Hreinn Friðfinnsson, Pair, 2004–2005, shoe, mirror with frame, dimensions variable.

Hreinn Friðfinnsson, Pair, 2004–2005, shoe, mirror with frame, dimensions variable.

Hreinn Friðfinnsson

When the reformation came to Iceland, it confronted a Catholicism whose roots were old, but whose day-to-day practice was flexible. Before the last bishop, Jón Arason, was decapitated along with his two sons for leading an armed resistance, a priest attempting to comfort him reminded him that there would be a next life. “That I know, little Sveinn!” he replied. Arason’s last words have entered the Icelandic vernacular, and the latent ambiguity in the condemned bishop’s statement corresponds to the ambivalence in Hreinn Friðfinnsson’s work. Friðfinnsson’s faith in art is the bridge that carried him from the farmstead of his childhood to this retrospective, “To Catch a Fish with a Song: 1964–Today,” curated by Andrea Bellini and Krist Gruijthuijsen, but it is a bridge for which he has sometimes displayed skepticism, as if he wasn’t quite sure it would carry his weight.

As a child, Friðfinnsson compulsively made drawings. One crucial work, Drawing a Tiger, 1971, shows a pair of photographs. The first depicts Friðfinnsson as a boy in 1952, sitting on a hay bale, drawing a gruesome stalking tiger. Next to it is a photograph of the artist in the same pose as an adult, captioned with the phrase drawing a tiger in holland 1971. At first, the work seems an assertion of Friðfinnsson’s unwavering faith in his artistic destiny, an early creative prophecy that he ratifies through reenactment. But a close look at the second photograph reveals a hint of agnosticism. The adult artist appears trapped by the attempt to recapitulate the child’s facility. While the child Hreinn is drawing a bug-eyed and vital beast, the adult Hreinn’s paper remains blank.

While still very young, Friðfinnsson became friends with Dieter Roth, who had moved to Iceland in the late 1950s. In the mid-’60s, the pair worked together in Reykjavík on exhibitions with the modernist group SÚM. Later, Friðfinnsson moved to Amsterdam and began to make Conceptual art—but of an almost picturesque sort. For First House, 1974, which is based on a short story by the renowned Icelandic writer Þórbergur Þórðarson, Friðfinnsson built an inside-out cottage on an isolated site, with wallpaper facing the landscape and the corrugated iron exterior walls lining what was now the interior. The house suddenly becomes infinitely large, containing everything in the universe, except itself. The reference to the paradoxes of Bertrand Russell, so popular with Conceptual artists (“the set of all sets that do not contain themselves”) is explicit enough, as is the concern with landscape and the desire to escape language.

Later, Friðfinnsson would go on to make photographic series with Claude glasses and mirrors. He made assemblages around the Fibonacci sequence and irrational numbers. Perhaps the strongest pieces are those that refer directly to cosmology. Summernights, 1990, consists of a group of paper cones that recall dunce caps; a short, evocative text explains that these objects are “the shape of the night,” since the shadow of the earth, as it moves through the light of the sun, takes the shape of a cone. Pair, 2004–2005, consists of a left shoe reflected in a mirror mounted low upon the wall. In the mirror the missing right one appears, completing the pair. Such work suggests a fascination with philosophy, from Immanuel Kant’s reflections on chirality to David Lewis’s theory of possible worlds.

Among the most personal works in the exhibition was Sacred and Enchanted Places, 1972, a photograph of a bleak hill lined with massive stones, called the Strákastigur. Should three gray cows ever drink from its nearby waters at the same time, an old curse recounts, the stones would fall and crush the farm below. Gray cows are rare, and the likelihood that three of them should drink at the same time is vanishingly small. Yet local farmers avoid owning even one. It is not explained if this observance is motivated by the fear that the stones would fall, or rather—one imagines Friðfinnsson the skeptic laughing—by the fear that they wouldn’t.