Bengt af Klintberg
(Translated by Jennifer Försberg)
It is often pure chance which determines an artist's choice of subject. It may be a house, an orchard or the naked human body. In the case of Martha Edelheit it is sheep.
When she moved from the USA to Svartsjölandet outside Stockholm her nearest neighbour happened to be a sheep farmer. Every day in recent years she has been able to observe the grazing sheep. They are both curious and, at the same time, easily scared. However, they are also rounded body volumes in different shades of white, brown and black, with curly wool, slender legs and inscrutable eyes. They can be calmly statuesque and then, in the next instant, fly as if panic stricken. They represent both heaviness and lightness. No sheep is like another.
The sheep provide Martha Edelheit with a distinct set of shapes, a pictorial world which she can twist and turn, study from different perspectives, fill with different feelings. However, although the sheep resemble each other they are also unique individuals in the same way as every human being is unique. An old ewe can wear a moving expression which goes straight to your heart. Other sheep are woolly clowns.
The onlooker gets a definite feeling that Martha Edelheit has a humanistic approach to her subjects. Her painting is not only about finding the right chords of colour, or the movements which are the most expressive. She also wants to show us that simple and familiar elements in our surroundings can have a richness, dignity and mystery which is not accessible through intellectual analysis, but can only be expressed in visual images.
It is a day in February when the sun is shining brightly across the ice on Lake Mälaren. I have come to Martha Edelheits studio to view her new paintings. Her two cats, the most beautiful I have ever seen, accompany us. One of them, sherry-coloured with green eyes, has a newly caught dead mouse hanging from its mouth. The other cat is white with blue eyes. The sheep are painted in acrylics directly on unprepared linen, which gives the canvases a soft textile-like lustre. Every large painting has been preceeded by several pencil studies, in which one can follow how Martha discovers the artistic possibilities and then selects and refines some of them in the paintings.
It was the New York of the 1950s and 60s which provided Martha Edelheit with her earliest artistic stimulus. The art scene there was almost unbelievably full of vitality. Pop art had achieved a breakthrough. Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine arranged happenings, militant feminists appeared with their provocative art, ethnic minorities exhibited colourful works inspired by folk art. Martha Edelheit soon felt that the abstract expressionism and neoplasticism which her teachers represented was not satisfying to her. She turned to painting and sculpting nude male and female figures, dancers and acrobats, all with an intensity similar to what could be seen at that time on New York's avant-garde stages, and in dance works by Yvonne Rainier and Merce Cunningham. Several of her paintings from this period bear witness to the fact that the New York environment contained not only vitality but also self-destructive, neurotic elements. This can be seen most clearly in the paintings inspired by Japanese buto dance, in which the pathos and grotesqueness is only just held in check by a strictly disciplined choreography.
Martha Edelheits earlier works provide a key to understanding her paintings of the sheep in Svartsjölandet. The humans in the earlier paintings are often wearing masks. The viewer can allow himself to be influenced by the drama of the bodies and the expressive masks, but what the masks are concealing remains a mystery. The models retain their integrity. And so it is with the sheep; they are taking part in a masquerade. They are individuals, almost human in their expressions, but they are wearing masks and it is the artist who is directing them.
Another subject area which has occupied Martha Edelheit in recent years is the ice dancers who can be admired every year in the world championships on television. They lack faces - the artists interest is totally focused on the energy and strength in their movements. Her highly developed feeling for materials is apparent here in the fragile paper she has selected for the base. It helps to give the paintings a sketch-like charm, as if they had just been applied to the paper with large, sweeping strokes of the brush and had not yet dried.
A newcomer in her pictorial world is the bull which stands majestic and heavy in a couple of large paintings. She has also found this model among the animals in her neighbours pasture. The presence of the bull might be regarded as a means of balancing the weightless, whirling ice dancers and the slender-legged sheep, prepared for flight at any time. Heaviness and lightness are two opposites constantly found in Martha Edelheit works. The animals have entered as new actors in the choreographic world she creates in her art. An art which today feels more mature, free and warmly humoristic than ever before.