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Pop singer Björk may be Iceland’s most famous export, but the aged, timeless art of native Icelander and former UCF art professor Johann Eyfells may prove to be longer lasting in Central Florida culture. Two concurrent exhibitions at the UCF Art Gallery and the Warehouse Gallery celebrate the “retirement” of the sculpture professor, a thirty-year veteran of the university’s art department.
Eyfells’s art recognizes and contests what we consider permanent. Geological features such as the volcanic debris of his native Iceland, or places like the Grand Canyon or Catskill Mountains, are all shaped by natural forces. What appears stationary to us is actually teeming with changes and mutations. But these shifts are detectable only over the centuries.
The venerable artist’s latest creations are what he calls “collapsions”—a term that’s more geographical than artistic—which also mimic the eternity of nature. But his choice of materials—cloth, rubber, and paper, all easily damaged—make the viewer aware of how transitory earth is in the long run. Also among Eyfells’s life’s work are sculptures that pay homage to his homeland, as evidenced by the four pieces that stand outside Orlando City Hall, on long-term loan.
The UCF Gallery curator Kevin Haran compares Eyfells’s newer collapsions to “being ringside at a volcanic eruption,” but the artist’s work appears solid and static rather than chaotic. Nonetheless, Eyfells says he wants his work “as far from being artificial as can be.”
Eyfells’s art-making process is the conceptual crux for his work even though he considers himself an intuitive rather than theory-based artist. For weeks at a time, the paper and cloth sheets are sandwiched between two metal plates like batter in a waffle iron. The bottom plate is coated with a thick, soupy liquid while the top holds shaped stamps with varying metal alloys. Pressure and heat create shapes, and stain the paper and cloth. Eyfells favors “the idea of abusing something that is very pristine” as he marks his paper and cloth. The colors of the process remain uniform. Just about all of his works accommodate varying shades of brown and rusty orange. He handles the rubberlike metal in its molten state. “I sling it around, drip it into molds, and brush it around.”
The uneasy smell of latex fills the UCF Art Gallery, like the air in a rubber factory. The fleshlike, butterscotch color of natural latex is consummated in the nine-foot-square “Alluvium.” Eyfells embeds stringy rope into the rubber; veinlike protrusions frolic around crater-looking pockmarks. The final product is as interesting from the back as it is from the front, with the craters becoming bulbous shapes that pop out of the surface plane like bubbling lava. Haran compares “Alluvium” to the all-over paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, but this piece more immediately recalls similar works by minimalist Eva Hesse than a Jackson Pollock canvas. Eyfells and Hesse have much in common: Both have fabricated hanging sculptures and both have worked with latex. But where Hesse’s work appears coolly calculated, Eyfells’s creations are often formed by chance.
The largest work measures 16½ feet square and 4 inches deep; “Exemplars” tilts on a platform at a thirty-degree angle, but it has also been displayed horizontally and vertically. Yards of mulch, twigs, and dried leaves cover the rubber mat. The outer circles of eight and an inner circle of four rectangular shapes expose the dull-pinkish rubber, which bears the texture of wood grain. For “Segments,” another large piece, Eyfells casts tree trunks in rubber and arranges real bark on the sheet, mimicking fossilized tree trunks.
The dozen or so paper and cloth collapsions on the walls attract less attention than their larger, rubber counterparts but hold equal interest. Four ethereal motifs dominate. He explains that the circle represents the idea of eternity. The spiral is a gigantic, universal structure that recalls galaxies and black holes. The crosses (Eyfells prefers to call them “Xs” ) indicate two opposing encounters, and the square expresses a figure without spatial dimensions.
I could be miles away from Eyfells’s intended meaning, but his work does evoke a fun and playful spirit. I began to attach figurative meanings to the abstract images. The random dirt patterns and burnt holes on the stressed-out paper of “By Product of a By Product” resemble a giant saltine cracker. “Oval Universe I” depicts a brownish-orange egg containing vague, dark-brown spirals within it. More brown swirls surround the oval. Like the dual nature of many of Eyfells’s works, the universe acts as a picture of a faraway galaxy and a womb at the same time. An untitled paper collapsion could be a Shroud of Turin covering a large, flat rock. And “Coordinates Undetermined V” could be a telescopic view of Mercury.
A second exhibition of fifteen more paper and cloth collapsions, all completed within the last five years, is on view at the Warehouse Gallery in the Alden Road arts district. These works are visually stronger than similarly sized pieces displayed at UCF. And the fact that most are unframed adds to the richness. Eyfells laughs, “They haven’t been civilized.”
“I think these are very intimate,” says Robin Van Arsdol, artist and owner of the Warehouse Gallery. “Rather than see it, I like to be able to feel it. You put a frame on it, you miss the guttiness of it.” He’s right. A rigid frame would only flatten the curves and warps that the paper undergoes during the collapsion process. The works here, all untitled, hang freely from clips on the wall, giving them a sculptural dimension.
Two of the cloth collapsions stand out. Eyfells folded an approximate 2-by-5 foot sheet in half before sandwiching it into the metal press. Once unfolded, the image is doubled, but the coloration remains distinct. Both have a spiral enclosed within a circle, but on the bottom half, a brown murkiness resembling crumpled aluminum foil envelops the circle as the top half stays relatively clean. The result is a beautiful petrified tapestry.
Like the UCF Gallery works, the abstract images [at the Warehouse Gallery] are playful. One paper collapsion simulates a manhole cover; another looks like a fossilized orange. But these descriptions are an easy way out. A viewer could examine indefinitely all the bumps, ridges, holes, tears, impressions, and color hues in each abstract work.
Despite living and working so far from cultural centers, Eyfells has carved a niche in the international art world. The national museum in Iceland gave him a solo exhibition in 1992. A year later he was invited to represent his native country at the Venice Biennial, one of the world’s largest contemporary art showcases. Eyfells’s art is respected and collected throughout the Scandinavian countries. Currently, his collapsions are included in a traveling show first shown at the United Nations building in New York City.
And though he’s retired, Eyfells and Van Arsdol are assembling an exhibition of the artist’s work to tour Europe next spring.