Introduction to Strange Familiar: The Work of Georg Guðni

Source: Strange Familiar: The Work of Georg Guðni

Image Georg Gudni.
© Perceval Press.

The long-promised book Strange Familiar: The Work of Georg Guðni (Perceval Press, April 2005) serves as an introduction for many to the innovative art of Georg Guðni. The author of one of the articles on Guðni's website says, 'Guðni works indirectly from Icelandic nature ...' His landscapes find their source not so much in nature as in memory, dreams and imagination, which allows him to find in a seemingly barren, rubble-strewn wasteland, a vision of color and form and light.

Guðni challenges the viewer: 'You don't stop at the varnish, the painting on the canvas. You go past the materials and into the painting itself.' Until we have the opportunity to take up that challenge, we can glimpse his talent in the paintings, drawings and photographs included in Strange Familiar, and we can briefly enter Guðni's world through the eyes and words of Viggo Mortensen.

Image Viggo Mortensen.
© Perceval Press.
Henry paused, quiet, then stepped a little closer. I followed my son, knowing there was nothing past the last layers of paint and canvas but a wall, yet I strained to see what might be out there, in there. Felt myself drawn into the image, layer by layer, reaching for its horizon, as the gallery space around us seemed to dissolve.

Vanish, as the one car we've seen in the past half hour just did in our rearview mirror on this long, fairly straight road headed east from Mývatn. Gone in the mist and idly drifting snow, swallowed by the charcoal horizon in a pale smear of late winter sun. One last, faint spark of brake lights as it rounds an isolated knoll. The ground on either side of us is black as far as the eye can see. We had been told that this is where Neil Armstrong and company trained for their trip to the moon. Makes sense - unwelcoming, rubble-strewn, volcanic terrain, the curve of the planet so obvious. The sky, bleak though the day is, at once immeasurable and complete. The car's thermometer reading of the outside air rises, surprisingly, from 0 to 2 degrees Celcius. We slow as a last ray of gold comes through the cloud cover, briefly glowing on a faraway ridge. We pull over and I hurriedly make a second-long exposure on the Leica, then we continue east toward night. The road starts snaking down into gullies, and the occasional snowflakes become stray raindrops that gradually join and grow into sheets of wind-blown drizzle. We, too, have disappeared.

"The innocent eye is a myth. All perceiv-
ing relates to expectations and therefore
to comparisons."

We looked as far as we could, not at anything in particular, but at a part of some world like ours. It was new to us, but utterly real and recognizable. The shrouded land, sea, sky, all slowly uncovered, patiently revealed. It has always been there, this horizon. We have always been there, staring into it, a part of it. I know this place. This is why we had come to Iceland - this was all the stories, this was and is all of the adventures we could have. A painting of everything and nothing.

We had been walking around in Reykjavik, hours after arriving, under-slept but curious to see something new. Headed down to Tjörn, the lake in the middle of town, we came round a corner, and there, suddenly was the gallery. 'Let's go in for a minute, OK?' Into the main room we went, and eventually up to the view of the steep valley. Perfect, green, unending, unfinished. This was one of many paintings by an artist named Georg Guðni. There were drawings, too, and watercolors: a retrospective of an artist who, though unknown to us, is, as we later learned, justifiably held in the highest regard in Iceland and Scandinavia. Maybe I had seen one of his paintings once somewhere. I clearly felt this was something I had experienced. Or maybe not. In one room a video was running in a loop, Georg talking about his work. I understood the odd word, felt I saw most of what he was saying with his hands.

