Canvases large and small: Two UMass Amherst exhibits offer meditations on Iceland and India 

  • Piles of down from eider ducks, harvested by an elderly Icelandic couple who are also featured in Roni Horn’s “Pi” exhibit at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. Image courtesy UMCA

  • Roni Horn’s photos capture the remoteness of Iceland, including this look at the North Atlantic Ocean from inside a cottage of an elderly couple.   Image courtesy UMCA

  • Portraits of an elderly, unnamed Icelandic man, along with those of his wife, are a key part of Roni Horn’s “Pi” exhibit. Image courtesy UMCA

  • UMCA Director Loretta Yarlow calls Roni Horn’s “Pi” a “sculptural installation,” one that embraces photography and architecture. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky/Image courtesy UMCA

  • Recurring images from “Pi” include those of birgs, eggs, nests and bird carcasses — part of Roni Horn’s vision of the cycle of life. Image courtesy UMCA

  • Horn has also photographed a number of examples of taxidermy, including of this owl, in “Pi.” Image courtesy UMCA

  • “Nowhere Else But Here” is one of the highly detailed, miniature paintings by Procheta Mukherjee Olson in her exhibit “Palimpsest” at UCMA. Staff photo/Steve Pfarrer

  • UMCA Director Loretta Yarlow calls Roni Horn’s “Pi” a “sculptural installation,” one that embraces photography and architecture. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky/courtesy UMCA

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 05, 2020

A dark expanse of ocean stretching to the horizon. Seabirds clustered on jagged and tumbled boulders near a shoreline. Piles of down from eider ducks piled in a corner of a Spartan room with a scuffed wooden floor and a mottled ceiling, from which dangles a single light bulb.

The color photographs of Roni Horn, now on display at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, offer a snapshot of the remote landscape of northern Iceland, a place that has long served as an artistic muse for the New York-based artist.

But Horn’s new exhibit, “Pi,” at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), doesn’t offer a conventional tour of Iceland’s geologic wonders: the hot springs, geysers, volcanoes and lava beds seen in tourist brochures. UMCA Director Loretta Yarlow says Horn, a multidisciplinary artist whose work includes drawing, writing, sculpture and more, has created a “sculptural installation” at the museum.

“It’s basically a continuous narrative,” said Yarlow, who notes that the 45 Iris-printed photographs have no specific beginning or end and are all positioned at exactly the same level — about eight feet high, so that viewing in not blocked by other visitors — and have no captions, either.

The title of “Pi,” Yahow adds, also implies a sense of continuity and a sense of the natural cycles of life. “Roni’s idea is that you can look at all these photographs from the center of the gallery — you don’t have to start at a certain point.”

Amanda Herman, UMCA’s education coordinator, has another way of describing the installation: “I think it reads like a visual poem.”

Horn’s work has been exhibited in or is part of the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Tate Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She first began visiting Iceland in 1975, and her photos in the UMCA exhibit were taken over a six-year period, culminating in the first presentation of “Pi” in 1998. The artist reconfigures the exhibit for each separate show in which it appears, Yalow noted.

In “Pi,” she’s built a frieze that focuses on repeating images, such as an elderly husband and wife in northern Iceland who harvest down from the nests of eider ducks. The couple’s weathered faces speak to the passage of time and Iceland’s rugged climate, as do Horn’s photographs of the ducks’ nests, some with eggs and some with just a few tendrils of down clinging to them.

Included as well are images that complete the life cycle of birds: from the clusters of seabirds by piles of shoreline boulders to a pair of photos of flat, desiccated land — one might show an old lava bed — that are strewn with what appears to be carcasses and feathers of birds.

Horn has also used the home of the unnamed elderly couple — Yarlow says the artist met them years ago and developed a good relationship with them — as a reference point for some other photographs. In two of her most haunting images, she’s photographed the ocean through two worn window frames, creating colorful rectangles of sky, cloud and sea amid the otherwise dark tableau of the room’s unlit interior.

In addition, Horn has captured stills from the couple’s television of a long-running American soap opera, “Guiding Light,” which in years past aired in the afternoon on Iceland’s only TV station in that time. The photos, of a woman with teased blond hair and a man with a chiseled jaw, help “mark the passage of time with the soothing recurrence of the same,” as exhibit notes put it.

Yarlow says she’s long wanted to showcase some of Horn’s work, in part because she learned the artist was a big fan of Emily Dickinson and had taken photographs from the windows of the poet’s home in Amherst. Once she got Horn to agree to an exhibit at UMCA, she left the invitation open-ended: “I told her she could do whatever she wanted,” Yalow said with a laugh.

After visiting UMCA, Horn opted for the photography exhibit but with some additional modifications to the main gallery space: two of the walls have been painted to produce a uniform color, and some passageways to other rooms and spaces have been narrowed with temporary extensions, the idea being to keep the distance between the photographs as uniform as possible.

Yarlow says she sees a link between Horn’s interest in Emily Dickinson and Iceland. “Solitude, but a comfortable solitude, is a theme — there’s Emily alone in her room but very active in her mind, and then there’s Roni moving across this really remote, thinly populated island and finding herself very much at home.”

The smaller side of things

Also on exhibit at UMCA is “Palimpsest” by Procheta Mukherjee Olson, a collection of miniature oil paintings on wood panels that reflect both the artist’s experience growing up in India and the residue of colonialism in her native land.

Olson, who grew up in Calcutta and received her MFA in Studio Arts at UMass Amherst, is the interim director of Herter Art Gallery at the university and previously was a curatorial fellow at UMCA. Her paintings are part of the museum’s long running “Dialogue with the Collection” series, in which artists create new work in response to specific pieces from UMCA’s vaults.

In her exhibit, Olson has created a paint-based version of a palimpsest, a manuscript from which the original writing has been largely but not completely erased to make room for new writing. In her highly detailed oils, she has merged images from India’s past and present, often in surreal tableaus, that look at architecture, colonial rule and India’s “haphazard modernization,” as exhibit notes put it.

For instance, in “Alas, Capital!” — perhaps a play on Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” — a box-like structure with two “rooms” features one room with two colorfully dressed people, who stand amid a pile of fruit, toys and other goods. The other room or space is crammed with naked and half-clothed people, all of whom seem desperate to get into the room of plenty.

“Train to/from Pakistan” offers an image that wouldn’t look out of place in a children’s story: two old-fashioned steam trains, one upside down beneath the other. But look more closely at the ornate, colorful border of the painting and you see images of bloodshed and war, with fires burning, tiny figures seeming to brandish guns, and two stick-like corpses hanging from a tree.

The artist explains that the painting’s border recalls the horrendous violence that erupted in 1947 when, following the end of British rule, the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan saw Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims turn on one another — and trainloads of people, desperate to get across one border or the other, were massacred.

Olson has used Mughal miniature painting traditions in her work, and she’s also been inspired by “Three Gorges Dam Migration,” a 32-foot-long hand scroll that Chinese artist Yun Fei Ji made from 500 hand-carved woodblocks. The 2012 scroll, on display at the exhibit and part of UMCA’s permanent collection, depicts many rural Chinese who were displaced when the huge Three Gorges Dam was built on the Yangtze River during the past two decades.

“Palimpsest” makes for a striking visual and thematic contrast with “Pi” (and magnifying glasses are included in the latter show to get a close-up look at the details of Olson’s paintings).

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Both “Pi” and “Palimpsest” are on view at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst through April 26.