The Neighbor's Flock of Gotland Sheep
(Translated by Peter Miller)
A mixture of ungainliness and grace. Heavy, longhaired volumes carried by slender columns. Textiled sculptures in the green cube, easily startled. Appealing black legs support copious creations of wool as they show off on the undulating catwalk.
With the aid of EU funding they appear in our surroundings, keeping the landscape open and free from underbrush. They are thought to originate in the wilderness or ancient pastoral cultures in rugged mountains far from the metropolis. Domesticated sheep are one of the earliest kinds of farm animal and go back 9,000 to 11,000 years.
Every day Martha Nilsson Edelheit sees the neighbor's flock of Gotland sheep from her studio window. The atelier is an old reconstructed outbuilding on the land of the country house on Lake Mälaren in Svartsjölandet, some distance from Stockholm, where she moved in the mid-90s. When she tried sketching the sheep from life in the sloping fields, these usually curious animals disappeared quickly from her view. Vain humans are more comfortable candidates for portrait sitting. Photography became therefore an aid and supplement for making face-to-face studies of the lambs, ewes and rams, before painting or sculpting them. Studies of the animal's movements, body language, and spatial relationships, are rendered first in many hastily jotted down sketches.
In every eye there is a gleam of white, a light, a focused attention that speaks to us from an inner consciousness. These sheep, with their particular expressions, step forth and look at us from their individual souls. The grey, black, black and white, chocolate colored, beige, and white animals are portrayed full length or in three-dimensional portraits, extremely close to their way out of the frame and into the observers room. Despite the fact that the sheep in A Philosophic Group Portrait, from 1998, are lined up, like in a school photo, they also move sideways into each other, and at the same time are pushing forward to make contact with the public.
In the '60s Martha Nilsson Edelheit made provocative watercolors with erotic motifs. Paintings and sculptures using string with long pieces hanging down like flowing tears showed acting out, unfortunate and aggressive people in the late '80s and beginning of the '90s, when she still lived in New York. Faces of great sorrow and rage. With a changed environment, the new life situation led to working in a different direction. Depictions of animals began to dominate her agenda. In sheep portraits from the middle of the 90's there is a distanced, melancholic quality, despite the fact that their faces are close to the viewer. These animals have preserved their outward aspect but they express human emotions, without being fable-like. The images call into question the existential uniqueness of homo sapiens. Sheep, according to the Chinese, are the emblem of a withdrawn long-lived life, far from the world's clamour. They can also be a symbol for submission to a leader, and for meekness, innocence and purity. Jesus is the good shepherd and, at the same time, paradoxically, God's lamb, martyred on the cross.
The painted sheep graze free from care in the middle of the circle. In contrast: like abstractions, dreams and counting-sheep-to-fall-asleep ghosts, the animals sculptured in steel wire steadily progress around the rim of Walking Around the Edges of the Night from 2005. The sheep go forth like lawn mowers, from one well-trimmed meadow to the next, surrounding Martha Nilsson Edelheit's workplace. They eat and ruminate grass, herbs, hay and fresh leaves from bushes and trees, then sleep for short periods in between. Sheep is both singular and plural in English. They are individuals, but at the same time, a group. The animals in the herd flock together, turn to each other, each leaning against the others coat. You can see this in one of the works of Rosa Bonheur, the great animal painter from the second half of the 19th century, where there are two reclining sheep, with the head of one lying over the neck of the other.
Expressionist color appears in the latest big sheep paintings, with day and night scenes, and denotes a change. The sheep willingly forage during the night so that they can rest during the hottest hours of the day. The paintings shock, with their gaudy contrasts of yellow, gold, red, lilac, green, blue, black, white and silver. Blue and red sheep graze in the enclosed pasture and Der Blaue Reiter and Franz Marc's inspired horses are nearby. The paintings are made on pages of newspaper, acrylic glue and chicken wire; materials that remind one of the way humans imprint and enclose animals. The hexagonal structure of this wire is, in addition, marked in ink. This foundation for the paintings is less refined than the usual painting base of canvas and makes one think of the rawness of the materials found in the physical world. If screaming took its form in human faces in the earlier paintings from the '90s, here sorrowfulness has been encapsulated with Nordic nature as a colorful timbre. In Eating Green Leaves, 1, from 2007, the claustrophobic ewe must make a powerful, swanlike, backward thrust of her neck so she doesn't push her head right through the edge of the painting. The honest savior is, absurdly, locked in. Left completely free, she would be an easy prey for the wolf.
Christian Chambert lives in Uppsala and is a freelance art critic, president of the Swedish Art Critics Association and formerly a vice-president of the International Art Critics Association (AICA). Both in Sweden, and internationally, he has coordinated, moderated and taken part in panel discussions. He has contributed articles to Hjärnstorm, NU: The Nordic Art Review, Paletten, and Uppsala Nye Tidning. Among his many publications he was editor of Strategies for Survival--Now!, 1995.
Translation by Peter Miller, Språkverket Language Services
Martha Nilsson Edelheit in Sweden
Andrew D. Hottle
For more than fifteen years, Martha Nilsson Edelheit has drawn inspiration from the Swedish countryside. Among her works are diverse portraits, varied scenes of daily life, and a few renderings of cloud formations. Nevertheless, the viewer who expects to see a persons likeness, a glimpse of rural customs, or a meteorological phenomenon will quickly realize that they cannot be found in Edelheits work. Instead, her portraits capture the unique characteristics and personalities of individual sheep, cattle, and roosters; her scenes of daily life depict ordinary aspects of bovid existence, such as eating, drinking, walking, grazing, copulating, and nursing; and her clouds consist of dangling clusters of wire sheep, which parallel her similarly-conceived, earthbound
heaps of sheep.
Most of Edelheits portraits present a conventional view of the head, yet each painting emphasizes both the individuality of her subject and the abiding mystery of the animals unrevealed thoughts. This union of personality and ambiguity extends to her double and group portraits, as well as her sheep portrait books. Her scenes of daily life are sophisticated expansions of media and compositional vocabulary. They feature wire forms that violate the boundaries of their irregular papier-mâché and chicken wire supports. With apparent ease, Edelheit moves fluidly between paint and wire forms; at the same time, she confidently and effectively combines abstraction and representation. Her 3-D drawings, often conceived as wall drawings, focus on a limited number of wire sheep. In some instances, she has translated the dynamic linearity and implied volume of her wire forms into two-dimensional ink drawings. Her recent heaps of sheep and clouds of sheep are fanciful but impressive outgrowths of her wire drawings.
Since 1993, Edelheit has perceptively and intelligently integrated livestock subjects and the materiality of art. Her manipulations of color, shape, scale, and media enhance the visual experience of these creatures without divesting them of their mystique. The viewer who expects to see a traditional bucolic landscape, populated by indistinguishable and indifferent animals, is likely to be pleasantly surprised by the work of Martha Nilsson Edelheit.
Andrew D. Hottle
Assistant Professor of Art History