On a beautiful summer afternoon we drove to Eyrarbakki for a short visit to painter/artist, Hallur Karl. We came to Litla-Háeyri, an old two-story house in which Hallur lives and works. He was welcoming and offered us coffee and chocolate biscuits, which we gladly accepted. Our visit was both enjoyable and educational; Hallur Karl is well read and didn’t hesitate to bring up many interesting subjects, whether it is his art, his life or various other thoughts.
Why did you choose to live and work at Eyrarbakki? Many would think that the only way to be successful is to live in the capital and know people that have influence in the art world.
This is not the first time I have a studio here. This place somehow works for me. There is no distraction and I have peace here when I want it. After getting back into painting about a year ago I was working in a garage in my hometown. Eyrarbakki had been on my radar for a while and when I was told about this place, that it was vacant, I took it.
I’m not into Reykjavik, the capital, that much. I use it when I need to be more social and I go there for materials. It’s where the galleries are. To me it is a very distracting place and I wouldn’t be able to work there. Getting 10 hours of silence for painting would be impossible for me. I know how easily I get distracted from my work and tempted by social urges and life in general. It’s too easy to pull me out of my studio. I really like the city but it would overwhelm me and it would impact my productivity in a negative way but I admit there’s a noisy voice inside me telling me to try living there but right now, I’m happy where I am.
“I approach the idea of success in an old-school kind of fashion”
I approach the idea of success in an old-school kind of fashion. I focus on the quality of my work and on the concepts I am working on. I feel quite successful, personally, when it comes to creating what I have in mind. Thus I’m confident when it comes to my art. I don’t spend time on regret in my decisions within the older paintings, but I try to learn from them. The time I have here, outside of Reykjavik, allows me to make sure everything is the way I like it. I believe in foundation-building, growing into success, not getting it on a plate. I don’t want to be a one-hitter. I want to be a good, consistent, effective painter.
Tell us about this old, charming and colourful house you live in.
The house is built in 1932 by very high standards. It’s almost vulgar how lavishly it is built for the time, in comparison to what was the standard here at the time. The blueprint is similar to what you would see in rich neighbourhoods in Reykjavik of that period. The house is grandiose. The concrete walls are unnecessarily thick, therefore needlessly expensive. The garden has a concrete wall around it, and ten large cartwheels used to decorate the road side. Those are gone now. Everything from the doors to the windows is beautifully crafted from good wood, the place feels almost baroque.
But it didn’t get the care it needed in the later years of last century and earthquakes have taken their toll on the concrete. It really needs a paint job. The windows are foggy from saltwater and the wood is quite rotten. So it has this abandoned castle feel to it. I am quite nostalgic here. It constantly reminds me of my good years in France, where I lived in some very old houses that had this ancient glory feel to them.
You decided to go to France and study fine arts. How was that experience and do you think the French people approach art differently than we do?
I went to France by coincidence after dropping out of school. I had been doing various jobs, something I am glad I did, like carpentry, the roadwork’s, soil conservation in the highlands. A lot of that sticks with me now. I really like manual labour, I’m good at it. It really helps in certain aspects of making artwork. But anyway, I met some people that invited me to live cheaply in France for half a year and they helped me contact the local art school. The school was enthusiastic about receiving an exotic student and the whole thing went really well. I stuck to France for five years. I did three years in art school and I travelled a lot. I enjoyed life very much then. It is like a dream to me now. After receiving the diploma I moved back home and started painting professionally.
“everybody could suddenly go online. Nobody wanted to paint”
The French were very negative when it came to painting in those years. It’s different now, naturally, after Saatchi’s Triumph of Painting exhibitions, the Belgian movement with Tuymans and many other very strong (and expensive) movements of painters. But at the time we were being taught by teachers who were disappointed in painting and had a very restrictive attitude towards it. They claimed there to be rules by which one should approach the medium that seriously reduced the possibilities it offers. This meant that out of some two hundred students, less than ten of us were painting seriously. Many of the students were enthusiastic about the possibilities of new mediums like everything digital, video, mixed installations and so forth. They had Macintosh Classic computers when I arrived there in 2000. The next year they had state of the art computers (in colour!) and everybody could suddenly go online. Nobody wanted to paint.
The French have a stronger social sense than Icelanders. They are very aware of which social group they belong to, and a lot less apologetic about it than we are. It is almost ubiquitous in their art. This may be the reason why they have more problems with painting than some other countries in Europe – they often see it as a very bourgeois activity. The galleries, the money, the status symbols. It can interfere with their reading of painted art. So when the art schools are more or less filled with working class kids it is only natural that they frown upon those who would do art that is traditionally sold. Money was a big taboo subject when I was there. One fellow student comes to mind – he fled the prestigious art school of Sorbonne in Paris because his canvases were repeatedly slashed by other students that disagreed with his practice. He was sick of discovering them ruined when he came to his studio. This is how serious they were, and probably still are.
