In the Cryptic Sense: the work of Kristinn Már Pálmason


À quoi sert l’utopie ~ What is Utopia for?

What is a utopia for? To make meaning. Confronting the present, my present, a utopia is a second term which permits the sign to function: discourse about reality becomes possible, I emerge from the aphasia into which I am plunged by the panic of all that doesn’t work within me, in this world which is mine.

Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes[1]


What does it mean to paint cryptically? Generally, it means to generate sensation that originates obscurely and remains obscure, ambiguous: is hidden, secret, occult, or in an encompassing sense, enigmatic. The recent work of Kristinn Már Pálmason is a lengthy meditation on the graphics of the unaccountable. Sense issues forth from regimes of imagery in which any single genre of story or type of iconography is absent, but where the lineaments of compositions nevertheless signify. The work operates as writing, not on or about a subject, nor as a form of scribbling that sets out to explore the limits of text. Instead, there is a quality of mark-making and image, colour and tone, which in its formulation and consistency allows for the possibility of writing in itself. Instances and moments of meaning are to be found in the relation between the self-reference of images rendered specific relative to each other and their place in the overall compositions. In this correlation, between reflexivity and index, a seemingly unknown inscription is embedded—a result of long-term and steady practice.

While Pálmason’s paintings may remind those familiar with a history of abstract painting the concerns, in recent decades, within the work of artists as diverse as Jonathan Lasker, Gary Stefan and Terry Winters, the images residing in them resists the categorization of painting according to schooled methodology. This is not to suggest that a history of painting and other graphic art is absent from his work, or evidently from the knowledge used in order to execute it. It is to assert that his paintings do not form a modification or critical elaboration of an existing type of painting. Gestural, painterly elements sit next to illustrative depictions. Flat, contoured silhouettes are placed side by side next to linear drawing, and colour is employed both to demarcate shapes as figurative and to offer a subtle play of the explicit diversity of visual properties. The paintings establish no critique of representation in so far as the imagery is made to represent citations from other art, for performative purposes. They contain elements of surrealism, studies of shapes and pictures, and ornament. Organic figures reminiscent of the human body or of biochemistry occur next to more freely-associative forms. Titles, such as Mana, from 2018, Alien Hourgarden, of 2017, Phantom, 2016, or The Dream of the Order, of 2014, show a continuous naming of the impulse-to-suggest that guides making the work.

Pálmason’s work is not significant, however, for what it does not represent. The consistency of his techniques allows the apparent variegation of the paintings to provide the visual intelligibility of their content. The work expresses a rich life-world that would be impossible were it not disobeying, with great fecundity, rules in painting often accompanied by doctrines that tell people what to think. In his 1980 essay about a catalogue of the work of the painter François Martin, Jean-Luc Nancy explains how the example of a catalogue helps point out what is not pictorial within what is pictorial. For Nancy, because of the possibility of writing, and then, writing about painting, there is: ‘something legible in visibility of and for itself’ (Nancy, 2006, p.151). There exists in painting, moreover, ‘in the nonpictorial at the very heart of painting, a certain writability or scripturality’ (Nancy, 2006, p.151). Determining this writing in painting is less important than saying that, in the place of painting, whatever is pictorial is structured essentially by writing. This claim is provocative when considering any sort of painting, but especially in painting where an integral semiotic scheme comes together as a matter of exigency. Through the constituents of painting Pálmason requests, with great urgency, that his viewers will also be active readers. The rewards of deciphering and taking the time to make sense of his paintings, to appreciate how they contain the essence of a kind of writing, are no less than for any other greatly innovative painting.

Contemplating the work as a world for which no account can be given, where graphics has come to stand in for writing, implies that there is something more to the meaning of the paintings than graphics, taken as a discourse, can provide. It is nevertheless within the personalized featuring of drawing and naming that a further significance can be glimpsed. Two graphite drawings from 2014, Google Nest I and Google Nest II, provide a conceptual bridge between early paintings in this decade and more recent ones. Paintings such as Nurse, 2011, Power Painting and Time to Tell of 2012, and installations such as Doppelganger of 2011 and An titils of the same year, prefigure later, more complex paintings. In them, attention is drawn to a distribution of images as graphic devices placed either on flat-coloured surfaces in individual paintings or as coloured panels arranged on walls. In the two drawings not only are there specific linear representations of objects such as cut diamonds and bombs, the titles—of the seemingly ubiquitous internet search engine, but also, of a huge number—point to the problem of commensurability in today’s information-driven world. Pálmason’s meditation produces, through its on-going duration, perhaps most importantly, work of sufficient power to make people wish to stay dwelling on it.

Dr. Simon Deakin, April, 2018.


Barthes, R. (1978) Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Nancy, J.L. (2006) ‘Catalogue’ in Sparks, S. (ed.) Multiple Arts: The Muses II. Translated by Simon Sparks. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 143-158.

