“I think of the spheres in these drawings as cells containing components which function together as systems. The cells are constraining, like prison cells. But they can also be understood as organic cells, with animals or people closely enveloped in a shared environment.”
A small portfolio of new drawings by painter Erik Thor Sandberg is now available for viewing at CONNERSMITH Gallery. There are only five of them in this group, but they are arresting and memorable both for Sandberg’s amazing draftsmanship and their fascinating iconography. Three of the five include a transparent sphere that encloses the figure. The other two feature the same nude female figure in strange, dreamlike circumstances. Indeed, all of them reflect Sandberg’s extraordinary imagination, as well as his understanding of the traditional meaning of certain imagery in Western art history. Sandberg betrays this understanding, while manipulating these images and their traditional significance to express his own vision in ways that, as he suggests in the statement quoted above, for him generate an unexpected polyvalence.
We may begin with probably the most complex and provocative of the group. Study for Cell suggests that it was created as a study for a painting including this image, or that it was a preliminary idea that informed the subsequent drawings in the group. What we see is a spherical group of female figures entwined with one another and a serpent that coils its way through them. There is also a bird trapped in the porous material that comprises the sphere, and the arm of one figure holds a spear that travels through the entire group, frightening the figure on the bottom left. One woman seems to be trying to enter the sphere, her buttocks exposed and her left leg kicking upward. As I contemplated this struggling group, my first impression was the horror of it, and immediately medieval images of the “Mouth of Hell” came to mind. These were often spherical in form, swallowing and containing the unfortunate who were condemned, it was believed, to eternal torture.
One of many possible examples of this can be seen in a manuscript made for Blanche of Castile and her son, King Saint Louis IX in the second quarter of the 13th century.
Within the spherical form of the mouth we see humans being tormented by animal-like demons. One of them catches a figure by the buttocks while another uses a tool to push him into the bowl that is cooking a group against a background of fire. The spherical form suggests the imprisonment of everyone, both human and demonic. There is no escape. Sandberg’s drawing, with its compression and writhing figures seems to take an image like this one and, using his realistic drawing technique, infuse it with a new level of horror.
The coiling serpent is a traditional symbol of the devil and with evil in general. Sandberg’s rendering doesn’t show us the head. Instead, the bird’s head emerges, its wing extended in a vain attempt to escape. In the statement above, the artist suggests that the image may be interpreted as an attempt to show the closeness with which we live with animals, and in another statement, he remarks that for him, serpents “embody curiosity”. His statement merits quotation, since it demonstrates Sandberg’s awareness of his manipulation of symbols:
“Though the animals are standard symbolic types, I play with their roles within these cells. Serpents, to me, instead of representing evil, embody curiosity. Birds could represent freedom, yet they rely on their perch to live. The lions could be symbols of strength, but I wanted to reveal their vulnerability.”
Before leaving this drawing, however, I would like to cite two other potential sources for Sandberg’s strange composition. The sense of circular movement, and the artist’s use of animals as symbolic figures made me think of well known representations of the “Temptation of St. Anthony”, such as an engraving from around 1491 by Martin Schongauer in which the animal-like demons have lifted the saint into the air, surrounding him in a struggling group.
Schongauer’s demon on the upper left, with his odd hornlike nose brought to mind yet another source, particularly for the figure with her buttocks in the air. This, of course, is in the work of Hieronymus Bosch whose Garden of Earthly Delights reflects the kind of imagination about “animals or people closely enveloped in a shared environment” we can see in Sandberg. One detail from the central panel of that colossal work shows three figures trying to enter a shell, bottoms up, carried by other naked figures, while a small bear and a bird sit on top.
The example of Bosch must also have been in the artist’s mind in the rest of these drawings. One features a lion trapped inside a floating fishbowl-like sphere, futilely roaring at a bird.
In another of the drawings the artist places a naked woman in a similar sphere in a significantly more horrifying situation.
Bent backwards, her legs emerging from the sphere, her toes barely touch the apparent ground. Unlike the unfortunate lion, whose prison is suspended in nothingness, in this drawing, titled Foundation, the sphere seems grounded, but alone. Three serpents, two inside the sphere, coil their way around the woman’s body which apparently serves as the “foundation” for a rising tower. Another serpent writhes around it, while the head of an owl peeks out from the top. There is no making sense of this image, and I for one, find it impossible to think of being trapped inside a sphere with serpents as anything but a nightmare. Still, the image is compelling, and remains in the mind long after seeing it. And while the Surrealists might come to mind, it is in the context of the fantasies of medieval manuscripts, and of artists like Bosch and Schongauer that I would again locate the sources of this work.
As with all works of art, digital images don’t convey the sensitivity and precision of Sandberg’s technique in these drawings. The transparency of the spheres achieved with simple media—graphite, white chalk that brings out the highlights, and colored pencils which remain in the gray/black range—needs to be seen in person to appreciate the artist’s controlled handling. I strongly recommend making an appointment for a viewing, and I hope that this short art historical contextualization of Sandberg’s imagery will have been helpful in navigating this artist’s unusual imagery.
Erik Thor Sandberg: New Drawings, on view by appointment June-July 2021, CONNERSMITH Gallery, Tuesday-Saturday, 10AM- 5 PM, 1013 O St NW, Washington, DC 20001. Call 202- 588-8750 or email email@example.com