You are and abstract painter but you also do landscape paintings.
Do you work from life, photographs or from imagination?
It is all about oil paint to me, whether it suits my needs to draw from photographs or to do more gestural work, for example. I work in series. I create simple systems that force me to make several works around the same method or subject matter. This means that once I have that, I don’t depend on inspiration at all. I don’t think there is such a thing in my list of requirements for creating art. I need time and materials. I need to think. Inspiration can even be a distraction from a better focus point. I feel inspired by stuff that has nothing to do with making paintings. Birds for instance inspire me. Music inspires me. But these things don’t inspire me to paint, necessarily, but rather to feel alive and well. Feeling well does make it easier to paint, contrary to popular belief. The same can be said about any work.
I think that recently, religion and lack thereof has been a factor in my work. I work less from landscape tradition than I used to. My recent work is more introspective, even therapeutic, sometimes. Landscape was very prevalent in my work for a long time but I don’t think I need that now. I’m disappointed and disgusted in the current treatment of land. I’ve tried to make that seen in my work without being kitsch and without telling stories. I think a lot of people neglect that aspect of my work and prefer to see them as objects of beautiful colour in which you can play the cloud game, spotting things, for amusement. I’m tired of the pareidolic approach to abstract art that seems to be so prevalent in people here. I’ll always paint from landscape in some fashion, though. It is beyond me not to, at least for now.
I think the most common thread in my work is the space of colour as a subject matter. Like trying to paint the dimension of pigmented oil. It’s probably there, my inspiration, if anywhere – my obsession to stick to oils on canvas even if I don’t always enjoy it. The pigments in the oils come from all over the world. Blacks can be made from coal, bone or metal. I truly see the origins of pigments as very fundamental facts. The Italian earths, the cadmiums, the more recent tints made from inert pigments in vegetal colour baths. I love how oils can only be made from physical reality, unlike digital mediums. Therefore, painting is like touching the universe.
Where do you feel your going with your art? For example your latest work, they expose a lot of energy and strong colours.
My most recent work is developed from a series of drawings I made ten years ago in art school. I was fascinated with the idea of paper as the theatre of drawing. I would draw a simple room in perspective, using only square format heavy paper. Once done, everything was permitted inside that room. You could draw anything. We called it the Drawing Room. It was extremely liberating for me to draw in this fashion. What I am doing now is the same thing, but in oils, using 60 x 60 cm format, and a 2,5 cm thick frame within that format of 40 x 40 cm. Beyond this simple recipe everything is permitted. The pictures are very dissimilar except for the clean square frame in the middle of the canvas. It binds them all together. I experiment a lot with colour in these paintings. They are very playful.
The ones that contain landscape have a strong political feel to them, the strictness of the square is so fascist when combined with, say, a mountain. In those, I paint the square in cadmium red, which is basically rusted metal. To mix traditional landscape with a square of red metal creates a grinding sensation in me that I like. Right now I want to make hundreds of them.
This experiment will eventually reveal something – it may become a thing where the sum will be greater than it’s parts, if it works. I’m often asked about the “energy” in my paintings. I think this apparently common feeling that people get when they look at them might have to do with my use of pure pigments. I like cadmiums when they are clean. They vibrate so strongly. I like clean blacks. I like to juxtapose clean pigments. To blend them serves a purpose, like making illusions of depth or making complimentary colours. So I don’t always feel I need to blend them at all. I also like to stir and smear colours on top of each other once they’re on the canvas. This can make them look torn, sometimes. I guess you could say it has a violent feel to it when you look at it from a figurative standpoint but what I’m really doing is very similar to moving sand on a beach, or playing with mud. I enjoy watching natural movement in the colour. The results may seem violent or energetic sometimes but they really happen quite slowly and peacefully.
Which is more important to you, the subject of your painting or the way it is executed?
Since I work so much from the standpoint of the materials I’d say the two (subject matter and execution) are both sides of the same coin. They are completely annexed in the ones where I’m not trying to create illusions of landscape or objects with paint. The paints are the medium through which a subject emerges. I’ve experimented with this by painting from reference, searching for colours in natural palettes easily recognizable as Icelandic, or in palettes that are more introvert, personal, and less referential to the outside world. These are often quite fun since there will always be an accidental reference in them that I did not intend for.
In the figurative ones, which I prefer to call illustrative or illusional (since the abstract ones are more honest about what they are made of and therefore closer to reality somehow, thus more figurative) this is a different practice altogether. It is less about invention and more about discipline. They have a lot more to do with the history of painting and because of that the methods are obviously more traditional.
After this uplighting and meaningful conversation we went our separate ways. We were full of positive thoughts after the visit because Hallur is such efficient and talented painter with a good and enjoyable views. We are most certain that this productive/active painter will be successful in the upcoming future and we wish him all the best!
Interview & Photographs: Þórfríður Soffía Haraldsdóttir