[1] (Barthes, 1978, p.76)




Symphony of symbols


The work of Kristinn Már Pálmason brings to mind the primitive strength of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, the sophisticated compositions of Joan Mirò, and also the symbolist painters’ ability to amaze the viewer. These characteristics are mixed with an element of research that, in its expression, reminds of the visual mapping of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas.

The objects in Pálmason’s art are fluctuating in a monochrome background, establishing relationships among each other and with the viewer, creating connections that are continuously changing direction and meaning. The more we look at his paintings, the more they turn into secrets gardens, full of mysteries, inhabited by strange creatures that observe us and try to establish a communication with our subconscious. The worlds that Pálmason creates are built by mixing entities of different natures: on one hand we have forms that recall plants, trees and organic structures; on the other, artificial objects related with technology and everyday life as well as clear geometrical figures. Moreover, there are forms that are not ascribable to the visible world and are difficult to lead back to well-known things. These forms talk to us on a different level: the archetypical one. They make Pálmason’s work full of never ending networks and meanings, that the viewer can disclose in an endless exploration.

The artist plays with these shapes establishing relationships between the concrete world, in which we move around, and the inner reality in which things are felt but not clearly seen, where emotions lightly touch the consciousness before fading away, always transforming. Our feelings are often buried under the practical issues we face in everyday life. This endangers our access to them, driving us to, more or less willingly, reject an important part of our being human: the one connected with our primitive origins. The role of Pálmason is in this sense similar to that of the Magister Ludi in The Glass Bead Game, a novel written by Hermann Hesse. In his book Hesse presents the Glass Bead Game as a pastime of an intellectual elite living in the fictional province of Castaldia. The game described in the book is a kind of synthesis of human learning, a way to find out the connections among different fields of art and knowledge. The scholarly members in the book are dedicating all their lives to increase their knowledge; in the Game, the rules of which are never explained, they are free to creatively apply any concept they have learnt, discovering links among the most disparate themes, finding, for example, a consonance between the rhythmic qualities of Giulio Cesare’s Latin texts and the pauses in the Byzantine Church singing. The authentic goal of the glass bead players is to discover elements recurring in different time and places, finding out more about the functioning of the human mind. Hermann Hesse has been inspired by the rationalist philosophers of the 17th century and by their Mathesis Universalis theory. These thinkers aimed to find a universal order, measures and structures observed both in the universe and in our minds, clues to discover the mathematical rules that govern our world.

Pálmason and the glass bead players share a desire to search beyond outward appearances, without accepting reality in a passive way. They believe that there must be a continuity between us and the world we live in, a reason why we are here as part of a greater organism. In comparison with Castaldia’s intellectuals, Pálmason is less interested in what the human genius can produce in terms of knowledge and creativity. In his work he explores fields concerning human being: his interest in archetypical forms and collective symbols derives from the idea that there is a connection between humans and nature. In his work the artificial objects seem to gain the role of new archetypes, symbols of the contemporary society. He focuses inwards, where the underlying jumble of primitive emotions, shut-in feelings, ancient and intimate memories are segregated, figuring out how they could coexist with our modern lives. Pálmason tries to mend the increasing distancing of the individuals from their subconscious, creating a dialogue between those two entities.

Pálmason’s creation process usually starts when he gets a suggestion from the concrete reality that recalls a completely different remembrance that was lost. Then it gets complicated: finding a visual representation for an unclear sensation takes a lot of time, since such representation has to be perfect in order to establish an effective communication. As in The Glass Bead Game, where students need years and years of hard studies before being able to play this complex game, also Kristinn Már Pálmason has been spending a lot of time developing the visual definition for some of the symbols he frequently uses. The evolution of these shapes is clearly visible in Pálmason’s past works, where he used to focus on just one form at a time, repeating it as many times as needed. Over time, these symbols have been increasing their importance; while tormenting the artist they havr gained a high rank in the internal hierarchy of figures of his latest works. Eyes, lips, suns, some kinds of plants and faces are the most recurring items in Pálmason’s art. The eyes are the door through which the world enters into us, while the lips are what let inner things get out into the world, the way in which we express ourselves. The plants and the sun are icons of nature and life; finally the faces, which appear everywhere because of the pareidolia effect, characterize ourselves as individuals.

Time is also conceptually important in the work of Pálmason: thanks to the passage of eras, some symbols and shapes have been deposited as sediments in the human genetic code; the task of the artist is to remove the stratifications of ages and give back light to them. Time is also what the viewer needs to fully explore all the depicted elements and their synergy.


