Meta Isæus-Berlin and The Reminder of the Underwood

Meta Isæus-Berlins exhibition The Reminder of the Underwood will be opening this Thursday at Galleri Andersson/Sandström in Stockholm. Radar met up with the artist to talk about escapism, fundamental human questions, the language of colors and the feminist statement in here large-scale paintings.

I met Meta at the gallery the day before the opening of her upcoming show The Reminder of the Underwood. All the works had already been put up on the gallery walls; the only thing left was the cleaning, that too was almost done, as I entered the gallery. The artist was calm and pleased with the cohesive choice of only six new large-scale paintings.

You were quite early in your field of artists, by working mainly with large-scale installations, how did your artistic career get started?
– I got my breakthrough on the art scene in 1993 with my exam piece from The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, which Moderna Museet (The Modern Museum of Art in Stockholm) bought for an exhibition; it was three large-scale installations. So I immediately got introduced to the international art scene. That was of course a huge thing!

–I had been painting since 1980 and went trough several preparatory art schools. Therefore I had a life before my breakthrough, which made me ready for the art scene when it suddenly happened.

So you have a traditional art degree?
–Absolutely, I don’t think you can have more traditional artistic training then I have! At first, I wanted to work with textile.

– I have had a lot of use for all knowledge I got during my years of training. I think you can say that I have an exalted sense of materials, seeing a potential in every material, and to not be afraid of using unusual materials. That might be an old fashioned attitude towards art, but in another way, I think that an attitude is never old fashioned. Art is a lot about materials and to use what you have in front of you.

You are mostly known for your large-scale installations, but in 2004 you announced that you had finished making installations and would only concentrate on painting, and then you went back to making installations again, why?
– About how I start, and quit, and start, and quit, and start again?

– Actually, I have only quit painting one time; and that was 1989, during my training at The Royal Institute of Art when I felt I had to concentrate on either painting or sculpture, and then I decided to only work with sculpture and installations.

– I quit making installation in 2004. I made that statement for an exhibition at Liljevalchs in Stockholm. By then, felt I had come to end because I had been working with a series of work that was on the theme ‘death’ – and then it just felt like the end.

– If I should be honest I started painting again after ten years when my father died in 1999, and painted privately for seven years. Painting for me then was like a waterfall – I was so productive!

– And then, again, I stared making installations in 2012 with an exhibition at Theilska Galleriet.

– For me it doesn’t matter if I make installations or not; it is a never-ending process of trying to express and formulate what is important at the moment.


Meta Isæus-Berlin, “The Return of the Primal Scream”, 2015. Courtesy Galleri Andersson/Sandström. 

What would you say are your recurring themes?
– It is often said that I work with psychodrama, which is true, people’s dilemmas and the nature of choices interests me. And how the human mind reacts under pressure.

How are these themes visible in the exhibition?
– For example, in the painting The Return of the Primal Scream. People today live under a lot of pressure. A lot of people wake up every morning with anxiety, we should need to start every morning with screaming all of those feelings out! It should be refreshing! Instead of a coffee room we could need a screaming room at every office. Or maybe both! It could be like health care for us.

– It has to become socially accepted to show these feelings! It doesn’t work if only one person are screaming and making her anxiety visible, because then that one person will be seen as crazy. We need to have ”the scream of the day”, as a collective workout at every working place. I have thought of that while at the subway in the morning, everyone looks so serious and strained.

– Therefore I think it’s good to picture all of that feelings instead of the escapism painting is usually known for; it is very common to paint dreamy works, that I also did before, but this time it feels great that I didn’t. To show how things really are instead. I have the power to talk about these things and about feelings because I am an artist, so therefore I did.

–Another painting is High Expectations, that illustrates how you expect things to be, when you want things to be in a certain way and you are so very keen about it. This, I think, what makes people most vulnerable; and this is why high expectations never happen. When you wish for something too hard, it is doomed to fail.

