Anne Maria Udsen’s diverse practice ranges from drawing, painting to graphic work and mixed media. A recurring element in her work is an exploration of the continuous cycle of life and death in nature and a fascination for the beauty in decay, which she treats with her own original techniques. This seems to flow like an undercurrent, and a scrutinising look at human behaviour is embedded in many of her works.
The fact that the human imprint on our environment is substantial and adverse is often addressed. In the series “Residuum – something remaining” the focus is on beetles, or rather the armor-like exoskeletons that protect their soft, vulnerable bodies and remain intact after the death and decomposition of the organism. Different types of beetles are depicted individually on the large, night-dark canvases, their shadows grounding them in an otherwise free-floating state. Despite the beautiful and delicate rendering of the insects and the dreamy calmness, their long shadows give each portrait an ominous and desolate character, and the low light source, perhaps indicating a setting sun, adds a sense of impending doom.
According to several scientific reviews, the rate of insect extinction is accelerating at an alarming speed; by depicting the empty remains, Udsen shines a harsh light on the vulnerability of not only insects, but entire ecosystems that fall victim to negative human impact. By taking a small, almost invisible part of nature and magnifying it to a scale where the only option is to experience it, Udsen venerates the inextricably interwoven web of life, which we are all part of.
The metallic surfaces of the paintings, sometimes muted, sometimes vibrant, catch the eye and pull the viewer closer. By employing her own distinctive technique mixing fragments of metallic sheets with oil paint, Udsen invites natural processes into her work. Her interest in transformation, decay and metamorphosis is not only seen in the motifs, but also in the material itself. The unpredictable reaction of the metal to the chemical treatments opens up the works to a synergy of control and accident in the emerging colours, textures and patterns, which she incorporates into her paintings. This liminal territory between figuration and abstraction seems to echo the irregularity and infinite complexity of nature and its myriad of forms.
Udsen’s work holds great beauty, but she often explores a more sinister and menacing vision of nature. In her photographic series “Distorsions”, an intense observation of dried agave leaves and the light falling on them heightens the viewer’s attention to the thorny and tenacious plant with teethlike ridges. The sharp shadows that fall on the surface below visually become part of the plant like multiple black leaves, changing its shape and pushing the image towards abstraction. The distinctive agave leaves are still recognisable, but the subtle shift in shape and the close-up views of the wrinkles of the dried, leather-like skin and their sharp thorns add an almost threatening feel to the pictures.
In the series “Genesis”, Udsen works with botanical elements as well, as she explores the consequences of genetic engineering and the modification of nature. The thick, fleshy casings of horse chestnuts or the poisonous fruits of jimsonweed take on eerie forms, their spikes reaching out like fingers as they take shape only to morph into something else, recognisable, yet unfamiliar and unsettling. Through her work, she investigates how nature can be altered, held against the idea that nature has intrinsic value and beauty such that we may want to protect and preserve it, or at least leave it alone. Biotechnology has advanced rapidly, and today scientists can edit the genomes of plants, animals and humans; it is no longer a question of whether we can do it, instead, it is a question of whether we should.
Among other things, Udsen’s work prompts viewers to reflect on the fact that we are just one species among many that share this planet. The use of natural defence mechanisms as imagery – sharp spines, prickles, thick skin, hard and impenetrable shells – conveys an idea of a nature under pressure, its resilience and vulnerability. Her multilayered paintings articulate both isolation and connectedness while reflecting on the world from a more-than-human perspective.
Text by Art historian Lise Johanne Sinnbeck