Mamma Andersson, Hobnob, 2010, acrylic and oil on panel, 48 x 59".

Mamma Andersson, Hobnob, 2010, acrylic and oil on panel, 48 x 59".

Mamma Andersson

Mamma Andersson, Hobnob, 2010, acrylic and oil on panel, 48 x 59".

In 2004, the Swedish painter Mamma Andersson was included in a show at LA’s Hammer Museum called “The Undiscovered Country,” which explored a postmodern take on representation described by curator Russell Ferguson as a strategy of “painterly ambiguity.” At the time, Andersson was not well known in the States, yet it was immediately clear that her paintings epitomized an approach to form that could be characterized in Ferguson’s terms: Old dichotomies of abstraction and figuration had been erased, and art history had become available as a kind of stylistic smorgasbord to be drawn on at will. Despite the artist’s inclusion in the 2004 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and several solo shows at major American galleries in years since, her elusive, forlorn painterly world would not make its solo debut in a US institution until this past winter, when thirty of the Swedish artist’s oil paintings, watercolors, and mixed-media works dating from 2002 to 2010 were brought together by Aspen Art Museum director and chief curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson for this show.

Myriad fragmentary narratives pervade Andersson’s work, which integrates various dichotomies—past and present, outdoors and indoors, roughness and delicacy—to spellbinding effect. Residue, traces, and shadows; quiet dramas intriguingly suggested but never fully revealed: Though tantalizing clues are offered (a burning sofa in Gone for Good, 2006; a sculpture of a blood-streaked, half-nude woman in Hobnob, 2010), clear meanings are kept at arm’s length, and, likewise, Andersson’s provocative, often cleverly turned titles raise as many questions as they answer. What are we to make, for example, of the word fatherland when it is assigned to a three-panel painting of a solitary, rocky landscape?

Equally enigmatic are the compositions themselves, where little is rigidly defined and collapse—both narrative and illusionistic—seems ever imminent. Consider How Green Was My Valley, 2003, wherein the perspective is skewed and nothing really fits together: A mirror hangs at an odd angle; a desk is jammed into the foreground. Patterns of the snow-covered landscape outside bleed onto the back wall of the office/bedroom, and distant trees, though perspectivally rooted in the distance, extend their branches into the domestic foreground. Here and in other works, such as Ebb and Flow, 2007, exteriors have a way of blurring, Bonnard-like, into interiors, with the resulting hybrid worlds often seeming more like stage sets than anything real.

Andersson extends this topological treatment of space into the physical properties of her work. Notably, she does not frame her paintings, and the carpentry of her wood panels is rough. Her painting style, while loose, is deliberately crude, even heavy-handed; works such as He Stared Straight in Front of Him, 2005, might well be described as art brut. However, weightiness is counterbalanced by a certain painterly delicacy, evidenced by the adroit layers of thinned oil that lend translucence and gracefulness to some of her surfaces, including (to remarkable effect) Sleeping Standing Up, 2003, one of the show’s most striking works.

Echoes of past artists abound in Andersson’s work. It is virtually impossible, for example, to look at Hangover, 2008, with its hermetic interior and hushed colors, and not think of similar works by Édouard Vuillard. Master’s Voice, 2003, depicting a wall of paintings and drawings (presumably the artist’s own), recalls Matisse’s The Red Studio from 1911. And the three people sitting around an empty table in The Pigeon House, 2010, conjure the insular, enigmatic tableaux of Fairfield Porter.

The artists of “The Undiscovered Country”—and others working in similarly hybrid styles, such as Daniel Richter, who also had his first solo American museum show in Colorado—remain compelling figures seven years later. But Andersson’s distinctive voice, anchored in the dark, Bergmanesque sensibility of her native Scandinavia, perhaps holds a special resonance for Colorado, because of parallels between its topography and that of Sweden. Certainly, some of the state’s artists, such as Nathan Abels of Denver, tread similar physical and emotional landscapes in their work. Abel’s painting Kairos, 2010, for example, offers a stark, enigmatic view of a lonely road cutting through an icy landscape that looks both real and alien. Given these connections, it seems only fitting that Andersson’s first American museum show took place not in New York or Los Angeles but in view of the snow-covered peaks of Aspen.

Kyle MacMillan