The Raritan Valley Community College Art Gallery presented exhibit Iceland Inspired Friday Feb. 20. On hand to give artists talks on their work were Jonathan Ricci and Anne Hughes, representing the Zia Gallery. Anne also spoke about work from the two other represented artists, landscape photographers Tom Krist and John Vlahakis. Each of the four artists has recently spent recent time in Iceland, taking special inspiration from the land’s unique ecology and geology.
Both Ricci and Hughes remarked in their talks that the sparsely inhabited country of Iceland, with its unique geography and spectacular mountainous landscapes, creates for the visiting artist a truly enchanted environment. With such obviously wonderful scenery, it is quite understandable how and from where the landscape photographers, Krist and Vlahakis, drew their inspiration. More subtly, but no less profound, though, is Iceland’s influence on Ricci, who has spent multiple summer residencies there.
Jonathan Ricci’s works in this exhibition are mixed media paintings where he explores how the very unique “midnight sun” of this northern land constantly changes the hues of his surroundings. He then combines that exploration with his own interests in birds and maps. Incorporating these ingredients with an artistic sensibility grounded in both color theory and 2-dimensional design, he has produced a fairly large body of small and medium-sized paintings, all having a common theme but each being different and having its own personality.
In a series of mixed-media paintings titled Cold Heat: Painting Under the Midnight Sun, each work is a mixture of acrylic painted geometric shapes giving the canvas a visually boisterous scene. His colored shapes jostle for room against one another, providing an abstract landscape for his subjects —the birds of Iceland, the Arctic Tern, Oyster Catcher, and Raven. These birds appear in his compositions as their silhouettes, either painted or collaged onto the canvas.
Both travel and migration play an important role in Ricci’s artistic expressions as he incorporates cut pieces of Icelandic maps and airline claim tickets into the collages. Oftentimes, he has cut out a piece of map in the shape of a bird’s silhouette and uses one or more of these shapes on a piece. Other times the birds are cut from black paper or painted upon the canvas. Some are in flight as others stand still as if perched on the ground.
Somewhat surprisingly, he also incorporates pieces of commercial sewing patterns into his compositions. According to his talk, these patterns help him reach back into his own family history. Ricci never knew any of his grandparents but he was told that one of his grandfathers worked as a tailor. As surprising as it is to find patterns incorporated into the compositions, it is equally surprising how successful this incorporation is. The patterns have lines, arrows, icons, and directions and are amazingly very similar to maps. The geometries of the maps and the patterns not only mesh well with the geometries of the background but also are able to stand out from the background, giving the pieces depth. In the work titled Blue Argyle, Ricci has cut out and layered the pattern shapes to imply mountains above which his migrating birds fly.
Ricci’s innovations do not stop at the choice of materials with which he makes his mixed-media pieces, though. Iceland’s crucial role in offering a migration route for birds, and especially for the Arctic Tern, is a major part of his central theme. Acting on a desire to let others know the importance of this migration path, Ricci has found a unique way to engage the general public in a special project. While in Iceland he took ceramic birds made by him and placed them in the northern coastal town of Skagaströnd in places where passersby would find them. Just as scientists band migrating birds, Ricci has attached notes to his birds. Each note asks the person taking the bird to send him an email and photograph so that he can track his birds’ own migrations. Ceramic birds similar to the ones he left in Iceland are displayed in the gallery. They are beautifully shaped, each one being as individual as are his paintings. They are also beautifully glazed with subtle variations of color.
Featured image caption: Ceramic Bird with Note Waiting to Be Found in Skagaströnd.