Afterwards, on our way out, we saw him. That was somehow also unsurprising and natural. '... Yes, that is the same man, over there by the stairs.' He was speaking English with someone, an Englishman, showing the work up close, politely rephrasing a point, making himself clearly understood; maybe the other man was a critic, journalist, curator, something like that. We wandered around, and so did they. Eventually, the Englishman left. I told Henry that I felt like saying hello. We introduced ourselves, complimented Georg on his work. Although I'm not in the habit of approaching strangers like that - especially artists - I felt oddly comfortable and unobtrusive talking to him. He was very kind and patient as I groped for what I was compelled to ask, needed to say. He was somehow as familiar to me as his paintings were; I did not need to know why that was, I just felt at ease listening to him talk about art and nature in the most unpretentious way, as if we'd known each other a long time. His every word rang true, every idea felt as if it had been drawn from my own experience. He had brought the weather inside so gracefully that the change in the air almost went unnoticed. I would later come to eagerly anticipate and fully appreciate his carefully considered, occasionally lengthy responses, his vivid descriptions and recollection of even the tiniest detail.

There we all were then, in no hurry at all. 'Have you ever had a book published that showed some of these drawings and watercolors with the paintings?' 'No, not really.' 'I publish books. If you ever wanted to ...' Since then Henry and I have been to his house, where he took us down into his studio and began to show us notebooks full of his sketches and written observations, as well as old photographs and childhood paintings carefully taken out of boxes and off well-organized shelves. Later, at summer's end, we would return to start work on this book, and I'd spend days looking at everything while Henry slept or spent time playing with Georg's kids in the other room. What we first saw for ourselves outdoors in late winter, as we skirted the entire country by car, and again in late August, was exactly what he had described, precisely though not specifically what he'd painted. And now you can see it, too: the clouds, the rain, the mist, the moss, the mountains, the vast, the frozen, the blue, the green, sometimes the sun. Iceland, or another untamed place, and no place we can know - all in that room.

'No one has ever looked at all these notebooks before.'
'Never. Not all of them, every page, like this.'
'Do you mind?'
'Thank you.'

"You should get away from the intoxication
of real light and digest your impressions in
the reduced light of a room. Then you can
get drunk on sunshine again."


I could not keep up with all of it as I scribbled in pursuit of one beautiful, perfectly useful phrase after another. He made it seem unhurried, simple, but there was so much being said, shown, unraveled.

'I should have brought a tape recorder. I'm looking at the drawings and old paintings, photos, the books you have given me to see, but your comments ... there is so much you say that would help explain ...'
'We have one somewhere, with an old little tape in it ...'

The recorder did not work very well; it skipped along, sometimes stopped recording altogether. Much is lost, much is impossibly garbled and muffled. No perfect phrases, no long discourses. Hardly any of the hours of recording are intelligible. Perhaps those words were mostly meant to remain partial impressions more essential than fully recorded fact, pure living memory that must be revived and reworded rather than simply transcribed. Once in a while, though, loud and clear ...

'Simply looking, being there ... taking a step forward ... new tools. I did once take photos for that reason ... photos now are recordings for future reference. I have four cameras, and three of them are broken ... the door was open all the time to work in nature ... I don't know how it happens ... there is nothing like it in my family ... it was important for me, in the beginning, to name places. Not now. Now painting is more about time and about painting itself. Layer after layer, the painting tells you where to go. Each layer becomes the past.'
'Nothing is permanent. You can't finish, really.'
'No, you can't. You just have to jump in if you want to be an artist. There is no ...'
'... And this book should not be just a photo album, like many books are, but a book that builds itself ...'
'Sometimes I look through a big stack of photos. Not to paint from, just to look at, to get the mind traveling. See this one? ...I look at the photos and I go there, even if it is not what I am painting. Sometimes I take a photo and it looks like something I already painted.'

"Today our sight is a little weary, burdened
by the memory of a thousand images ...
we no longer see nature; we see pictures
over and over again"

'Maybe it was. From your imagination, you mean?'
'Yes ... supersedes the expected memory ...woman walks behind a house or a monument ... Have you ever seen a 3-D movie?'
'... You can try three or four years to make a certain painting, and each time the painting tells you to go somewhere else ... snowflakes catching light ...finally, you succeed ...'
'Was it waiting?'
'What are these dots, this grid of blue dots?'
'Raindrops seen from above. Raindrops could be strings coming down to earth, holding it together. ... things that are so simple, things that are so known that you think are impossible to use anymore, but you do it anyway ...'
'... And these mountains?'
'Not mountains.'
'That's her ... There. See?'
'Yes.' (laughter) "... The whole time she thought you were just drawing more mountains, mountains as usual, and you were drawing ...'
'That's a good trick.'