Despite the chaotic appearance of Pálmason’s most recent creations, they are guided by meticulous rules established - and occasionally broken - by the artist himself. The relationship between the components and the borders of the canvas is studied in order to obtain a balanced disharmony, allegory of the complex dynamics of our lives. Like letters of an ancient language, Pálmason’s symbols need to be collocated in the right sequence; every form must be connected with the others, like alphabetic letters that must be in the right order to form a full sense word. The paintings of Pálmason are like visual texts that should not be read with a rational eye, but should be allowed to flow through us far enough so that they can reach our deeper selves. The communication created by Pálmason’s art does not fail because, ultimately, we are sons and daughters of the same history: the great tale of the human being.

Ana Victoria Bruno




The World of Signs and Forms: Paintings by Kristinn Már Pálmason


Our world has two faces. It is material, rough or smooth, layered and mysterious, an unformed chaos that becomes harder to fathom the longer we peer into it. But as human beings inhabit this world it is transformed: Shapes and things start to appear everywhere that take on a special meaning for us, images, symbols and signs that come to seem somehow a natural and inextricable part of our world. Some have been with us for millennia and appear already in ancient cave paintings and rock carvings. Others are more fleeting but nonetheless capture the eye and become like markers on a journey, guiding us through our world. It is as though certain shapes, proportions and colour combinations spontaneously engender meaning and speak to us – not only momentarily but across generations and eras. Nonetheless, the signs and symbols have gradually cut loose from their worldly moorings. They have turned into abstract systems that seem to have little to do with the primordial world. We see this most clearly in our own time where signs appear everywhere, flat and without texture – floating weightless and immaterial in a virtual space.

In Kristinn Már Pálmason’s paintings these signs again gain weight and texture. They do not appear two-dimensional and free-floating like the symbols on traffic signs or the icons on our computer screens, but are embodied in layered and textured paint which reconnects them to their natural roots. They spring from the natural world: From the flames of a bonfire, the branches of trees or the shadows cast by the weak evening light. In this way, Kristinn Már recaptures the depth and mystery of the shapes he works with – he returns to them their power and their depth of meaning. When we contemplate his paintings we can understand how shapes and signs could inspire stories and poetry, mystical experiences and even religions.

In this way, Kristinn Már places himself in the strong tradition of twentieth-century painters who have actively resisted the contemporary tendency to divorce meaningful symbols from their origin in our experience of the world itself. Among them we could mention Kazimir Malevich, Paul Klee, Anna Eva Bergman and Antoni Tàpies. These artists, and many others, felt that we could no longer perceive the symbolic face of our world and the power of the forms it reveals. They worked to recapture this power and reconnect us to the experience of our distant ancestors who read their world and stood in wonder at the wisdom it communicated. The depth and rich textures of their paintings, as of the paintings oof Kristinn Már Pálmason, returns the signs to their material mooring. Their imagery is rich in meaning and texture like the world itself.

