CONNERSMITH is pleased to present A Question of Balance - an exhibition of new paintings by Erik Thor Sandberg.
Distinguished by the artist’s unmistakable virtuosity, these captivating figural scenes are based on personal experiences of the covid lockdown and post-pandemic reopening. As Sandberg asserts, “These paintings are products of the times in which they were conceived. All my work has my identity, obviously, but this body of work is more directly autobiographical.”
Cell is the starting point for Sandberg’s new corpus. “I first envisioned this painting during the covid lockdown,” he explains, “Cell represents feeling confined and learning a new way of being. It analogizes how a house full of people functions as a singular organism. I never thought of a family or household that way before.” The watery sphere, evocative of the exterior of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, encompasses up to nine persons, though we see the heads of only four. The jumble of interwoven figures appears to revolve. Sandberg created this composition in response to a copy of Leonardo da Vinci's lost Battle of Anghiari, a work that, he reveals, “I have always loved.” The hand wielding a spear in Cell resonates with weaponry brandished in its Renaissance precursor, though it is symbolic rather than historic. Sandberg describes it as “one component that is afraid of, or wants to stop, the whole construct.” He continues, “The snake that winds inside suggests time and uncertainty. It has no head or tail, no beginning or end. It is ever present. The swimming cormorant at the top is well suited for this wet environment, but its other nature, flight, currently seems impossible.”
Within Cell’s square panel, the structure constraining the figures is spherical because “it is its own world,” according to Sandberg. He composed subsequent works on oval or round panels. “These formats evolved from my earlier hexagons,” he reflects, “They give the sense of looking through a spyglass or a microscope. The individual figures in them are living in their own world too.” We find those individuals now released from confinement, in open terrain, sometimes running, tripping or falling. The artist comments, “Those unconstrained movements in outdoor spaces run parallel to the events of real life for me. The landscapes are inspired by views in Tuscany, where I spent the past summer working. It was the first time since the pandemic began that I felt almost back to normal, if not even better. The tumbling imagery allegorizes my catching covid during my stay there.”
Because falling, and complex movements involved in falling, are vital to Sandberg’s conception of these pictures, working from live models was especially important. He explains, “I wanted to portray the anatomical minutiae of bodies twisting and turning.” These effects are visible in Fall and Mad Man, each of which portrays a figure who, as Sandberg observes, “Has been running blindly for some time, absorbed in their own mental traps. Consequently, they are in the middle of nowhere, possibly near an end. Without other evidence of human existence, their current state is of their own making.”Mad Man depicts a male figure unhinged by anger. The artist comments, “He is just that, a madman. I see him as aimless and unhinged, like Hercules amid his madness.” In Fall the running female protagonist holds scissors symbolizing the folly of not heeding a warning, reminiscent of the childhood admonition not to run with scissors.
Scissors reappear in Disseminate, which Sandberg created in response to right wing extremism. He explains, “The woman is the source of the words inscribed on the scrolls. The words, such as “freedom” and “liar,” are not from a specific text, but rather reflect the current climate of our world. I wanted a figure bound by its own rhetoric.” As in Fall, scissors are an element of potential catastrophe. Yet, the artist observes, “The scissors could also imply that she wants to free herself of these words and thoughts, as if to break a curse. Alternatively, she may intend to spread her message using the bats as agents to disperse it. As usual, my imagery is open to several interpretations.”
Whereas Disseminate, Fall and Mad Man unfold in secluded wilderness settings, Romp takes place in an extensive landscape with distant views of architectural structures and cultivated fields. Sandberg relates, “Romp is about a transition from one stage to another, so I wanted elements of humanity to be evident in the background. The main character, a female figure, appears relaxed. A skeleton, representing change, not necessarily death, carries her along. Whatever the change is, she seems resigned to it, perhaps even welcomes it. A cat, not as accepting, runs full speed alongside her in an irrational hope to stem the current of time. A discarded pear, an element of time, reiterates the main narrative. The bite just having been taken implies what the figure was doing prior to this romp. On the falling pear is a bee which mirrors the woman who is carried by death/change.”
The equally surreal Let It Breathe (see banner image, top) features a female figure who reclines after drinking a glass of red wine. She apparently has decanted more than wine in that a fantastical red organism sprouts from her forehead. Sandberg elucidates, “The red thing is part of her, or more to the point for me, is her. More soul or essence than anything else, it is reaching out in that moment, taking in its environs.” He further relates, “Humans are always the touch point for my art. They are the source of conflict, the malignant aberration in nature. Let it Breathe, however, is a bit idealized. The main character is at peace. But I see that as only a temporary state.”
Sandberg created a much more idealized figure in Helping Hand. “In the other works,” he observes, “Humans are at odds with something, mostly themselves, so their gestures and interactions with their environs reflect that.” In contrast, the helping-hand figure stands upright. Her stable pose acts in complete harmony with the surrounding landscape, which the artist painted en plein air. A red string tied to the index finger of her left hand supports a bat that, suspended above a poppy, gathers pollen. About the bat Sandberg explains, “The bat represents me. It is tethered, unable to fly, with holes in its wings, but in this moment, is being helped by Nature.” The bat motive, seen now and again throughout the artist’s oeuvre, stems from his youth. He recalls, “I used to refinish furniture for my dad. One day I moved a dresser I was working on to find a bat underneath. Paint stripper had dripped on to it, melting its wings in spots. This was the first time I saw a bat up close. It was at once amazing and terrifically sad. Bats are incredible creatures. They are scientific treasure troves. Awful and cute, they are vessels of disease, but they are also insectivores and pollinators.” The calm instilled in this painting affords a resolution for Sandberg’s new cycle of work. He muses, “For me, Helping Hand represents serenity; it is a symbol of Grace.”
- Jamie Smith, Ph.D. from an interview with the artist November 2022.