Jón Thor Gíslason

The Strange Child

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A few ideas on Jón Thor Gíslason´s new works

written by Brigitte Splettstößer

During his artistic education, the Icelandic artist Jón Thor Gíslason thoroughly engaged himself in cross-border art genres that arose about the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties like, for instance, Conceptual Art and Beuys´ extended art concept.
Although he appreciated those artistic approaches and their underlying philosophies, he soon realized that his road would be different.
Until today he has remained faithful to his own whole-hearted commitment to painting, i.e. primarily, figurative painting. His own painting being immediately perceptible through the senses, an impressive, partly large-sized painting, which captures spectators spontaneously, attracting, confusing, captivating and badly upsetting them, as the case may be, Gíslason sets it against the works of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, which are determined by their concept and idea and, in the limit case, dematerialization.

Jón Thor Gíslason has, at all times, been involved in philosophy. It is particularly the aesthetics theories of the philosophers Gernot Böhme and Martin Seel, in which the atmosphere emanating from a piece of art and its sensual effect play a central part, that reflect his own view of art.

An essential characteristic of Jón Thor Gíslason´s painting is the most ambivalent atmosphere brought about by his masterly use of colour and line and, above all, the unmistakable expression of the persons depicted. Many of his pictures are beautiful and terrible at the same time (while sometimes the beautiful and at other times the depressing is prevalent).

One or several figures emerge from a background that is mostly ornamental and rhythmically patterned; most of them are women or children often apparently of delicate physique, sometimes more or less naked, sometimes dressed in clothes with ornamental patterns, assuming various postures, sometimes uneasy, sceptical, depressed, sometimes quiet, almost frozen, at other times, however, graceful or in motion. Hardly ever do the figures turn to each other; they are, on the contrary, rather detached from one another; even in the case of body contact or holding hands they are rather isolated and appear strangely alienated from each other as if they were elements of some figurative still life.
Their faces are mostly white with eyes closed or oddly vacant, sometimes shaded black. Often the skin of bare body parts is a greenish pallor, sometimes covered with high-contrast colour traces of a brilliant red – traces that remind the spectator of blood, which in several pictures seems to be pouring from an open mouth like, e.g., in the large painting titled “Das fremde Kind” / The Strange Child (fig. p. 33).

The heads sometimes wear fantastic coiffures; frequently, however, they are bald reminding one of photographs of children who have endured a chemotherapeutic treatment or a serious illness.
Perhaps the predominant motifs of women and children are due to Icelandic mysticism with its female fairylike figures, perhaps Jón Thor Gíslason also realizes the specific threat to women and children or he simply admires their beauty and gracefulness and anticipates the children´s possibilities for development since children are not yet determinate adults.

Quite a few of Jón Thor Gíslason´s  pictures contain socio-critical elements, although, in some of his works, they become less relevant or appear to have an ironical break.
The painting “Gruß an Manet – le dejeuner sur l´herbe” / Tribute to Manet … (fig. p. 23) shows us a young, almost naked woman accompanied by two young gentlemen wearing stylish suits and smiling superciliously – a situation that is still known from reports on gala nights with top stars: with all the sex appeal of her scarcely dressed body a woman moves among a party of self-important gentlemen in most conventional suits. Jón Thor Gíslason´s painting refers to an icon of art history: Manet´s “Breakfast in the Open”, which, for its part, goes back to earlier works in art history and was afterwards quoted by artists like Picasso, too – a clear proof of the permanence of the subject.

Gíslason´s graphic works demonstrate his superb use of the line. Sometimes most subtle, almost vanishing into thin air, sometimes strong and laid on paper with spontaneous force, the line is far from just meaning contour. It shapes and structures, creates motion and expression, conceals and puzzles; it often breaks away from the body to gain a life of its own within the picture area.
Gíslason added more graphic elements to his new paintings: powerful, almost “wild” lines often have a dramatic effect, especially with the painting “Das fremde Kind” (fig. p. 33).
With regard to “being locked in one´s own cage”, the figures´ numbness, the weird atmosphere and the intense impact of the lines, Jón Thor Gíslason´s pictures are sometimes looked upon as related to Edvard Munch.

Gíslason´s gamut of colours has changed, too. Starting from a mysteriously dark kind of oil painting, at the beginning of the nineties often with  fairytale-mystic backdrops, the gamut has brightened up to a most brilliant and sometimes deliberately loud colourfulness generated by the application of neon colours. He still favours bright shades of colour, although in contrast to his earlier works the colours are now mostly more subdued and reduced, neon colours are used rather sparingly.

Essentially, the ornamental background determines the atmosphere of Jón Thor Gíslason´s paintings. While in earlier works the background was often structured by different ornamental areas and thus sometimes showed a vertical division into two or three parts,  nearly all new works have a homogeneous background, which does not suggest any positioning in space or time. The figures stand before an abstract, artificial background as if they were, perhaps, on a stage. They appear strangely lost, they do not stand on firm ground, there is no ground adhesion, sometimes they even seem to hover with their toes pointing downwards. At the same time there is a strong sensuality emanating from the ornamentation; ornaments have a high associative potential, ornaments are decorative up to kitsch; Gíslason many times reflects on the role that kitsch plays in our everyday life with its high gloss aestheticism. In “Das fremde Kind” (fig. p. 33), e.g., the canvas is covered with silver and gold butterflies  –  symbols of hope, as Gíslason says –, black asphalt lines crossing them vehemently. Man between happiness, success, beauty or beautiful illusion on the one hand and loneliness, alienation and the things threatening life on the other – this is the central theme of Jón Thor Gíslason´s works. And it is this ontic ambivalence that he particularly recovers in Romanticism.

His grappling with Romanticism is primarily expressed by the titles he has given to several pieces of his recent work. The title “Qualitative Potenzierung” / qualitative potency (fig. p. 18/19) is taken from a Romantic key statement at the end of the 18th century when the poet Novalis claimed that the world would have to be romanticized. Novalis wrote: “The world must be romanticized. In doing so we shall recover its original sense. Romanticization is nothing but a qualitative potency.” And he continues: “By assigning the common a high sense, the ordinary a mysterious look, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite an infinite appearance, I am romanticizing it.”

The influence of Icelandic mysticism on Gíslason and, consequently, his interest in the psychology of the fairy tale corresponds with the Romantic longing for the mysterious, which found specific expression in Romantic fairy tales. Thus the title of “Das fremde Kind” (fig. p. 33) refers to E.T.A. Hoffmann´s literary fairy tale of the same name: in a forest, two children meet a strange, fairylike child, an allegory of nature. Obviously, Gíslason feels that nature is in a suffering condition but not without hope – the butterflies in the background symbolize it.

There is no denying that Germany´s indelible National Socialist past is present today and will be so in the future; in a disastrous way the ideas of National Socialism are connected with Romanticism, too, which Gíslason thematizes in his picture “Blue Eyes” (fig. p. 54/55). In front of a background reminding one of striped concentration camp clothing, two German children have taken a Jewish girl and her doll between them, the girl´s fate being anticipated by the skulls at the upper edge of the painting together with the caption “Deutschland”, which is written in exaggerated Gothic font.

Martin Seel writes: “In facing well-done art works we, at the same time, face presences of human life. … The presence that is becoming visible in aesthetic perception is not just a temporary constellation of things and occurrences …” Presence means a “position in the midst of far-reaching spatial, temporary and sensuous relations.”
Quite certainly, Gíslason´s paintings manifest  such presences with extraordinary intensity.