By Janet Koplos 2003
Marian Heyerdahl has pursued a sculptural lineage of abstract, symbolic forms. Her objects have included egg-shaped vessels large enough to insist on their imaginative or symbolic qualities, or ovoid, female-genital shapes that link ancient fertility motifs to modern streamline designs. Even when her works do not specifically refer to the sexual dimensions of life, she has tended to create classic, simple forms that recall antiquity, or even prehistory, and often cultures other than her own.
Part of the reason for this may be that Heyerdahl took her art-school training in ceramics; the vessels she made in clay in the 1980s are simple and often elegant in form, sometimes combining stylized animal forms with the vase shape. Since then she has sometimes worked in clay, but also in cement, which easily adopts the same vocabulary of forms and may also allude to earth, to flesh and to architecture, as clay so naturally does.
She has extended this kind of form into pure abstraction. For example, for a 1995 installation called “Life and Death” at Norabakken in Oslo, she constructed and pigmented a cement shape that recalls the physical volume of the pod of an outrigger canoe, although there are no details to identify it as such. The form was suspended in the gallery, as if it sailed upon waves of air. The cords from which it hung seemed to acquire and convey light from above, contributing to an ethereal effect.
Here we can identify several of her interests. The shape is minimalistic in an organic manner, and its subtly modulated surface shows that she retains an interest in touch. At the same time, through the use of light and color, the work has a quiet radiance that is spiritually suggestive. In other works, Heyerdahl has created the same impact through the use of metal leaf applied to a smooth surface. Sometimes her forms vaguely describe an animal or human figure, usually in a rather formal, upright, ritualized pose, as if ceremonially offering something; at other times the graceful and mysterious forms make specific reference to the female genital cleft, most directly in a cement and gold-leaf object called Birth Portal.
On a grand scale, Heyerdahl, in her 1997 “Gambia Project,” constructed a house-like enclosure that had a long, narrow but organically segmented form, recalling a pyramid from one view and a pumpkin from another. On this adobe enclosure, constructed of clay from an abandoned termite mound, the fluted ribs were perforated by small circular openings high up and arched windows at a lower level. A brow on the window for the functional purpose of shedding rain again recalled the stylized genital shape, or perhaps the prow of a ship. The resonant and also secretive interior of the structure had temple-like verticality, an almost musical repetition of elements, and muted light. The smoothed surfaces contrasted with rafter bracing made of lengths of tree limbs showing all idiosyncratic irregularity of nature, in contrast to which the structure’s form was clearly a human notion of refuge. The work has since succumbed to time and weather.
Heyerdahl has also worked in a different, although still feminist, vein in other mediums. A group of photographs was inspired by gun shells she found at the waterfront. She filled them with clay to mimic the contours of new and used lipstick, with the exception of a single example that limns an erect penis. She has also reworked these elements into mirror images recalling rockets, and has played off shadows to suggest that they hover in some unspecified void.
Contrasting sharp concepts with gentle surfaces, Heyerdahl’s assertive statements note the primacy of the male and female complementary opposition and the universality of reproductive principles, along with the comforting beauty and familiarity of these forms. A few of her sculptures take other shapes. A group of cement or ceramic sculptures from the “Life or Death” installation has elongated totemic shapes with features at their tops that recall eyes plus horns or small pointed ears, like those of cats. This elemental group incorporates reproductive features, such as an egg held in vestigial hands. They are finished with leaf. Another of her formal expansions was a large installation at the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in 1998 that seemed to suggest mountain and lake in a curving wall and an expanse of thick, dried, fractured clay.
Heyerdahl seems to seek essences, forms so familiar they don’t need names but speak directly to the viewer’s senses and memories.