Reykjavík: Lars Lerin watercolors at Nordic House

About a week ago, on our third full day in Reykjavík, Erik and I went across the city to Nordic House for a watercolor exhibit. I didn’t know much about it, except that the artist was Swedish, this was the last day of the exhibit, and the website description had intrigued me. The museum is a little walk from the main drag, so when we got there and saw nobody outside and very few cars in the lot, I had a moment’s misgiving. But the entrance was clearly marked, and the door was open, so in we went.

Nordic House greenhouse and path on an overcast day

Nordic House greenhouse and path. The museum building is on the right.

{mouse over for description, click to enlarge. Please note that with the artworks, clicking will take you to the website from which I borrowed the image.}

Inside we found a tiny cafe/shop, some photographs and sculptures, a spacious library, and a printout indicating that the Lars Lerin paintings were downstairs. We didn’t see any stairs so we got into the elevator and pushed the button that did not say “1” (assuming, correctly, that “1” was where we were standing). When the doors opened at the bottom, we walked out into an institutional-looking hallway. On our left there was a doorway into a more brightly lit gallery, and just inside the doorway, a single desk with a sixtysomething woman behind it, knitting. We said hæ to her and she nodded, but as she didn’t seem to want a fee or tickets, we began to look at the paintings. As soon as I saw the first one I was glad we had come.

Lars Lerin, "Night." Watercolor of buildings on a snowy street with a red and black sky.

Lars Lerin, “Night.” via

The pieces were possibly the largest watercolors I’ve ever seen, about 3 feet by 5 feet, and the artist had used the misty, atmospheric qualities of the medium to create landscapes with a very contemporary, collaged feel; they were like digital art rendered in paint. Some of them subtly incorporated collaged elements, like handwriting or pieces of other material stuck onto the paper.

Lars Lerin painting, not sure of title. Night view of houses with pale handwriting across the bottom.

Lars Lerin painting with handwriting. I don’t know the title of this one but it’s via

Many others made me think of photography: uneven-“framed” edges, the landscape fading as if in an overexposed photo, images and marks layered as in multiple exposure.

Painting that looks a bit like an overexposed and multiple-exposed photo

Title unknown, but it comes via which I think is the official website. It’s in Swedish.

There were dozens of paintings in the two rooms of the gallery, all unframed, which gave the exhibition an intimate, living-room feel. We got quite close to many of them and inspected the textures. Many of them made me just gasp and sputter, speechless (or feeling that words were irrelevant). It was the art equivalent of wandering the Highlands: too much glory all at once, but who cares?

Painting of what looks like a gas station at night

I don’t know the title of this one either, but it’s the one from the Nordic House exhibition page, so it’s responsible for getting me to the museum in the first place.

Painting of a seashore with a smaller painting of a housesuperimposed onto the upper right.

Lars Lerin, “Shetland.” via, which says the painting is dated 87 and also 2004.

Trees against a reddish-orange sky

I don’t know the title. via

Street scene on a sunny day

A rare one that depicts a sunny day rather than a cloudy one! via

While most of the paintings were done on the same-sized large pieces of paper, there were some — I almost want to say “the ones I found most fascinating” except that I found them all simply stunning — which were made of many small paintings on largeish sheets of paper. They made me think of storyboards, or photo contact sheets. While each individual painting was wonderful, taken all together they made an incredible effect, like bits of the world lined up into a floating grid and then looked at through the wrong end of a telescope.

Large sheet covered with tiny paintings all in a grid

title not given. via

Several paintings on one big horizontal sheet

Lars Lerin, “Februaribrev från Reykjavik III,” 2002. via

I thought, while looking at these paintings, what I rarely do in museums or galleries: I wanted to own one of these pieces. I thought, “I could never get bored of looking at these.” And more to the point, I felt that every time I looked at the painting, I would learn something new about it and maybe even learn something new about the world, or how to see. It would always feel fresh.

Instead, when I got home, I did the only thing I could: I went online. Info about Lerin is strangely hard to find, though his goddaughter made a documentary about his search for love, and he has a page on the Swedish version of Wikipedia (use Google Translate). Never have I so wanted to know Swedish; Lerin is the author of a number of books, and it looks like most of them include autobiographical/descriptive text as well as his paintings.   There are so many limitations with graphic novels and with picture books; I’d love to see what a painter does with a words-and-pictures format. I’ve ordered one of his books from Sweden (hoping it will arrive before we leave Reykjavík!), even though I can’t read the content. You can also leaf virtually through two of his books with an online “preview” option: Mellan husen (Between the Houses) and En liten konstnär (A Small Artist — I think this one is memoir).