About the Artist
Bird Cliffs as Abstraction
by Malan Marnersdóttir, professor, dr. phil.
Astri Luihn has developed a special technique in which she combines the traditional linoleum print's paint on lineoleum with mixed media on canvas to create a contemporary whole. She works with motifs from culture as well as nature in an organic and aesthetic melding of landscape and poetry. Her subject is not nature but living nature. Not the cliffs, but bird life in the cliffs. The work of Astri Luihn is characterized by a sensuous simplicity that feels liberating compared to the dominant Faroese expressionism. She pulls the viewer into a play of contrasts brought out by her special technique: finely detailed drawing vis a vis the materiality of her media.
Her other subject, epic poetry, she investigates through a symbolist vocabulary that references the medieval imagery of Faroese folk poetry. Increasingly, she combines her two subjects into paintings that encompass human experience and artistic creation, culture and nature, history and future, always perceived as possibilities and challenges.
Details appear simultaneously naturalistic and abstract: guillemot cliffs suddenly become a mirage of DNA-strands or ideograms. Always both near and far, here and there. The infinite and eternal of the great quivering planes against the tiny creature on the innermost ledge, the known against the unknown, the secure and harmonious against the threatening and disharmonious. It is up to the viewer whether to feel afraid or comforted.
Astri Luihn's art by
by Louisa Lamhauge, cand. mag.
»I want to create a dynamic force in a silent world by searching inward - a glasslike revelation of space and time - the pictures are preservations of signs, experiences around us and within me« Astri Luihn
With her unique and peaceful art Astri Luihn has become an increasingly visible artist in contemporary Faroese art. Her method is the linocut, which she paints layer upon layer and into the material alternately building up with paint and cutting down into the lino. The result is that the lino plate becomes the real work of art. However the cut picture might also be transferred to another lino plate and there mixed with other techniques. Or the picture might be moved onto a canvas, but it is rarely printed on graphic paper. If this happens, Astri Luihn insists on doing the printing herself. Otherwise it would not, in her opinion, be true art. Astri Luihn is the only Faroese artist representing this special artistic branch combining graphics and painting.
Astri Luihn is a fastidious artist, who has an examining and emotional approach to her art. She cuts into the core of the plate, paints, cuts again, and so on - until nothing superfluous is left. In her desire to express as much as possible in her minimalistic and peaceful way, she pushes her personal figurative language and style towards what is clear, quiet and simple in art.
In the beginning Astri Luihn's art was completely abstract because she needed the resistance, but later she let figures enter the pictures, and today she works both abstractly and figuratively. Moving from non-figurative to a partly figurative art might seem peculiar, but preserving recognisable objects in an abstract colour composition is something we know from European and Nordic art from the middle of the 20th century. This current also reached the Faroe Islands and characterises much of Faroese post-war art.
Astri Luihn finds inspiration to her work everywhere in nature. The monumental birdcliffs have fascinated her right from the first time she came to the Faroe Islands, and they have become her arch motif.
Visual Art and Music
Astri Luihn comes from Norway, but has lived in Torshavn since the 1970s. Ever since she was a little girl, she has made drawings and paintings. Her art teacher at school was a professional painter, and she has several relatives who are artists. These taught her about colours and perspectives, flower painting and drawing. She also grew up with graphics. Vilhelm Tveteraas and Henrik Finne, the representatives of the Norwegian school of wood cut, were frequent guests in her childhood home. And Astri Luihn used to visit them at the workshop where they printed their pictures, and often she was allowed to take some pictures with her home. In this childhood world the seeds of her love of pictorial art and cutwork were sown.
After she arrived in the Faroe Islands, she learned a lot from her father-in-law, Petur Andreassen, who was a woodcutter. She received all his knives, and she uses woodcutter knives in her lino cut. She also cuts wood, but lino has been her preferred material in recent years.
