Subversive Needlework 

Hildur Bjarnadottir at BAM

Since seeing the work of Icelandic artist Hildur Bjarnadottir in Portland three years ago, I have hoped she would one day show here in Boise. Winner of the Seattle Art Museum's Betty Bowen Special Recognition Award in 2001, Bjarnadottir is a textile artist whose pieces are grounded in Iceland's traditions of knitting, embroidering and crocheting. Her approach to this historic craft is nevertheless truly contemporary and unique, taking it beyond the realm of utilitarian handwork and into that of fine art. It is an art that should resonate with Idahoans, given its traditional roots and deeply personal dimensions.

Boise Art Museum's current exhibit of Bjarnadottir's works, organized by former Associate Curator Heather Ferrell and entitled "Unraveled," covers her work from 1998 to 2005. It is a show of surprises that challenge and undermine our received notions of supposed boundaries and imposed hierarchies of creativity. Bjarnadottir's is an intelligent, multimedia art that is visually intriguing and thought-provoking, encompassing textiles, found materials, porcelain, video, digital photography and computer imaging. Interchangeably sculptural and two-dimensional with a strong conceptual streak, it examines issues of gender, culture, and technique while tweaking the definition of "fine art."

This show, Bjarnadottir's largest to date, is particularly timely as the artist is at a crossroads in her life and career. Since coming to the United States in 1994 to enter the MFA program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, she has spent most of the past 11 years in this country, and it had a profound impact on her art. Except for occasional visits home, Bjarnadottir divided her time between Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon, the latter being her base of operations in recent years. Now, what might be called her "American period" has come to a close. She moved back to Iceland in early January, completing a cycle, as she phrased it. So it is an opportune time to reflect on the special character of her output thus far.

"Unraveled" demonstrates the rare confluence of a critical, independent mind, a traditionalist/craft background, and a post-modern sensibility. Permeating her art on a more basic level, however, is a very personal, positive, non-ideological sort of feminism, one that reflects a background dominated by the society and culture of women rather than a political stance. Born a triplet in Reykjavik in 1969, surrounded by sisters, a mother who taught textile crafts, grandmothers, and the spirit of other ancestresses, Bjarnadottir was raised in what she calls "a textile environment," a female communal experience of which utilitarian and decorative needlework was a major component. Beginning at age 4, she was schooled in knitting, weaving, crocheting and sewing, and the traditional forms she learned to create--doilies, embroidery, furniture coverings and clothing--are forms she would bring to her art as well. But they came to serve as departure points for Bjarnadottir rather than ends in themselves.

Following an independent course with these acquired skills began for Bjarnadottir at an early age. From the start, with the encouragement of her mother, she did not work from patterns but designed her creations herself. She has stated, "I didn't need to follow anyone else's rules, I could make up my own [and] I think I have carried this over into my art," thus freeing her up to follow up and express her own images and ideas. Eventually, as she told a Boise audience last December, her approach became completely conceptual and she found herself working contrary to tradition, "using ideas more than just materials, bringing textiles into an art context." Put another way, Bjarnadottir came to instill craft with an expanded significance that subverts its conventional connotations. This is not, however, a rejection of her upbringing: "I try to pay due respect to the craft tradition of my ancestresses while still working with critical ideas."

Unfortunately, Bjarnadottir did not get much encouragement from educators in Iceland. In the textile department of the Icelandic Arts and Crafts College (where she got her BFA), the emphasis was on making useful and beautiful objects, with little discussion about concept. Her professors criticized her different approach. Still, she persisted, and in 1992 made Re-rubber from sliced-up car tire inner tubes woven together with fish line on a loom and wall-mounted. Her decision to escape to New York and study at Pratt seems almost inevitable.

