TIME PRESENT – Reflections on the Art of Gunvor Nelson

Written by Janis Crystal Lipzin

Gunvor Nelson (b. Stockholm 1931) is a pioneering and uncompromising Swedish-American filmartist whose early personal films drawing on her life and experiences are highly regarded in feminist and avant-garde film circles (Schmeerguntz 1966 with Dorothy Wiley, Take Off 1972, My Name is Oona 1969). In the 1970s she began fusing local and private life with the universal, exploring regional family life and relationships (Trollstenen 1976, Red Shift 1984 with Diane Kitchen, Time Being 1991). Originally trained as a painter, Nelson is also well known for her collage films which grant her freedom of association and improvisation through animation. Her work has been supported by many  grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship. After living in California since 1953, she returned to her native Sweden in 1993 and increasingly worked in photography, printmaking, digital video, and installation. She has been honored with numerous retrospectives globally, which marked a renewed interest in her vast body of work. A filmmaker and educator (San Francisco Art Institute 1970-1992) Nelson continues to influence generations of image makers. In 2008 she was awarded an artists lifetime income guarantee by the Swedish Arts Grants Committee.

In the recent time-based art of Nelson, we are witness to the act of creating right before our eyes. Her work, especially the Field Studies series including Natural Features, radiates with the excitement of immediacy that is more commonly felt when viewing art such as paintings. I consider her to be the model of a film Artist although she is an accomplished film Maker too. By film Artist, I mean that her work possesses the qualities of urgency and necessity that derive from an artist’s sensibility, not that of a conventional moviemaker. She has mastered the art of “single-author films.”

The physical and the tactile play important roles in creating the energy of immediacy I experience in Nelson’s work. These distinctive qualities also convince me of the decisiveness of her actions as an Artist as one image piles upon the next in a dense accumulation that carries the viewer deep into a prolonged instantaneous happening. She continues to work in print and paint and the physical traits of these media flow into her films and videos. Her love for the liquid quality of paint is evident in Natural Features and she does not flinch from showing us her joy and delight as she smears ink and paint around and mixes pigments with water. As a viewer of Natural Features I feel very present—rather like being near at hand while she is actually making the film. Photographs move around the frame and collages take form and are revised, altered, destroyed, and refreshed. I can intuit her moment-by-moment decisions and indecisions. I can sense her surprise of discovery when a visual accident becomes revelatory. This experience of witnessing her time-based work in the present tense is unfamiliar for a medium that normally tends to reference events that occurred in the past tense.

Natural Features courtesy of Gunvor Nelson

The film Art of Gunvor Nelson is both unflinching and continuously refreshing. Other artists demonstrate these qualities—Joyce Carol Oates’ writing reveals “unflinchingness” in a similar way as many of the hand-altered images in Nelson’s Natural Features display a rawness that undercuts a sensual beauty, which is also secreted there. Joe Gibbons’ 1976 film Punching Flowers shows the filmmaker beating up a rose as he purports to “put Nature in its place.” In True to Life, Nelson creates a different confrontation in her garden as her microphone audibly hits the plants. These sounds create a jarring counterpart to her exquisite investigation of unseen worlds through a close-up lens. The violent sounds underscore unexpected intrusions into her small fenced garden while simultaneously amplifying, through physical touch, an encounter between the lens and the subject.

True to Life courtesy of Gunvor Nelson

Furthermore, Nelson’s films always strike me as being full of such unexpected visual and aural events. Shot after shot is so inventive that I am constantly finding myself startled. The visual elements in Nelson’s video True to Life are organized with a concern for colors and their subtle juxtaposition and inter-relationship rather than from a plot-driven approach. I don’t experience this work as an unfolding experience as I view literary films; there is no narrative arc. Instead Nelson seems to give each element equal weight. In doing so, she gives the impression of sharing with us, in real-time, her process of search and discovery in an unseen jungle.

alltintill NEAR (Kristinehamns Konstmuseum, 2011) courtesy of Gunvor Nelson

Her re-working of her 1990 film Natural Features as the Natural Features times 3 triptych draws attention to her artistic process more emphatically. Sequences from the original film are isolated in digital wall frames and repeated in slower motion where more of her process is revealed. We see her arrange unlikely elements in playful and profound ways that “relentlessly refuse predictability,” to borrow Jytte Jensen’s words (Gunvor Nelson Retrospective, MoMA, 2006). Paradoxically, Gunvor Nelson has altered time and created an evolving present.

The inadequacy of comparable spoken or written language is apparent in one of the digital wall loops. There is no verbal equivalent to the complex and compelling moving images in which “defaced” people are encircled by a colorful toy car endlessly passing by. This sequence seems both menacing and farcical. In the act of removing people’s faces by ripping holes in the photograph, Nelson both forefronts the tactility of the ripped and scarred black-and-white photograph and undermines any illusion of filmic reality. Yet, Nelson mediates this aggressive disfigurement of the human faces with the incongruous actions and colors of the toy cars endlessly repeated.

Natural Features courtesy of Gunvor Nelson

Gunvor Nelson’s entire body of work is characterized by Ellen Dissanayake’s measure of art as “what is not accessible to verbal language, what cannot be said or deconstructed or erased, but nevertheless exists to be perceived by nonverbal, non-literate, pre-modern ways of knowing” (Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, 1995). To come face to face with Nelson’s work is to be reminded that art is intrinsic to human life.

NOTE: This article is a reprint from the catalog alltintill NEAR (Kristinehamns Konstmuseum, 2011). The June 2011 show, which was exhibited at the Kristinehamns Museum in Sweden, was titled alltintill NEAR and included films, videos, and installations by Gunvor Nelson. We thank them for giving us permission to reprint it here.

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