However, Astri Luihn's road to visual art went by detours through another art form, music. Her musicality longed for music as well. She has an M.A. in Music, Folklore and Anthropology from Oslo University, and for several years she worked as a musician, researcher and teacher. She has, among other things, written »Learning My First Notes« which is intended to make the learning of notes easy and fun for both children and adults. Subsequently she has also taught visual art. Her musical instruments are the guitar and her voice. Astri Luihn has a beautiful alto voice and plays the classical guitar.
In addition to her music Astri Luihn has always been an active visual artist, also before she decided to make visual art her vocation. Her debut as exhibiting artist was in a group exhibition in »Smiðan í Lítluvík« in Torshavn. Since then her art has travelled far. Her works are represented in many institutions and art museums. She has had solo exhibitions and participated in group exhibition both in the Faroe Islands and abroad, in the Nordic countries, in Ireland, Canada, Germany, and in the U.S. Her first solo exhibition in the Faroe Islands was in the Nordic House in 1999, in Gallerí Oyggin in Tvøroyri 2001, and now she is opening her first large solo exhibition in the Faroe Islands Art Gallery, Listaskálin.
Calm and Sound-Clean Art
Some say that expressionism or some variant thereof is the main representative of Faroese visual art, but there are many different currents within Faroese art. The Faroese history of art shows us that this has always been true. If we look at, for instance, Janus Kamban's graphics with his calm and clear lines, Ruth Smith's peculiar facial pictures, Elinborg Lützen's black and white art, Hans Hansen's lyrical tone, Steffan Danielsen's humble and bright paintings, and the contemporary graphic artist Marius Olsen's graphic poetry we can see that what characterizes this art is its quiet and sound-clean voice. Astri Luihn belongs to this line of art, and the above-mentioned artists have been important for her art. The Danish painter Bodil Kaalund has also had an important role for Astri Luihn, both as a mentor and a discussion partner.
Astri Luihn was invited to participate in the exhibition »Faroese Art 2003« in »Den Frie« in Copenhagen. Her large pictures of birdcliffs fascinated the guests. In a review the art historian Bente Scavenius talked about the fact that nature has been an everlasting source of inspiration for Faroese artists. But according to Bente Scavenius, the nature in Astri Luihn's art was different. Her pictures were unique. They had a sensuousness and simplicity that seemed and felt liberating among all the powerful expressionistic paintings.
Forming, presenting and striving for an attentive form of art has been of great importance for Astri Luihn's artistic process. Simplicity is often more difficult than complexity, but she works towards an organised and stylistic distinctness and firmness, which gives the motif a fluid peace on the picture surface. Form and colour, light and shadow, depth and closeness, rhythm and movement play together in accords around a centre searching inward, so that we are drawn into the picture like in an implosion.
Much of Astri Luihn's art is black and white and a meeting between the two. When she uses other colours, they are various nuances of blue, green and red. She prefers to work monochromicly, and she mixes all the colours herself and never buys ready-mixed colours. She hardly ever uses paint, but mixes ink with various pigments in acrylic. Using ink gives her opportunities she would not have with paint. Her special method and emotional handling of colours and light creates subtle colour nuances and makes the picture surface shiver with glowing texture.
The Cliffs and The Bird
If we look at Astri Luihn's motifs, we see that an increasing number of themes appear in her art, but behind them all there is the theme of nature, and especially the bird and the birdcliffs, which are recognisable in their entireties or as examinations of an individual detail. The birdcliffs are presented as a motif in themselves or as a sounding board for other motifs. The birds - or bird - might also be taken out of context and used as motif in itself or put into another environment. This way Astri Luihn recycles birds and mountains in new artistic expressions, establishing a food chain in the creative process. The artist continues her work, adds new elements, and we see a work of art which we seem to know, but have never seen before.
Despite being fed by nature and reality, the artistic picture is different than the world picture. The birds and the cliffs are observations of nature and impressions of the outer and sensuous world, which Astri Luihn puts on the picture surface with organic movement and calligraphic cut. She has seen and observed, noticed and heard nature, and with her imaginative emotions she creates another story in time and space.
