowers against
the sky, instead he pictures plants which grow low. He looks down at his
feet and then paints the floor.
On the gallery wall the nature in Eggert Pétursson’s paintings calls to
mind the history of another floor-related artefact: the carpet. From the
sixth century onwards, one of the standard themes of the Oriental carpet
has been Garden. In the old days the huge, slowly knitted carpets
represented flowers and other plants so that the kings of Persia could
overcome the seasonal limit of their earthly paradise. When Eggert
Pétursson came upon the Icelandic flora as a subject to paint, he too became an
illustrator of paradise.
But where do you begin if you want to paint an image of paradise? As far
as I can tell, Eggert Pétursson is an indoor painter. When he lived and
worked in Leeds, where he had a rather beautiful garden at the back of his
house, he preferred to work upstairs in a tiny boxroom. I do not know how
he managed to see what his paintings looked like from a distance greater than
one metre. Perhaps he did not have to. Perhaps he always knew that they
would look just like a part of the Icelandic nature looks when seen from a
distance greater than his studio.
At times Pétursson has painted individual plants, but I must say I prefer
the more plentyful ones. It is especially when the flowers are abundant that his
works seem to reach a bewildering complexity and a unity of purpose. The
tireless repetition of tiny brushstrokes, creating a repeated illusion of
tiny flowers, is not a far cry from the work of a carpetmaker, whose knots
slowly build the image of a garden. It is never a representation of a
particular garden but always an image of an idea. In a similar way I see
Eggert Pétursson is creating his work: imagining the floor.
It is well known that the Icelandic nature is not like garden, at least
not in the traditional sense of the word. The tiny Nordic flowers adored by
Pétursson have their own character, quite different from the lavishisly
growing plants of South. But it is precisely the minuteness and the
multiplicity of the Icelandic flowers that makes them such an appropriate
subject for such stunningly reserved minimalistic paintings as Pétursson’s
works are – until you find yourself standing very close to them.
translated by Halla Sverrisdóttir