A watery place_67x76cmA watery place_II_24x22cmAt dawn_76x101cmDusk_21.5x24cmJumieges_34x38cmPinetrees_18.5x16.5cmThe two trees_42x34cmWoodland_20.5x17

by Sarah Beddington

Katarina Axelsson's work is deceptive. While at first glance her paintings and drawings may appear to carry on from a 19th century plein air tradition of landscape painting, they go far beyond any simple desire to reproduce nature and are rooted rather in something performative and shamanistic. The paintings that result from a period of frenetic activity, and total submersion in the subject matter that inspires them, can be seen not as mere representations of the view seen at a distance but rather as the residue of a solitary outdoor performance in which the artist gives herself over to the process of finding the voice within her chosen landscape. The light-filled paintings that result from these sessions reveal something of the movements that created them. The images generally show a forested, watery, uninhabited world whose actual dampness is translated by Axelsson into marks that appear immediate and quickly made but are often the result of the build up of complex skeins of paint. Although man-made structures are occasionally visible, they seem to be possibly abandoned and therefore abject emblems of a human existence that is never glimpsed.

The subject matter of trees and forests takes on particular significance when viewed from the perspective of Axelsson's Swedish background. In Norse mythology the dark forest can represent many things from birth and renewal to fear and death as well as sometimes forming a transitional boundary between this world and another. A parallel could be made here between Axelsson's approach to landscape and that of her compatriot the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. They both treat nature as a place of reflection and isolation and share a sensitivity to light and darkness that can be strange to more southern eyes. In a land where most of the winter is spent in perpetual darkness and the summers in infinite light, extremes are possible. Both artists have a particular understanding of the effects of light - for example, a glittering passage of water or a hidden pool is surrounded by impenetrable forest that may harbour an unknown, subconscious reality. Against such a landscape fragmentary, narrative moments seem possible only as remembered traces; brief episodes that will be quickly re-absorbed into the darkness or erased by a blinding light as in an over-exposed photograph.

Axelsson's paintings have no western single point perspective but offer only a section of a world that extends beyond the edges of the physical support on which her marks are made. Streams lead off to one side; our eye is taken to the brightest part of the painting which may be pushed uncomfortably to an edge while trees are cropped top and bottom. All of these compositions make us aware of a continuation beyond the support and serve to position us within the landscape being viewed.

When Axelsson's images are drained of colour their sense of absence is perhaps most strongly felt. Memory and a suggestion of distant photographs become entwined with the vitality of the lived moment of place and space involved in their creation. And yet when she chooses to use colour it is frequently a green of such vibrant intensity whose saturation evokes an emotional response to the invisible rather than an observed one to what can already be seen. Axelsson's continuing quest to convey something of the reality she experiences when in the landscape has led her to search for materials with particular qualities, many not traditionally associated with painting, such as furniture restorers' wood stains or clothing dyes. The images of trees and woods are painted on wooden panels or pieces of thin plywood, thus the subject is re-presented on slices of itself. Conventional painting tools are often abandoned in favour of those to be found to hand in the nature that surrounds her - twigs, leaves, her body. Amidst the ensuing dripped, dribbled and scratched archaeology of marks made, erased and then reclaimed, we can almost smell a steaming earth; a subterranean dank and primal nature in which our unconscious fears and desires have room to surface. Embedded within this pantheistic language of calligraphic marks there is a sense of the finite and the infinite, an 'otherness' which acts as a mirror to our own condition.

Sarah Beddington, May 2011