At the opening of Johann Eyfells’ current exhibition, one of his former students, now a scientist, presented him with a piece of slate. The rock contained the fossilized imprint of a prehistoric sea creature. “See, it’s one of nature’s `collapsions,”’ the student said, laughing, as if nature had required millions of years to accomplish the enigmatic art form – the “collapsion” – that has become Eyfells’ signature invention.
The gallery at the University of Central Florida has installed a dozen or so of Eyfells’ collapsions in honor of his retirement last year from the university’s art department. A companion selection of framed collapsions on paper and cloth is on view at the Warehouse Gallery in Orlando. And for several months now, downtown office workers have been strolling past a setting of three Eyfells sculptures at Orlando City Hall. All this local attention comes after a run of quite astounding international success. In 1992, Eyfells received a solo exhibition at the national museum of his native Iceland and the next year was featured in the Iceland pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Eyfells’ sculpture has attracted attention at other international exhibitions in Milan and in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and this fall, his work was exhibited alongside such renowned artists as Louis Bourgeoise in the lobby of the United Nations building in New York City. Artists, like prophets, are seldom honored in their own country, so Eyfells’ current local exposure is our best chance to approach the work that has earned such respect in the international art world.
It’s not easy because, like so many contemporary artists, Eyfells didn’t just create art when he started. He has invented his own medium, his own form of art, even his own words – “collapsion,” “receptualism,” “truthicity” – for his form of art.
Typically, Eyfells takes a blank material, such as paper, folded cloth or rubber, and presses it for months between treated metal plates or gigantic molds. For the collapsions, he paints the bottom metal plate with a wet slurry or soup, then sandwiches paper or cloth between it and a top “stamp” plate of varying metal alloys.
Under prolonged pressure, the paper or cloth “meat” of this sandwich is shaped, stained and etched by the chemical reaction of slurry and metal. The resulting works are partly image. They bear the circular stamp of the plate, of course – and, within that, the image of a cross or a spiral is often clearly intelligible. But they are also partly sculpture. The cloth collapsions can be unfolded to float eerily in the gallery space, and even the framed paper works are pressed and corroded into a three-dimensional form.
And that’s not all, Eyfells acknowledges, since the collapsion process is akin to “the family of printmaking and even photography.” These works are not so much “mixed” media as they are a hybrid medium all their own. “It’s an amazing kind of remote control,” Eyfells said in an interview, “a force field that both complies with what I want to happen and always comes up with surprises.” Gravity and corrosion do the work of the artist’s hand; they do his will.
The titles indicate the elemental quality of these mysterious works: “Ghost Encounters,” “Difference as Essence,” “Coordinates Undetermined.”
The most challenging of all Eyfells’ works are probably the gigantic rubber collapsions, of which UCF is presenting three, the largest more than 16-feet square. This one, titled “Exemplars,” contains the imprint of shapes resembling tree stumps, arranged in two irregular concentric circulars. Wood chips cover the work’s surface in the negative space between these images. Here Eyfells has used the modern material of rubber to mimic the petrifaction of wood, a collapsion that nature accomplishes over eons. The scale of the works is no homage to the virtuoso achievement of the artist, although these works are incredibly laborious to create – and all of it by hand, no bulldozers allowed. Rather, they pay tribute to the vast scale of the natural world, which finally humbles anything that human artists can fit inside an art gallery.
It makes sense that the noted critic Donald Kuspit, writing in 1992, would associate Eyfells’ sculpture with “Robert Smithson’s earth art as a kind of rebellion against the modernist idea of sculpture as construction.” But, ironically enough, mammoth earth works like Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and James Turrell’s Rhoden Crater project rely on civilization – they do use bulldozers. As Kuspit noted, “Eyfells takes sculpture back to its prehistory in nature, obviating the civilized idea of it as the engineering of space.” At the same time, Eyfells’ methods – especially the painting of the bottom plate with slurry – shares much with the abstract expressionism current during his youth. “I’m like Jackson Pollock,” the artist says with a laugh, “except I paint from below.”
Eyfells’ process is also rooted in his geographic and geological origins, as UCF gallery director Kevin Haran remarks in his brochure commentary. Iceland is a place where Earth’s seething core is near the surface, bursting through in hot springs and scraped bare by glaciers. It has no deep cushion of alluvial soil like the Mesopotamian flood plains, no 30-foot layer of buffalo dung like North America’s prairies. In Iceland, human civilization holds on by its fingernails. So it makes sense that this Icelandic artist – acclaimed as one of Iceland’s greatest living artists – should have retraced the history of art back to before the cave paintings and those first stone-chipped figurines. Eyfells’ difficult and mysterious art hearkens back to the first art that humans recognized, those fossils and formations left by the cosmic hand of nature.
Philip E. Bishop is professor of humanities at Valencia Community College.