When Bjarnadottir entered the MFA program at Pratt, they were not quite sure what to do with her, so they placed her in the New Forms Department (even though she was using an old art form). In this challenging intellectual environment, Bjarnadottir honed her conceptual approach to art. She consciously worked against the rules of textile craft and what people expect from those who practice it. She would buy wool clothes from the thrift store and shrink them down drastically until they were shriveled, distorted and rigid, in effect killing the clothes and displaying them like shrunken heads. Then there was her "invisible" phase where she took to knitting and weaving works out of clear fish line, expending hours of intricate labor to minimal effect. An admittedly perverse turn, but understandable in the context of her new-found freedom here. It also underscores the spirited independence and inquisitiveness Bjarnadottir brings to her art.

It is instructive that the artist who had the most influence on Bjarnadottir was Dieter Roth, the prolific German art-provocateur who died in 1998 and was something of a cult figure in Iceland. He lived there for a time, married an Icelandic woman, spoke the language, and occasionally used Icelandic words or cultural themes in his art. Described by one critic as an "irascible polymath [who] rode roughshod over convention," Roth was also originally trained in the practical arts and worked to undermine standard concepts of art-making by crossbreeding a multitude of art forms into often unclassifiable works of genius. His revolt against the norm inspired Bjarnadottir in her own efforts to break down similar artistic/academic barriers.

Upon entering the Northwest Perspectives Gallery at BAM, one is struck by how underplayed Bjarnadottir's work is. It has a sparse, elemental air to it, something perhaps of the Arctic exoticism of Iceland's natural environment. Her art is edgy but not pushy, maintaining instead a low profile, lying in wait to challenge your mind and eye. References to a range of styles and schools of late modern/post-modern art abound, including abstract expressionism, minimalism, found art, Pop, most of it rendered or grounded in fabric.

A heavy dose of irony is present, epitomized by Tchotchke from 2003, a still life "painting" rendered in velvet pile embroidery on linen that proclaims "Painting is the only real art form," as if this holds true even when we're talking kitsch. Bjarnadottir gets downright Duchampian with the tondo Untitled (circle) of 2003, a monochromatic "canvas" which is actually a piece of Formica cut round and mounted, its simulated texture impersonating a densely woven ground. In two works from 2005, Gingham and Tatting, Bjarnadottir conceptually turns the tables on us as only expert hands can. She dyes threads of Belgian linen (which art canvas is made of) with acrylic paint beforehand, then creates an abstract painting during the weaving process. We are left to ponder: which is the art and which the support? So too with Reconstructed Canvas II (2003), which emphasizes the textile nature of a painting by turning a blank stretch of linen canvas into an elaborately designed work crocheted from unraveled threads of the same material.

The doily is a traditionally feminine object that Bjarnadottir transforms into contemporary sculpture with distinctly male overtones. Untitled (skulls) (1998) is a 54-inch diameter piece crocheted from glistening white yarn, circled by three-dimensional human skulls giving this slice of domesticity a decidedly macabre cast. More poignant is Shooting Gallery (1998), a large doily crocheted from silver yarn, the metallic threads sculpted into multiple miniature 9mm handguns that aim at us from around the periphery of the piece--domestic violence portrayed in needlework.

There are works of elegance and sensuality, too. Three small minimalist works from 2000, woven from clear and pastel fish line are cool, ethereal, Agnes Martin-like abstractions, nearly intangible as if written in water. Untitled Drawing (2001), an abstract knit wool relief, might be the best piece in the show. Its spiraling design seems constantly in motion as if kinetic, and its warm, softly dense material is in a way voluptuous, punctuated by an erect nipple of wool protruding from its center.

The adage "clothes make the person" comes to mind in what might be called Bjarnadottir's minimalist-found-fiber-art. Class 9JI (2005) comprises 24 "portraits" of students in which each subject is represented by the lint removed from their clothes, the adhesive tape capturing the lint applied to panels and hung. The various colors of the fibers make for pale, shifting hues in random compositions dictated by that day's choice of attire. An earlier experiment in this re-visualization of fabric is Untitled (2000), an enlarged digital print on mounted watercolor paper of lint, winding threads and other debris collected from clothing, looking like a Jackson Pollock painting with skeins of paint crisscrossing a canvas. With Bjarnadottir, technology and the mundane mate to produce extraordinary offspring.

Exhibited through March 12 at Boise Art Museum.

For more about Hildur Bjarnadottir, visit

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