As motifs the birdcliffs in Astri Luihn's art have two layers. One is the sensuous, spectacular, and impressive nature and the impression of it. The other layer is the imaginary and metaphoric where the motif is about meaning and significance.
In Astri Luihn's art the world is the birdcliffs, which she returns to again and again and reinterprets, making it universal at the same time as it is ballasted in the birdcliffs of Skúvoy. Skúvoy is famous for its bird hunting, and Astri Luihn has a special connection to the island, since her husband grew up there.
The bird in Astri Luihn's art is the guillemot. This big, black bird has a black back and white front and has a long narrow beck. It is constantly on its way in to or out from the rock ledges on the staggeringly high cliffs. The screams from the guillemots drown all other sounds.
»Birdcliffs 2004« is a series of three big pictures in monochromic style showing birds and a black landscape on a white background. The top half of the picture shows guillemot ledges on a white surface, and the bottom half is a single-coloured white surface. There are birds on the ledges, birds on the bedrock, and some are in the air flying out of the picture.
Bird hunting has been a part of Faroese popular culture and daily life for many generations. »Birdcliffs 2004« relates this cultural meeting between nature and man, where man also appears in Astri Luihn's pictures, though not as figures but as trails.
In traditional Faroese bird-hunting nature was exploited with care. The hunter understood nature and did not take more birds than the ledge could stand. In this culture man was part of the balance of nature, and it was important not to let the exploitation disturb the balance. Today, however, the guillemot ledges are pretty empty.
The light along the birdcliffs is dazzling. In Astri Luihn's pictures the light is in her colours. Some of her cliff pictures are black. The birdcliffs are a symbolic expression of our culture and nature, which we must treat with care and consideration. With this as her basis Astri Luihn forms the universal aspect of nature, where the precondition for life is cooperation and balance between the positive and negative. The highest goal is harmony between cosmos and chaos, nature and man. Astri Luihn's awareness of the inherited contradictions in the word harmony can be seen in the pictures where black and white, light and darkness blend together in a dazzling light and aesthetic beauty.
The Guillemot and Platonic Values
The guillemot is a good-natured bird. Quarrels often take place on the ledges of the gannet, but never on the ledges of the guillemot. The guillemot is thoughtful and shows consideration. And equality and equal rights are a natural part of its life. When he returns to the cliffs, he looks for 'his' ledge, but if it is taken, he finds another solution. When the egg is laid, both the female and the male bird hatch the egg. When the nestling is hatched both of its parents bring it food. When the young guillemot leaves the ledge, both of its parents usually escort it.
The bird is an old motif in art. In some cases - for instance in Finnish visual art - when the artist is a woman, birds and wings are presented as metaphors symbolising the free existence of artists and the free woman.
Astri Luihn's guillemot can also be seen as a metaphor that symbolises the old platonic ideological values: beauty, truth, and goodness. It is a beautiful bird; its form is like the form of a flame, which the Italian art theorist Lomazzo in 1589 praised as the form that represents movement, life and beauty. The colours are Astri Luihn's prime artistic colours: black and white. Black and white are said to be the purest colours of all, and when put together the strongest and most interesting to work with.
Striving for Purity
The cliffs and the guillemots are the figurative rooms of the cliff pictures, where Astri Luihn has translated the monumental and sublime cliffs to lyrical calligraphy. In the other rooms the artist has strived for the cleanest form and purest colour in art: white on white - the ultimate limit of abstraction.
»In my forms and colours I use a pure and clear language which everyone understands. I have a longing to express pure emotions in creative art.« Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935)
The goal of the Russian painter Malevich was - together with among others the Russian woman artist, Lyobov Popova (1889-1924) - to weed art to an abstract core. This aim was revived by the Minimalism that appeared in the early 1960s. The same striving for purity can also be seen in the architecture of Le Corbusier and Bauhaus.
