Anna Camner’s paintings invite reflective contemplation – like the picture of ghostly, pearlescent and transparent silk fabric; or perhaps it is a plastic sheet, nearly luminous on a black background. Upon closer inspection, this beautiful material, rendered with such rich detail, proves to be splashes of mildew, fingerprints, and other less discernible stains. The sheet is also tattered and torn at the edges. In its pleated surface, it is easy to see shapes that spark associations with the human body, perhaps the sex organs in particular, but other things as well. These similarities are not obvious and viewers may easily wonder whether their imaginations have run away with them. Georgia O’Keeffe resolutely denied that her paintings of flowers were intended as metaphorical depictions of genitals and female sexuality. But once hidden figures begin to appear, it is difficult not to see them. Instead, with burgeoning paranoia, suspicions arise that what seems to be a realistic depiction hides something else, something darker. And given how time-consuming and exquisitely detailed Camner’s paintings are, it is difficult to believe that the artist has not intentionally created these ambiguities and potential readings.
The paintings focus on relatively limited details, and the lack of overview or explanatory narrative lends to the mysterious atmosphere hovering over them. They are precise close-up studies of materials, textures and surfaces, and yet the viewer cannot easily determine just what these materials are. We are also frequently suspended in our uncertainty about whether these materials are natural, organic – like plant cells or coral – or fabricated, and whether they are alive or dead. Ultimately, the lines in between are blurred, which is especially clear in the works that seem to depict some kind of process of decay, where a life or state of being transitions into something else. Small bubbles in a liquid are evidence of fermentation, dissolution. Other paintings appear to have a yellowish white, waxy material that has dried, hardened and cracked in some places. The properties of the material are studied: different states of matter, transformations and reactions. A similar material has been sliced in another painting, and sharply cut blocks are stacked atop one another. Human interference is contrasted against the more organic shapes of the material here.
The characteristics of a close-up study become even more evident in a painting of what might be a liquid, or some kind of organism. A fine-meshed net, like a nervous system, is surrounded by a circular border – like a specimen viewed through a microscope, or a window on a submarine or spaceship. In another painting, a pair of white-rubber-gloved hands hold out some kind of gelatinous membrane. The rubber gloves suggest a laboratory setting. Perhaps an experiment is in progress, or the substance being handled is poisonous, maybe even a carrier of disease? This thorough, nearly clinical level of observation is both depicted and encouraged. The thin material seems to be difficult to grasp and almost liquid; it resembles curls of smoke in the lower portion of the painting. On a metaphorical level, the painting depicts the challenge of grasping and holding on to something that is both sensual and evasive, and the fascination with something simultaneously beautiful and slightly disgusting, both desirable and frightening.
The paintings are usually relatively small in size; several measure 30 x 40 cm. The artist has explained that this is mainly because the subject matter she is depicting is relatively small. Regardless, the effect is that as a viewer, one must attend to the paintings up close to perceive their details, which results in concentration and in intimate encounter with the artwork. In a small picture, one might then suddenly see infinite space, as in the painting described above with the round, lens-like border, which can be seen as either a microscope or a telescope. Camner paints with fine brushes on hard surfaces: panels, sometimes acrylic sheets. Even so, she manages to convey something utterly tactile. We can see how it feels.
Anna Camner’s work has been described as resembling contemporary vanitas paintings. And to be sure, one can discern many references to art history, such as Dutch Renaissance and Baroque painting, or Surrealism. But that does not diminish the singular remarkability of the paintings. Bearing in mind media warning reports of a natural world that is sick and poisoned, contemporary reality creeps into these fantastical worlds, which may seem alien. With technical brilliance, Camner uses the possibilities of painting to create pictures that could hardly be achieved with a camera. Camner’s works are time-consuming – both to create and to behold. In this era of fast consumption and simplified messaging, they invite much-needed reflection.
Magnus af Petersens