View of “Ragna Róbertsdóttir,” 2021. Foreground: Untitled, 1987. Background: Lava Landscape, 2021.

View of “Ragna Róbertsdóttir,” 2021. Foreground: Untitled, 1987. Background: Lava Landscape, 2021.

Ragna Róbertsdóttir

Ragna Róbertsdóttir’s recent exhibition brought together four decades of work, with sculptures and site-specific installations placed inside and outside the confines of the gallery. The preceding generation’s Minimalism, Land art, and process art had revolutionized artistic production by the time Róbertsdóttir started working in the 1980s. The artist’s conceptual and formal frameworks may allude to these predecessors, but her training as a fiber artist, which informs her meticulous process of shaping her materials by hand, sets her work apart. Róbertsdóttir’s use of materials—such as volcanic stone, shells, and turf—sourced from her native Iceland further distinguishes her work by referencing an extraordinary terrain shaped by unique geological circumstances.

Untitled, 1981/2021, made of woven and wound linen threads, formed the chronological starting point of her exhibition. The wound threads are piled on top of one another to evoke a rooflike shape, while the woven textiles resemble miniature floor mats. Róbertsdóttir utilizes similar methods of binding or rolling to recall traditional modes of architecture in later pieces such as Untitled, 1991, consisting of five identical rolls of turf situated on the floor. The artist refers to such pieces as “cutouts” from nature. With materials recalling the traditional turf structures that housed rural Icelanders prior to urbanization and industrialization, as well as the peat moss that was a necessary source of heat on an island with limited raw materials, the piece evokes the painstaking labor of fashioning a living amid the most unforgiving conditions.

The exhibition also included several re-creations of works from the ongoing “Timescape” series, which Róbertsdóttir has been working on since 2005. Each Timescape is a rectangular metal plate, made of silver or bronze, that oxidizes and produces a visible document of its encounter with the elements. In addition to a single silver plate hanging inside the gallery, three bronze plates were temporarily embedded in the sidewalk outside, bringing to mind Carl Andre’s iconic floor installations. Rather than being chosen for their durability, as are the materials in many of Andre’s floor pieces, Róbertsdóttir’s metals are meant to document their process of deterioration. Iceland’s sea air, coupled with its geothermal activity, greatly accelerates metal corrosion, so the location of the work will determine how the metal’s surface will change over time.

Róbertsdóttir similarly incorporates chance and site specificity into the making of a number of works titled Lava Landscape, which she has been creating since 1996. These ephemeral wall installations are made of materials such as the black gravel the artist collects from the cooled molten rock of Iceland’s recently active volcanoes. For the approximately ten-foot-tall Lava Landscape, 2021, in this exhibition, the artist affixed the material in two rectangular configurations set at right angles in a corner of the gallery. Although Róbertsdóttir refers to this group of works as wall paintings, the spare color composition and graphic precision of the black gravel against the white wall are more akin to the effect of a graphite or charcoal rubbing on textured paper. By designating them paintings Róbertsdóttir might be attempting to distance the works from their parallels to Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, but again her references to Iceland’s distinctive terrain and its built environment distinguish her work. The wall installations are made through a process similar to that required for pebble dashing, an architectural feature encountered all over Iceland: The granules are first thrown against an adhesive-covered wall to form random arrangements, and the artist then adds to the composition by attaching more gravel by hand. The swirling patterns of lava seem to make a Minimalist intervention into the Romantic painting tradition, as if the dense mist in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1817, had enveloped and occluded the mountaintops as well as the vista.

The abstraction in Róbertsdóttir’s work aptly evokes the infinitude of the sublime. Her choice of materials, as well as her process of shaping them, whether by hand or by exposing them to the elements over time, points to the ways her fellow citizens have secured their survival by learning how to work in tandem with their island’s peculiar environmental conditions.