Huddled Around the Fire

An exhibition by a group of young, international painters in the small city of Växjö engages with the bucolic setting of the Swedish countryside, fir tree, sauna and all.

Kate Moss, Window Drawing, 2018.

Summer in Sikås brings to the small city of Växjö in southern Sweden recent work by four artists from three continents. Aaron Carter, Kate Moss, Sophy Naess and Sophie Reinhold met in 2015 during a summer symposium at Sikås Art Center, a non-profit exhibition space and international residency program run by Moss together with artist and curator Magni Borgehed at their rural home in northern Jämtland. Details about the symposium are elided in the exhibition, which instead emphasizes a shared interest in formal and material experimentation. But the sense of a provisional community of visual artists engaged in collective exploration and mutual exchange is palpable nonetheless. Moss’s verse, used here as a gallery text, sums it up in a few lines: “huddled around the fire / moose grass banquet / night light stroll / sauna sauna sauna.”

Among the works on view, the most place-bound is a crude series of wooden sculptures by Melbourne-based painter Aaron Carter. Hewn from a fir tree felled on the art center’s grounds, they are indexed to the landscape, mostly in the form of muddy surfaces and stains made from blueberry juice. With titles such as Bread (2017), Mud Paddle (2017) and Reed Cutter (2017), they also ironize art’s utility, playing on the desires for autonomy that are commonly at the root of self-organized art centers like Sikås. Reinhold, who is based in Berlin, presents an untitled trio of monochrome Acrystal friezes that, in light of her recent work, are surprisingly remote. While Moss’s Window Drawings (2018) in oil paint evince an interest in the gestural and the decorative.

Sophy Naess, Jämtland’s Giverny, 2018

Apart from Carter’s sculptures, Jämtland’s Giverny (2018), a 5×3 meter handwoven tapestry of dyed cotton, silk and wool by New York-based artist Sophy Naess, is among the few works that reflects critically on Sikås Art Center itself. Naess’s shrewd coupling of Jämtland and the village of Giverny, where Claude Monet made his home, brings to view a host of complex dynamics between rural and urban, center and periphery, provincial and cosmopolitain, that are lacking elsewhere in the exhibition.

With saturated patches of bright color punctuating broad, variegated fields of green, Naess’s work visually recalls the abstract canvases of Joan Mitchell — an expatriate American who spent much of her career living in Vetheuil, just a few kilometers from the impressionist’s estate — as much as it does Monet’s idyllic landscapes. But the work’s conceptual pattern and critical stance stem less from stylistic affinities than from the values that Monet’s gardens represent. Modelled after views he found in his collection of Japanese prints, these constructed landscapes figure in his paintings from over three decades. Today, Giverny is itself a popular tourist destination, drawing nearly half a million visitors annually.

Aaron Carter, Sketch book drawings, 2017.

As critic Raymond Williams cautions in his book The Country and the City (1973), the bucolic perspective is “that of the scientist and the tourist rather than the working countryman [sic].” Put differently, idealized views of the countryside as authentic, scenic and leisurely — i.e. what remains of a bygone age —are interwoven with the aims and interests of capital. In this sense, by privileging formal and material experimentation, Summer in Sikås risks mystifying the art center’s place in today’s rural economy, itself traversed by a number of international interests. Exactly what might’ve prompted the artists’ explorations into modernist aesthetics one can only guess. But Naess’s work reminds viewers of the crucial role that independent art initiatives such as Sikås Art Center might play in supporting critical perspectives on the bucolic, the political consequences of which reach well beyond gardens, forests and farmlands. Beyond the art context, too.

Installation view from Summer in Sikås at Växjö konsthall.