Christine Ödlund

Christian Larsen

Christine Ödlund’s recent exhibition was tantalizing: finely detailed drawings showing scenes of strange vegetation, occasionally tinted in extraterrestrial pastels, and trance-inducing video animations of life-forms. The latter were lubricious in both senses of the term: slippery to the touch and salacious. Twenty-one works filled two darkened rooms, providing an experience with mystical verve. It’s not that Ödlund’s art is all New Agey sublimated sex, though there was plenty of that. Rather, my first thought was of poetry; Dorothea Tanning would fall for Ödlund’s works, not because they are throwbacks to Surrealism but rather because, like Tanning’s recent poetry, Ödlund hugs realism so tight that she comes full circle, squeezing out numinous metaphors—for a comparison, read Tanning’s “Evening” (2004).

There is an unexpected turn to this exhibition, but that story comes later. First there is Ödlund’s DIY animation technique—a kind of realisticfunk fusion. Forest, 2006, is a slothful crawl along a jungle or ocean floor, dense with rhythmic life and sharp with theatrical instincts (lightning flashes while teeny creatures dart here and there too fast to see). What’s coming? you wonder. And then it appears: Realism gives way to a softer, looser style as Ödlund transports you between various levels of “reality.” As one reality gives way to the next vaporous world, the landscape that was already ambiguous becomes ever more so. Ödlund is facile with her styles; moving from one drawing to the next is like clicking through orbis alia scenes by means of a View-Master, while in her animations she takes your hand, escorting you, from one immersive never-never land to the next.

Ödlund’s fantastic art is unexpectedly tied to another figure, one that is a specter in her room. This figure’s identity is given away by the title of this exhibition, “Thought-Forms,” which was also the title of Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater’s 1901 book on religious mysticism. Besant haunts the exhibition: A British social reformer and an advocate of women’s rights and of Indian nationalism, she became president of the Theosophical Society and a clairvoyant; then, while in India with Leadbeater in 1909, recognized the messianic aura given off by thirteen-year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti. She named him the Messiah, legally adopted him as her son, and took him as her spiritual teacher. Those were the days.

Ödlund’s quest for higher planes of experience shadows Besant’s, who observed with Leadbeater that the scientist “finds himself compelled to speculate on invisible presences, if only to find a rational explanation for undoubted physical phenomena, and insensibly he slips over the boundary, and is, although he does not yet realize it, contacting the astral plane.” Besant also experienced radiating vibrations and floating forms made visible through her clairvoyance. Indeed, Ödlund’s video installation Thought-Form, 2009, pays homage to a mushroom-cloud-shaped aura produced by a performance of a composition by Charles Gounod, illustrated in the book. That volume’s serpentine forms, which the authors said represent the “intention to know,” are everywhere in Forest and in Atlantis, 2008. Besant’s clairvoyant visions have become the seeds for Ödlund’s richly developed iconography and ethereal narratives.

There is one last dot to connect, perhaps for curiosity’s sake alone, and that is the exceptional Swedish painter Hilma af Klint. We know she attended one of Besant’s lectures in Stockholm in 1907. Coming to a full appreciation of af Klint has been a journey without end, and Ödlund, like af Klint, promises to be a visionary artist of abundant gifts. Where Ödlund is concerned, we must take the mystic’s long view and not expect all the answers at once.

Ronald Jones