Melbourne based artist Agneta Ekholm’s delicate yet robust abstract paintings reference the microcosmic worlds of leaves, sticks and other detritus that she witnessed as a child, captured in the thick ice of the Scandinavian winter. By working with extremely fine layers of paint built up gradually, Ekholm creates the effect of looking through some kind of prism, where light shifts and is refracted. One gets the sense of a solid yet transparent object, and through her skillful layering she leads you through this object, into the dense yet simultaneously open space inside the picture plane.
Relocating from Finland to Australia in 1994, Ekholm completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Melbourne’s RMIT University. It was here that despite heavy emphasis on more conceptually driven forms of installation based art, Ekholm maintained her passion for painting. Originally working in a figurative style, she soon felt constrained by this representational mode of image-making. The evolution of her abstract
visual language arose from a compulsion to paint that which defies expression in recognizable form. Ekholm became captivated by abstraction’s ability to speak to the part of us that other, more literal modes of art cannot so easily reach.
Yet the abstract imagery that Ekholm creates does take its cue from the natural world. While as a child she was fascinated by the objects encased in frozen prisons of her native Finland, now in Australia she takes inspiration constantly from nature. Take any object and magnify it and what was once recognizable becomes pure shape and form – parts of a whole yet in possession of its own aesthetic attributes and functionality. Her paintings are reminiscent of nature’s controlled chaos in the soft, organically shaped veils of paint that interlock and overlap seemingly at random. Ekholm’s compositions generally contain fields of solid colour that encase the diaphanous layers within. It is as though a small world sits in the centre of each painting, rich with shifting possibilities, while around it lies concrete solidity. One’s eye may orbit around this mini universe, before being led inside of it.
The reference Ekholm makes to the ice and snow of memory becomes all the more poignant given current concerns regarding disappearing ice from both North and South poles as a byproduct of global warming. Within this context the fragility imparted by Ekholm’s ephemeral paintwork can be read as reflecting an illusionary permanence, which up until relatively recently seems to sum-up general attitudes toward the health of the planet, and the ice-caps in particular. This tacit message is conveyed particularly in Darkness Illuminated (2008), where the palette of white, cobalt blue and deep indigo/black immediately evokes the ocean and ice, as does the application of crushed glass to the surface of the canvas. In this work and in others, capturing the beauty and essential vulnerability found in nature acts as a silent plea for protection.
Ekholm has developed an effective technique of limiting each painting to three or four colours, with one covering the majority of space in the picture-plane, and the others in smaller contrasting sections. Due to its transparency white is usually placed over darker colours, with each layer effecting the shade of that beneath it. Often the centre of the work contains a bolt of strong colour alongside a heavier form in black which lends weight to the image. This can be seen in Sub-Aqua (2008), where through white veils of paint two black shapes can be discerned, while a smaller one in aqua green lifts the monochromatic scheme.
The artist’s work juxtaposes in various combinations green, red, burgundy, orange, blue, black and white. Instead of mixing paints to create gradation of tone, she allows tonal shifts to occur through the process of layering. Thus colours remain un-muddied and harmonise with the work’s characteristic clean lines. From the Imminence Series (2009) aptly displays the range of tonal variation that can be created through this technique, as the painting moves through various shades of red through to orange and white depending on the number of layers employed. It imparts a richness and structure to the work that marries shape, tone, line and composition, resulting in an image reminiscent of a human torso in profile, from the slope of the back down to the gentle curve of the buttocks.
Yet this stylistic trait of layering which defines Ekholm’s practice can be read in more than purely aesthetic terms. It also transmits one of the key messages of Ekholm’s work – the idea of submergence. What is the artist burying here beneath these fragile shrouds of paint? Their diaphanous appearance leads to the impression that, like sheets of fabric, a wind could blow through and expose the secret they so tenuously hide. This airiness, the variable sense of space that seems to exist between each layer simultaneously conveys both concealment and exposure. Ekholm manipulates the tension between these diametrically opposed states, as though searching for a point of balance. Indeed, part of the success of these paintings lie in their subtle game of hide and seek, challenging the viewer to dive in and find whatever truth may lie at their core.
The creation of Ekholm’s distinctive imagery requires different tools to those one might imagine. She has developed a technique of paint application where in place of traditional paint-brushes, sponges are used to spread the paint over the canvas. The edge of the sponge creates the perfect, sharp lines that define each interlocking layer, and the sponge is also responsible for the smooth and even paint surface – both key facets of the work. She describes the process as one of addition and subtraction. The artist will apply a section of paint, and then sometimes remove or burnish away certain areas also with a sponge, to create varying levels of paint density. This unusual painting technique does not require masking tape which many hard-edge abstractionists use to create their clearly defined edges, rather it relies on surety of touch. The use of the more easily manoeuvred hand held sponge is perhaps responsible for the variety of organically curved forms which exist in Ekholm’s work.
The resulting forms are not the product of preparatory sketches, with Ekholm’s mark-making process being guided more by intuition and emotion than any preconceived plan. The artist feels her way through to the final image, to the point where all elements become interwoven harmoniously. In this way her work continues in the tradition of Helen Frankenthaler, an abstract colour-field painter of 1960s American modernist movement. Frankenthaler allowed her paintings to develop in an organic, essentially unstructured manner. While Ekholm’s work varies markedly from Frankenthaler’s in its aesthetic attributes she cites Frankenthaler as an influence, more so for the earlier artist’s approach to painting which is so akin to her own. Another similarity exists in the use of unprimed, raw canvas, as both artists allow sections to peek through between areas of paint, serving as a conscious reminder of the materiality of the process.
Ekholm says that in many ways her paintings are like self-portraits. While this statement might seem obtuse it does echo the investment of feeling and intuition – sensation both visual and emotional that the artist has made in these most recent paintings. And as her work develops so too does the complexity and dynamism of the images that appear on the canvas. Verging on recognition some appear like human limbs, others like seed pods, yet all retain their ambiguity and seem to emerge of their own accord, channeled through the artist’s hand to speak to us quietly about things of nature, and the nature of things.
Marguerite Brown is a Melbourne (Australia) based arts writer currently completing a Master of Arts Curatorship at the University of Melbourne.
Art house Gallery, Christchurch, New Zealand
Nordic House, Reykjavik, Iceland
Recent Work, Koru Gallery, Hong Kong
Trace, Gallery 101, Melbourne
Australian Contemporary Art 2009, Represented by Koru Gallery, The Rotunda Exchange Square, Central Hong Kong
Prometheus Visual Arts Award, Gold Coast
Lake Eyre Vineyards Art Prize, Rex -Livingston Art Dealer, Sydney
DLAP 2009, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, Melbourne
Calleen Art Award, Cowra Regional Art Gallery, Cowra
Autumn Collection, James Makin Gallery, Melbourne
Fine Art Asia 2010, Hong Kong International Art and Antiques Fair, Represented by Koru Galler
Agneta is represented by Flinders Lane Gallery in Melbourne.