– The painting Radar is about how we never live in the present, how we try to predict the future. I think it has always been like that in the human history, so all these themes refer to fundamental human feelings and questions.


Meta Isæus-Berlin, “The Anxiety Hole That Drains You of Energy Every Morning”, 2015. Courtesy Galleri Andersson/Sandström.

Your work contains a lot of color – and are sometimes said to be contemporary expressionism. What are your thoughts about your use of color?

– To paint and to work with color is like to play an instrument to me. I am very precise with color, and to find just the right tint. I am color sensitive. For example, every tint of red is different, my job is to find just that red that is the right one to create exact that feeling. I’m very exact with colors when I paint – as I was with the materials when I worked with installations. To paint with color is to use a language. I enjoy it; it is like any other interests – I am a color nerd!

Is there any connection between your use of color to your primary artistic themes?
– Yes, I think so. Every art piece start with feelings and experiences, and because of that it is possible to tell something with a piece of art. I am always interested in other people and their stories. I remember stories; this together with my own experiences and the change of time becomes an exchange. The painting works as a flow of all this.

Can you tell me more about this exhibition specifically?
– All these paintings are made in darker tints, unlike my earlier paintings – but yet they always show a duality.

– We live in a time of escapism. We seem to have an enormous longing to somewhere else and something we think will be better then the present. I mean, look at all these travel advertisements or all the home décor articles, it’s an industry! This creates a lot of anxiety, as I mentioned before, but it also creates power and something that makes us grow.

– I never paint sunshine or bright colors, which is funny because that is was everyone are longing for.


Meta Isæus-Berlin, “Radar”, 2015. Courtesy Galleri Andersson/Sandström.

I think a lot of your paintings refer to spatial aspects, do you think that is connected to your work of making installations?
– That’s true! I always think bigger then just one specific painting.

– While enter the gallery you will meet the painting The Return of the Primal Scream and when you turn around you’ll meet The Anxiety Hole That Drains You of Energy Every Morning. These two paintings together create a spatial scheme, an oscillation, that gets the feeling of a breath out and, then a breath in.

– I see this oscillation as a timeline. Those things that give energy and those things that take energy from us, together this creates a circle of life. You need both of them. You need to have some anxiety to start over again and to search for the power to scream the anxiety out. That is how I want to describe life – because that’s how I think it is. I am just telling the truth!

Do you think this circle of life is relaxing?
– I am comfortable in the chaos of life, and that’s why I can talk about it. I have no escapism. I think this is the way to live – it creates a circle. We have to assimilate this chaos.

– But life is trying, especially human relations, but you need those human relations and all the things that create chaos to live and to get energy.

You always name your work, why?
– That’s because I think the viewer should be able too trust the artist; what the artist does and why she does it. There is no coincidence in an artistic process. There is often a distrust in artists, on what they do and why, to put a title is to make a statement. This opens up for thoughts to the viewer. It creates an experience. To look at art is to throw yourself into emotions – it is a job to look at art, and it should be.

– The viewer’s thought about an art piece doesn’t always have to be the same as the the artist’s, which opens up for discussion and an exchange of thoughts. But you have to trust the artist and that she knows what she is doing – it is a way to value art and the artist.


Meta Isæus-Berlin, “The Alvar Aalto Sanatorium Furniture”, 2014. Courtesy Galleri Andersson/Sandström.

How has your artistry developed?
– I am getting older and therefore I gain perspective, which makes me better as an artist.

– There is an Chinese adage that you are at the top of your artistic career when you are 80 or 90 years old, so I have something to look forward to, I’ll just have to hire someone to make the art for me!

What are you up to now?
– I am going to continue painting – and to make installations, both of them from now on!

– I have also decided to continue to make large-scale paintings. It is a way to take space. That I, as a woman, paint in large scale, is a feminist statement as well as it is liberating for me as an artist.

Meta Isæus-Berlins exhibition The Reminder of the Underwood will be on display at Galleri Andersson/Sandström in Stockholm April 23 – May 30th.