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Polar Flair

Sigrid Sandström brings arctic splendor to Inman Gallery

"Ginnungagap," the title of Sigrid Sandström's new show at Inman Gallery, looks like a colossal typo, but it's actually one of those polysyllabic Swedish words meaning "seeming emptiness," or so they say. If I'd taken Norse mythology, I would've already known that ginnungagap refers to "the primordial void separating Niflheim and Muspell, the land of eternal ice and snow and the land of eternal heat and flame." (Kind of like the climactic separation between Sweden and Houston.)

Ginnungagap is the place where the world began -- a stark, Norse version of Eden. It's appropriate that the Swedish Sandström titled her show after a spectacular piece of mythic geography. She's fascinated with constructing dramatic landscapes, and she paints them with abandon, often collaging in photographs and sections of vellum. The icy new paintings at Inman are some of the best yet by the former Core Fellow and Artadia grant recipient. While many of her earlier works were executed on panels of Masonite, this latest crop of paintings explores transparent new surfaces like Mylar and some super-thin Plexiglas-like stuff called polycarbonite. The effect on her work is amazing. Where the paint in some of Sandström's earlier images had a tendency to become dense and muddied, detracting from the theatrical grandeur it seemed to be shooting for, these new works have a cool, crystalline translucence.

Sandström's landscapes feature abstracted, flattened forms. Mountains and valleys are rendered in clean whites and frosty blues in shades of cobalt and ultramarine. They feel glacial and brittle, as if they were painted on a thin sheet of ice that could shatter at the slightest pressure. But the change in Sandström's work isn't entirely due to new materials; it's also in the way she's painting. Even in the few pieces where she's using gouache on white paper, her clear colors have the same purity and crispness as the works incorporating transparent surfaces.

Most of the scenes Sandström is exploring in her series are remarkably similar, although she paints them in various sizes and on different surfaces. You'd think they'd become repetitive, but they don't. Sandström's enthusiasm for her subject makes each work a fresh investigation. The paintings show especially well in Inman's pristine white space, with its frosty-looking white concrete floor that now feels like a snow cave.

Sandström made a 16-millimeter film by shooting some of her paintings. The series of still images become briefly animated as the film moves from one to another. The sound of the projector combined with the jerky, grainy polar images on the screen call to mind lost footage from some early-20th-century explorer.

Two DVDs shot by Sandström in the landscape near her family's cottage in northern Sweden also play with the "explorer" idea. She presents them in a separate gallery on two white flat-screen wall monitors. One monitor displays a snowy scene with melted patches revealing dark rocks and scrubby grass. Low mountains sit in the distance. A figure walks out from behind the camera and into the landscape with a crude flag on a stick, which she unsuccessfully tries to plant in the snow, undermining any allusions to a glorious conquest of nature. On the other screen, a figure skis in from the left into a similar frigid landscape. She plants a flag and skis out of the frame. The flag remains standing, blowing in the wind for several long minutes, until the figure reappears. She skis in from the left again and grabs the flag and skis off into the distance. The landscape remains as it was. It's a simple, witty little piece that pokes at the absurdity in "discovering" and "claiming" nature.

Sandström has an affinity for the natural world, but not in any National Geographic fashion. She isn't recording or documenting the earth's splendor. Sandström looks at landscape and explores the way people use it as a romantic and dramatic backdrop for their desires. In her paintings, nature becomes a manifestation of the fantastic and the glorious. And in her videos, it sits silent, unaware of -- or perhaps tolerant of -- our grand aspirations.

 
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