Glowing Pictorial Music
In her pictures Astri Luihn uses transparent paint painted in layers upon layers with delicate strokes, so that the spectator experiences a sensuous quiver of the picture.
Astri Luihn's other artistic interest, music, is also visible in her art. When she had an exhibition in Germany, the reviewer wrote about her paintings:
»she creates her works of art like a composer writes her music.« Schleswig-Holsteinische Tageszeitung
The black and white series »Birdcliffs 2004« have a form, where the figurative language is similar to music. The ledges are like lines and the notes on them and between them are the guillemots. If you look closer at this work you can see that they are fugues. The changing voices and the balance between them are playing together until all the voices meet in a sonorous harmony.
The organic movement of the cliffs and guillemots in the first picture of the series continues in the next, is received by the third, and escorted forward just like the organic and flowing movement in the fugues of Bach.
In her black cliff pictures Astri uses the same form as in the white, but the mood is different. Now sostenuto is being played, slow and thoughtful, in the bright light from the beauty of darkness.
Ballads and Guillemots
Astri Luihn has studied oral literature and wrote her M.A. thesis: »Faroese Dance: Studies in the Songdance Traditions on the Faroe Islands« at Oslo University. She has also decorated a book of Faroese ballads, called »Traðarbókin: Kvæðabókin hjá Tróndi á Trøð«, edited by Eyðun Andreassen, 1999.
In her pictures »Ballad« the ballad motif has been cut at the top of the pictures like ornaments. The sounding board is birdcliffs, but they also function as motifs on the same picture surface. A characteristic feature in Astri Luihn's works is the focus around a focal point in the picture surface. The Ballad pictures are different, since the point is in movement creating various and ambiguous forms and points of view.
In her black and white works of art the Iranian woman artist Shirian Neshat uses desert landscapes. In these landscapes she lets figures - men and women - function in a choreographic form. In Astri Luihn's »Ballad« the form is like choreography. The smooth and elegant lines and the movement of the guillemots appear like dancing twinkles working together in a united form, which makes the picture as a whole work despite the various perspective. And in the ballad motif the Faroese dance unites with the dancing and the screaming of the choreographic surface.
Art of Faith
The huge red picture »Passion« 145 x 115 cm and the blue pictures »Vision« 100 x 100 cm may indicate that Astri Luihn has taken on themes connected to the art of faith. The first time the public could see this was in the exhibition »The Colonial« in the North Atlantic House in Copenhagen 2003, where some of the titles were »Now I am fleeing to your mercy« which is a verse line from the psalm by Hans Thomissøn from 1569.
In »Passion« the form of the light colours in the middle of the picture appear to be a cross motif on top of the passion-red surface and makes us think of Good Friday. The movement in the cross works further and further inward drawing in the spectator. The work looks like an altarpiece.
The blue pictures can be seen as a continuation of »Passion«. Blue is the colour of heaven. Further inside the glassy picture-surface there are hints of ochre and red. The clean and pure works of »Vision« make me think of the resurrection and the psalm written by Kingo in 1689 and translated to Faroese by Jákup Dahl in 1924, »As the golden sun breaks through the black skies«.
Astri Luihn's spatial studio is situated in Tórshavn on Vesturvág, by the pier, and through her wall-to-wall windows she can see the shining sea. I once asked her how important it was to have her own studio.
»The studio is very important for me and my art - for the pictures and me - for our connection. The light is also very influential. And the ever-changing colours - and forms. From here I can see the heaven and the sea, the mountaintops and the rising sun.«
In recent years Faroese women artists have become more and more visible. They have the courage to find new and original routes, both personally and artistically. To go where no one has gone before, and build new beacons in Faroese art history.
In a review of the exhibition »The Colonial« in the North Atlantic House in Copenhagen 2003 Bragi Ásgeirsson also writes about Astri Luihn's art, and he ends with these words: »and Astri Luihn is the artist who has made the breakthrough« Morgunblaðið, Iceland