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The Many Faces of Carin

Wonderful Swedish artist Carin Ellberg's practice has since her time at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm been marked by a feminist thematic approach, refuting the male-driven norms and positions of the art world. She began painting self-portraits (for an hour a day) back in 1985, leading up to present day and her ongoing exhibition at Andréhn-Schiptjenko. The exhibition which presents a sequential time line of a rough amount of over 600 self-portraits spanning over three decades, chronicles through the imagery a life of changes and is carried by the strength of universal relatability.

Carin Ellberg at Andréhn-Schiptjenko. Photo credit: Jean-Bapiste Béranger

I began painting self-portraits back in the fall of 1985 while enrolled in my second year at the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm and initially it derived from being wary of performance anxiety which just about marks every art school in the world. The idea that occured to mind was that no matter what else I would bring forth as an artist, I will always have made this series of self-portraits. I figured by the time I would graduate this were to be in the least an accomplishment to my credit as an artist. In the beginning I would just take whatever piece of appropriate surface I could find around the studio, like a piece of masonite without even priming the portrait which is something I began with later. The linear and serial aspect I realized would be met by both dating the self-portraits and attributing them with a serial number. I set forth a time frame for the process, allowing no more than an hour's worth of time for the completion of each, stressing that the act of painting the self-portraits should be off-the-cuff. I always stored away the portraits once completed and never kept them hanging around amidst my other work in the studio, in so far as not to be impacted by a prior portrait. In terms of general influences while at the academy, there was so much representation of men in art around then, and I looked particularly towards key figures that were women; painters like Vera Nilsson and Siri Derkert whose work spoke to me much.

If you look at the first rows of portraits in the exhibition, you can see as a unifying element that I'm consitently wearing a smock which in reality was a kimono of sort that I used to wear. I was in that age of wanting to experiment with looks, designs, roles and fashion so I had an initial idea of not detracting any focus away from my face this way by a uniform. At some point I stopped with that, letting through my regular attire of the day and as such the portraits are now indicative of various periods in time through timely attributes that you can spot and find in them. I don't think it would have been very realistic to do one portrait unconditionally every single day and during some periods I was more active and others less, but there has been a conistent continuity nevertheless since the conception of the idea. The portraits have been shown in various occasions over time and I actually first showed them whilst still at the academy, at Galleri Mejan, which was met with quite some hoopla, a bit of controversy if you will, since it was deemed preposterous to exhibit your work prior to graduation and degree presentation.

Am I a nostalgic? Yes, very much so. A nostalgic, a romantic and what else have you. But if you ask me whether seeing these self-portraits renders me nostalgic I would say not so particulary. I can regard them in the exhibition space with a certain distance to myself. It's not that particular portraits do not bring back memories or remind me of where in time I was then, but it's not a pressing feeling in itself. Almost without exception there's only me in the portraits but on a handful of them I'm depicted together with either one of my two sons, both of whom appear individually alongside me in the series. I can spot where along the sequential line my face for instance is getting a bit rounder than usual as a result of being pregnant and then see how my face quickly thins out again post giving birth due to all the caloric burning of feeding a baby. My first son was born while I was still at the academy and consequently he would be there with me in the studio and in the instance of his appearing, it will simply have been that he woke up once I had already began painting and then came and joined me by my seat. I felt that it was neat to have him in there; after all my children are such an intrinsic and extended part of me that it couldn't possibly make more sense.

The last portraits that are seen in the exhibition I made quite a few years back by now. It's like life itself, you reach moments where you for whatever and various reaons come to a hiatus, only to revisit and resume something at a later point in time again. The last few years have been so intense with projects and exhibitions. The portraits make for only a certain fraction of my entire body of work and I'm only now reaching a point of soon being free in the studio again and can really feel a longing to be there. I can see how this really would be an exemplary way to start the day. The idea of course has been to keep painting these potraits until forever, and seeing them like this, it occurs to me that I hope that I can and will.

Carin Ellberg "Selfportraits" is on view through September 30 at Andréhn-Schiptjenko in Stockholm

Photos: Installation and exhbition images courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Béranger and Andrehn-Schiptjenko

To learn more about Carin Ellberg, visit:

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