I discovered the work of Karin Mamma Andersson as an undergraduate while scanning art magazines in the library. Her depictions of interior spaces seen from slightly skewed perspectives, some including figures engaged in domestic activities, caught my eye. There was nothing loud or overtly shocking about the paintings but the longer I looked, the stranger they became, as though something menacing was lurking beneath the surface. And the paint itself, so confidently maneuvered, described the disparate objects and surfaces with acute specificity. Her interior rooms housed planes of landscapes that destabilized any rational delineation of space. The planes, which could be interpreted as backdrops or murals for a stage-set, seemed to allude to an alternative space which has no boundaries, or as Christian Hawkey describes it in an interview with Andersson for Bomb, “a between-space, a space between here and there…”(1) Any desire to apply logic to the image was eclipsed by the possibilities that arose if you didn’t.
I bought my first Mamma Andersson book, Dog Days, several years later, during a residency in Leipzig. I had just been to Documenta in Kassel where I saw an exhibition displaying a selection of Charlotte Salomon’s gouache paintings from a work entitled Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?) After Kristallnacht, Salomon was forced to leave her home in Germany. She moved to her grandparents’ house in France where she spent one year creating a song-play composed of 800 gouache paintings integrated with text and musical cues that documented her personal story set in the midst of the rise of Nazism and a history of family suicide.(2) Salomon’s experience as a young Jewish woman growing up in Berlin during the Holocaust closely mirrors that of my grandmother’s, so when I walked through the exhibition, I carried those heavy stories with me and immediately felt that same eerie sense of familiarity that struck me so poignantly in Andersson’s paintings, a familiarity that breeds a sense of uncanny nostalgia for a memory you’ll never know or a place you’ve never been. I wondered if Andersson had ever seen Salomon’s work.
When I got back to Leipzig, Dog Days in hand, I spent hours analyzing Andersson’s works: evocative landscapes, interiors melding into exteriors, still lifes which were clearly alive. The interiors felt like stage sets in the way that Salomon’s song-play was intended, and as I flipped through Andersson’s book I thought about life and theater and how we’re constantly shifting between the two. Her paintings piqued my curiosity, not just in terms of content but also materiality and technique. Mamma Andersson uses paint like language, each passage sounds different from the next. I could hear her brilliant stories, but I had to lean in close; her paint never screams. There are sharp edges tempered by watery spills of color and deliberate, thick textures couching areas of thin washes, seductively veiling the naked panel underneath. At times, the grain of the panel is exposed to describe a very specific surface. There is something that seems so personal about the way she uses materials to make a painting; the techniques she employs come together harmoniously in service of the narrative.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I first stood in front of a Mamma Andersson painting at her show Behind the Curtain at David Zwirner, which included works inspired by toys and interiors constructed for “theatrical and domestic fictions.”(3) This body of work did not have the same immediate impact on me in terms of content or emotional resonance, but standing in front of the paint was a transportive experience and as I imagined her process, the stories opened up and I saw the work on a different level. I had seen and studied many of Andersson’s works in reproduction and while her muted color palette and references to period interiors sometimes cast a vintage-like shadow over her surfaces, an effect that I might normally find gratuitous or off-putting, her strange way of telling a story with no resolution or creating an in-between space transported me to a timeless realm where I was free to imagine with reckless abandon. In an interview for Bomb, Andersson writes to Christian Hawkey, “We were all once children who loved to delve into our other ego, where anarchy and limitlessness reigns. There we felt alive and creative. We long to find this aspect again in our adult lives—the place where we forget everything around us and just exist.”(1)
I don’t know that I have one favorite painting in Behind the Curtain, but I’m still thinking about Burden. Initially, I saw a child’s room with crooked paintings that seemed a bit off kilter. It took me a while to understand where I was standing in relation to the space, and then I quickly realized that this room wasn’t built with people in mind. As I looked closer I felt more and more shaken. The rust-colored stain lining every object in the space became blood. Suddenly, the paintings on the wall were crooked because something horrific had happened, but nobody had been there to discover what. Then I looked at the other paintings around me and I realized that it was a dollhouse with tiny furniture. But actually, no, it was a painting, so it could be all of that, or none of it at all.
As I stared at the paint, I pretended to be Mamma Andersson – I felt this weird sensation, as though I were making the painting myself– I felt calm, fearless, raging with confidence and searching for nothing beyond the mark itself. If I wanted something to hurt, I chose the bloodiest red and spilled it onto the surface, sadistically watching it stain and drip down the panel. If I wanted something to glow, I inquisitively scrubbed the paint until I found something mysterious underneath, and if I exposed too much I simply buried it again with more paint. As I made the painting, the story unfolded and it was done before I knew the ending. I never knew the ending. I don’t know if Mamma Andersson would resonate with my reenactment, but the fact that I could play out such a specific situation in my head simply by looking at the paint was enough for me to justify my curiosity and admiration for her work.
I remember walking through Charlotte Salomon’s show at Documenta, hearing my grandmother’s voice narrating Salomon’s violently tragic world, shifting from a high-pitched manic tone to a quiet, breathy whisper. Her compositions read like poetry – I didn’t necessarily understand exactly what was happening but I felt it. And, years later, as I walked through Mamma Andersson’s show at Zwirner, I felt that same transportive sensation, a visceral response. The oddly familiar, ambiguous scenes spawn an unsettling feeling, that in their seemingly banal spaces something extraordinary can happen, and I will never know exactly what it is but I will also never unfeel it.
1. Hawkey, Christian, Mamma Andersson, translate by Laura A. Wideburg, and Anna Petterson. “Mamma Andersson.” Bomb 100 Summer 2007. Web. <http://bombmagazine.org/article/2905/mamma-andersson>.
2. “Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?” The Jewish Museum. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/charlotte-salomon-life-or-theatre>.
3. “Behind the Curtain » David Zwirner.” Behind the Curtain » David Zwirner. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.davidzwirner.com/exhibition/mamma-andersson/?view=press-release>.