 Jón Proppé




Dark Lucidity – die Malerei von Kristinn Már Pálmason


Ist das Leben ein Gefangener seiner Darstellung, wie dies der italienische Schriftsteller Antonio Tabucchi meint oder kann die Kunst eine Möglichkeit finden dieses wiederzugeben? Und welche Mittel stehen ihr zur Verfügung die Realität jenseits des bloßen Abbildens in ihr Medium zu übersetzen. Geht es doch auch darum jene Zwischentöne zwischen Tag und Nacht, zwischen Hell und Dunkel oder Leere und Dichte, die einem zuweilen ein Fenster hinter die Kulissen des schnell vorbeiziehenden Alltags öffnen, zu treffen. Die Herausforderung diese in eine künstlerische Form zu bringen sowie das nur scheinbare Paradoxon der Zeitlosigkeit eines Augenblickes im Bild einzufangen ist ein wesentlicher Fokus im Werk des 1967 in Island geborenen Künstlers Kristinn Már Pálmason. Ausgangspunkt vieler Bilder ist die Natur und die Vielfalt des Lebens selbst. Gesehenes oder die Stimmungen zwischen Melancholie, Stille und Zeitlosigkeit als auch die Natur bilden die Basis seines Formenrepertoires, aus dem er seine reduzierte Symbolik schöpft. Seine Bilder zeigen die Motive jenseits eines literarischen oder dokumentarischen Blickwinkels. Das abbildhafte, illustrative der Objekte verschwindet und Motive, wie die Bäume oder die Sonnenscheibe werden zu grafischen Kürzeln, die auf das reale Vorbild verweisen. Diese setzt Kristinn Már Pálmason oft in Schwarz auf die Leinwand. Der farbige Bildgrund wird zunehmend wichtiger und illustriert auch die, der Malerei immanenten Parameter von Licht und Raum. Das Bild ossziliert solcherart zwischen figurativem Motiv und abstrakter Lesbarkeit. Das Thema Zeit oder vielmehr die Zeitlosigkeit ist allgegenwärtig. In der Stille der suggerierten Landschaften, in der symbolträchtigen, am oberen Bildrand schwebenden schwarze Sonne und in dem individuellen Blau des Bildgrundes. Dieser sucht scheinbar jenen Moment einzufangen, in der die Welt langsam in den Tag erwacht. Oder ist es eher die Ruhe vor dem Sturm? Denn auch wenn man nichts von den Widersprüchen des Lebens sieht, bedeutet es nicht, dass der Künstler nicht ganz bewusst damit arbeitet. Gerade in der Art wie er Symmetrien und Harmonien im Bild auch wieder bricht, oder wie in der tänzerischen Bewegung der Bäume leise Ironie andeutet. Ebenso beziehen sich manche seiner Motiv ganz konkret auf die Dinglichkeit der Konsumwelt und auf ihre mediale Präsenz. So ist die zackige Krone eine Umsetzung jenes Logos, das eine Rolex-Uhr als solche kennzeichnet. Dabei spielt er einerseits auf die, mit dem Luxusartikel verbundene Konnotationen an, als dass das malerisch-grafische Spiel mit dem Rolex-Logo seiner Passion für Uhren und Zifferblätter entspricht. Die Uhr als Symbol der Zeit ist in einer Serie von Schwarz-Weiß Malereien omnipräsent. Es sind reale und erfundene Ziffernblätter die Pálmason darstellt, zuweilen verzerrt oder humorvoll interpretiert, wenn er diese ein wenig „aus der Form“ zieht. Ihn interessiert dabei der Gegensatz zwischen dem Design und seiner spontanen, spielerischen Umsetzung in die Malerei. Ebenso wie das Logo der Rolex verweist auch diese Serie der Zifferblätter auf eine zeitkritische Reflexion, doch ohne diese offen darzustellen. Pálmasons Malerei ist so gesehen an einer besonderen Schnittstelle angesiedelt. Dort wo die beiden Systeme, jenes der Natur selbst und jenes der Malerei zusammentreffen. Die Wahrnehmung der Natur und des Lebens erfolgt vor und parallel zur Formgebung im Kunstwerk, ohne jedoch in eine banale Beschreibung zu verfallen. Die Kunst hat im besonderen Maße dabei die Möglichkeit, ein Begreifen des nicht Beschreibbaren bzw. die Ahnungen von den inneren Zusammenhänge des Lebens sinnlich und visuell darzustellen. Das dies hier in der Reduktion der Form am besten gelingt ist evident, da hier eindeutig die Priorität im Dialog zwischen Wahrnehmung und Form beim künstlerischem Schaffensprozess liegt. Den Malgrund setzt der Künstler einerseits aus vielen Schichten und Lasuren zusammen, auf dem die schwarzen Formen gleichsam zu schweben scheinen. Die rhythmische Struktur des Farbauftrages überzieht den Bildgrund mit einer reliefartigen Oberfläche, die einmal mehr dem Bild glänzende Lichter aufsetzt. In den aktuellen Arbeiten wird der Rand mit einer Farbe versehen, der sich aus dem zentralen Motiv ergibt. Diese diffundiert in das Weiß des Bildgrundes hinein, wie als wenn die Farben in Schwingung versetzt wären. Kristinn Már Pálmason verwendet rotbraune sowie blau-schwarze Farbtöne, die das Erscheinungsbild seiner Bilder prägen und diese auch miteinander verbinden. Andere Arbeiten entstehen einem Palimpsets vergleichbar und öffnen Fenster in untere Malschichten. Solcherart beschreiben sie von außen nach innen eine „Archäologie der Farben“ in der man je nach Freilegung der unteren Schichten immer tiefer zu kommen scheint. Die Anmutung an Oberflächenstrukturen alter Hausfassaden, verwitterter Holzstrukturen ist dabei offensichtlich. Insofern kommt ihm die Ästhetik von Wien entgegen, in dem der Künstler nun schon seit fast zwei Jahren lebt. Die Melancholie ist dem Isländer vertraut, dem Puls einer von vielerlei Kulturen geprägten Stadt und der sich daraus entwickelten Symbolik und Ornamentik spürt er gerne nach. Übernimmt er das eine oder andere aus der Erinnerung arbeitet er dennoch kaum mehr mit den Motiven der Natur, sondern viel mehr mit der Realität des Bildes selbst und versucht den Phänomenen der Farbe nachzuspüren, sie zu entdecken und mit den Möglichkeiten ihrer Materialität zu arbeiten. Es liegt etwas Rätselhaftes über ihren Bildern, das, so der deutsche Maler Markus Lüpertz, jedoch grundsätzlich die leidenschaftliche Motivation des Schaffenden darstellt, weil er sich gerne dort aufhält, „um mit der Situation des Unabsehbaren umzugehen.“

Silvie Aigner, 2010