"My earliest memories are of wasteland and free-
dom, running around in the middle of nowhere,
the quietness. When you are working you have to
be out in all kinds of weather. It inspired me as
an artist, standing in the rain all day where
nothing was to be seen"

'... When I went to study in Holland in 1985, the man in the office there said: "Oh, this is the mountains painter.' It was ... See? ... The magazine printed it upside-down ... it is a valley, not a white mountain ... always mountains then, usually, but ...'
'A valley. Finally!'
'... Yes ...'
'... Ever hear about those two guys who went on jet skis from the Faroe Islands to Copenhagen?'
'... In the newspaper, yeah ...'
'Wives, or girlfriends maybe, they went and waited, as the men had asked them to, by the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor.'
'Hmmm ... yes ...'
'And one of the women had one kid. The men had said it would take so and so many hours to make the trip, fifteen hours or something, and these two women and the child waited there by the Little Mermaid, just staring out at the harbor. It rained a little, off and on. It took a lot longer than fifteen hours - more like two days. They looked unhappy, waiting for the men like that. Sometimes someone walked by and asked what they were doing, what they were looking for; they kept telling the story about the two men coming from the Faroe Islands ... maybe people didn't believe them. Finally they came, these two men, and the women said they would never allow them to do something like that again.'

"People should know perhaps that I don't
regard these canvases as 'paintings.' They
shouldn't be enclosed in frames - they are
just bits of a place I love and painted in
memory of a friend ..."


Henry patiently points out the occasional approaching vehicle, or features of the impressive glacial outwash plain that I may be missing as I concentrate on steering us safely in and out of patches of fog along the gently winding coastal road near Hof. We are headed west again, having driven more than half way around Iceland. More than five thousand square miles of Vatnajökull, Europe's largest ice cap, loom high above us to the north. I know we have just passed close to Ingólfshölði, the historic promontory where the country's first settler, Ingólfur Arnarson, wintered in 874. In this weather it can't be seen, but I have an idea of what the place looks like from the old stories, from photographs, and from Georg Guðni's art. With luck, we will be able to visit the place in another season and compare what we know with what we see.

Like others who have worked so diligently on this project, I am anxious now, as I write this introduction, to share with you the unique and adventurous work of Georg Guðni. In a time when his contemporaries have consciously followed the lead of newer abstract painters from North America and Europe, Guðni has uncompromisingly followed his scientific and artistic interests in setting out to explore perspective and the nature of light, to make new landfalls. This sometimes lonely but always determined effort to see for himself, to reimagine the confluence of earth and sky, air and water, light and dark, has allowed him to breathe new life into landscape painting. By combining ingrained memories from a childhood spent relentlessly traversing the physically challenging, often stark terrain of his native country in the footsteps of his geologist father, along with the fruits of continuously returning to the deceptively familiar landmarks of his own dreams, this painter has subtly married extremely refined technique with a particular personal vision of the world. He does this with the seeming effortlessness seen in the work of all great artists. His achievement grows in our consciousness, insisting that we see, daring us to push far beyond the paint, as he does. He has taken the work to a new level of unaffected elegance, and the purity and excellence of his art have transcended the genre of landscape painting by unmasking it.

Another winter will have passed by the time this book is finished. Georg will have been waiting, making his preparations for spring, ready to go out and see if his skies and wild places are still there, to see how they might meet and feed his imagination again. In the words of Knut Hamsun: 'Summer is the time for dreaming, and then you have to stop. But people go on dreaming all their lives, and cannot change.'
Last edited: 20 August 2005 18:32:29