Masks of Beauty and Despair
The art of Martha Ross Edelheit deals with the issue of masquerade, but not in the traditional Freudian sense. In her paintings and sculptures women do not have to hide their "lack" behind the mask of masculinity or excessive femininity, because there is nothing lacking. The female figures are not fetishized, they do not need power to be given to them from outside, they redeem their subjectivity with their own presence. The realm of Edelheit's figures is populated by men and women who are equally nude, equally exposed, equally strong and sexual, but also equally vulnerable.
Nudes started to emerge in the paintings after the artist had first struggled to make her decision between figurative and abstract art. By 1961 she started to paint small erotic watercolors and huge "wallpapers" filled with nudes. Soon she was using live models and painting them "bodily, as they were, not glorifying or idealizing them."
The sense of materialsacrylic paint, string, or thin meshon the "skin" of the paintings is very important to Edelheit. She avoids building any illusion of space or depth into the paintings, but her nudes have taken three-dimensional presence in a long series of small sculptures of masked acrobats: people walking on a tightrope or on their hands. For the artist these figures represent challenge and risk-taking, being on the very edge of one's own skills and resources. The bodies are muscular, athletic, sturdy. Their feet are heavy even though their bodies might fly, and in spite of their reckless tricks they seem to be really down-to-earth characters. If they are hiding something behind their masks, it is fear. As a matter of fact the small clay or bronze figures combine also a great deal of humor with their apparent fearlessness.
The way Edelheit represents women is especially meaningful in the over-sexualized and sexist American media atmosphere ruled by moral double-standards. In her imagery nakedness does not mean exposing idealized, "picture-perfect" stereotypes of beauty. On the contrary, the bodies she shapes are extremely ordinary and familiarso familiar that it is very easy to identify with them.
Extract from Catalogue Essay 1992
Between Heaven and Earth
Ragnar von Holten
"Something very remarkable has happened in Martha Nilsson Edelheit's art during the most recent years ... The move from Manhattan to Sweden, and to a house in the country outside Stockholm ... somehow removed the basis of her subjects up to that point. ... In the 1980's she painted many portraits, anxiety ridden, mask-like faces in an expressive, highly wound up emotional state. Her paintings in the 90's are also portraits -- this time of sheep."
Extract from Catalogue Essay 1996