Gillian Pederson-Krag

Book Review

  • Gillian Pederson-Krag: Paintings and Etchings 1970–2011

  • By Gillian Pederson-Krag, with an introduction by Tom Mederos and contributions by Jeannot Barr
  • 165 pages, 108 illustrated works
  • Published by Larson Publications, Burdett, New York, 2011
  • $38

This new monograph surveys four decades of Gillian Pederson-Krag’s oeuvre, reproducing some 100 works from the lengthy career of this contemporary realist painter and printmaker. The text, apart from a brief introduction by Tom Mederos, is the artist’s own: five brief essays in which Pederson-Krag outlines her intentions, preoccupations and influences. She cites and reproduces work by Giorgio Morandi, Arthur Rackham, Georges Seurat, Edouard Vuillard and Walter Murch, as well as a Byzantine Madonna, a Chinese brush painting and an Ivorian sculpture. While the art she admires is remarkably diverse, Pederson-Krag’s own emphases in her landscapes and still lifes—transcending the world and transporting the viewer—have remained quietly consistent throughout her career; and though she has been recognized by major collections, residencies and awards, it remains hard to place this elusive and reticent artist among her contemporaries. It is even hard to find an obvious thread linking the living artists she praises—Caren Canier, Neil Riley, Mark Karnes, James Bohary and Colleen Randall—beyond the general sense of contemplation and mystery, and their understated painterly virtuosity.

In one essay, Pederson-Krag borrows from Carl Jung to draw a distinction between “signs” (fixed, commonly accepted indicators that lead us back into the familiar material world) and “symbols,” which transport us beyond thinking and feeling: “A symbol,” Jung writes, “is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown, or hidden from us.”1 Pederson-Krag aims to create symbols in this sense, and as a result her images resist direct or unambiguous interpretation, and are refreshingly slow to absorb.

Gillian Pederson-Krag, Landscape (1991), soft ground and hard ground etching, 9 x 9 1/2 inches.

Gillian Pederson-Krag, Landscape (1991), soft ground and hard ground etching, 9 x 9 1/2 inches.

The surfaces of these prints and paintings are exhaustively considered; their gestures soft, calm and abbreviated; all is in order. Every complication of composition has been resolved, every nuance and mark integrated. The etchings avoid vagueness by bringing us back to the surface with refined foul biting in open passages. Her work has a lived-in quality, burnished and seasoned; there is nothing harsh or out of place. Her paintings may occasionally seem a bit tired, and she tends toward an overall diffuse yellow haze.

There is a tension between these tightly subdued surfaces and the artist’s stubborn refusal to offer the viewer explanatory references or explicit meaning. One finds this tension in Vermeer as well: we are offered everything but told little. There are no surprises in Pederson-Krag’s work, but no certainty either.

Her landscapes and interiors have a fullness and sufficiency that can make the entry of human figures perplexing. As in Edward Hopper’s work, there is some awkwardness in their appearance, a formality and slight discomfort. For Pederson-Krag they serve a different function from their inanimate settings: “Still-life and landscape paintings seem to originate from what I am observing. The figure paintings appear to come from some kind of imaginative concept.”2 In Picnic (2009), she brings the viewer into a painstakingly presented but emotionally ambiguous world: the golden sunshine is inviting, but the couple on the grass, engaged with each other, is not. Her mise-en-scènes carry solemn, mythic weight, like those of the French 19th-century Symbolists Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Paul Gauguin. Again like the Symbolists, Pederson-Krag is drawn to images of death, angels, picnickers and sleeping women. But her art historical net is broad: she also invokes the generous spirit and honest reticence of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779) as well as the secrecy and intimacy of Balthus (though without the frisson of forbidden sexuality). In their unresolvable tension, her scenes also carry a suggestion of Surrealism. And yet, behind it all one senses her love of Greek art, the art that first moved her as a child.

In her etchings Pederson-Krag keeps nature carefully husbanded. In Landscape (1991) she surveys the world with the granular care of Pieter Breughel the Elder, attending to the minutiae of the surface. Like Hercules Seghers, another important influence, she incorporates color in a subtly atmospheric way by printing with low-intensity hues. With rare exceptions, neither her etchings nor her paintings exceed 24 inches in either dimension; these are objects of intimate attention and reflection.

Left: Gillian Pederson-Krag, Two Performers (1981), oil on canvas, 22 x 24 inches. Innes Collection, Charlottesville, VA. Right: Gillian Pederson-Krag, Picnic (2009), oil on canvas, 18 x 15 inches.

Left: Gillian Pederson-Krag, Two Performers (1981), oil on canvas, 22 x 24 inches. Innes Collection, Charlottesville, VA. Right: Gillian Pederson-Krag, Picnic (2009), oil on canvas, 18 x 15 inches.

In the 1981 painting Two Performers Pederson-Krag presents a singer in a long gown accompanied by a lutenist. The scene is staged, the setting is bucolic, the foreground rocky yet tidy. Shadows are lengthening, and the atmosphere is golden and still. As in Antoine Watteau’s painting Mezzetin (1718–20), the performer’s heartfelt gesture, vulnerable and mannered, reaches out to no one in particular. Here her poise and formality convey expectancy—a muted longing. It is an exquisite and enigmatic image, evoking what Jung called a “symbolic existence in which I am something else, in which I am fulfilling my role, my role as one of the actors in the divine drama of life.” Pederson-Krag’s own role is to carry us to a place of vivid stillness—ineffable, resonant, suspended—which we cannot fully understand.

  1. Carl Jung,  Man and His Symbols, Carl Gustav Jung and Marie-Luise von Franz, eds. (London: Aldus Books, 1964), 3. []
  2. “Interview with Gillian Pederson-Krag by Elana Hagler,” Painting Perceptions: Commentary on Perceptual Painting. Posted 16 April 2012.” []