Painting is vulnerable, it is naked. It is unfinished, it is impossible to seize, even frame it, for it changes continuously through the acts of the artist - by trial and error - or through the eye of the spectator. Painting never follows a predetermined script. It starts as a conversation artists have among and with themselves, as a process, and after that it issues as a multi-layered dialogue with the viewer.
This is what comes to mind when looking at works of Tommi Toija, Anna Tuori, Maiju Salmenkivi and Janne Räisänen. Their works are a representative cross-section of the various strategies of contemporary painting and sculpture in Finland. Even though they are similar only by virtue of being paintings, they are proof that painting matters. They reveal something about human emotion and life in general. The strength of painting is its freedom of expression and in its authenticity. This is very unlike Kafka's Trial (Der Process), in which he sketches the relationship between art and society with burlesque strokes. Artists and art can't be locked in a cage.[i]
Since 2003, when Tommi Toija created his first 32 cm tall sculpture "Little Coward", he has sculpted his own poetic world. "Little Coward" was an anti-statement to large-scale sculpture: a small figure with all-too-human emotions. Toija mainly makes sculptures and relief-like paintings, and draws as much as possible. His reliefs are like flat sculpture, while on the other hand, his sculpture are painted. Here little human figures blow bubbles, with big cloud-like dreams hanging over their heads. They tell stories, pee in the gutter, stick out their tongues. They are happy, thinking, moody; sometimes they are anarchistic, protesting. The sculptures have large heads, round eyes, short legs; they might be similar physically, but they are never the same.
The heart of Toijas' world is his studio, filled with reliefs and sculptures. Some are in the making, some are broken, some are complete; and there are tools, machines and equipment around. The artist tapes a little newspaper around a stake of wood, and simply starts building his figures onto it. He makes five to six figures, filling up the oven. He does not normally start with an idea, but the creatures come to life, acquiring attitudes and feelings in the sculpting process. They reveal themselves. In the end, the artist lets the figures dry, breaks the neck of the sculpture to remove the newspaper inside them, before firing them in the oven. The heads might change original owner after firing. Those that have failed or broken are used for spare parts, a kind of extra supply. The artist might spot a better place for the eyes - on the back of the head, say - and switch the location of the head.
Toija avoids materials traditionally associated with art. Even his use of clay is unpedantic. He does not glaze the pieces with ceramic paints and he does not need them to stay intact in the oven. The paints are from off the shelf at the hard-ware store next to his studio. He adds pigments to them and the final colour is the outcome of many applications in layers. Like the figures' form, the colours are also discovered in the process of making. Finishing the works often takes several thick layers - a repeated painting, sanding and scraping. This also applies to Toija's paintings and reliefs. He never starts with a clean surface but use plywood, with its stains and smudges offering a starting point. If the artist's work on a given piece seems to be going nowhere, he moves on to work on another one. He also often turns back to work on an old piece, even one which has already been exhibited. So any work may still be changed and become a new work of art, and the pieces are never finished. This has a very simple explanation in that they reflect states of emotions. Each of them represents version of the artists as he see himself - as a human being with happiness and sorrow. [ii]
When I visited Anna Tuori's studio to select works for this exhibition, every one of the works now displayed was still in the making. Tuori seeks out the final painting in several works at the same time. She eliminates certain elements until a crystallization or perfection takes place. This is not a process of producing 'variations on a theme'. Neither does she start from a given subject.
Faceless female figures... no clear age and no clear features. They are indefinable. At once there is a certain girlishness, yet then there is something distinctly threating in them. There is something perverse in their cuteness, as the art historian Heikki Tihinen said. These landscapes might be beautiful on the surface, but there is tension underneath. A glimpse of darkness, perhaps fear. [iii]
There are disturbing extra elements in the visual plane that do not belong there. A flow of different elements and clues lurk in the painting. Flow is a core concept for Tuori. If the painting begins to flow, thinking will proceed and remain logical. If she started making an image and it gets stuck somewhere, she stops work, tries some other way.
The artist goes through images in the dailies and magazines. Getting hold of something surprising, without analysing it in any way, she works with it. The paintings proceed from things that touch and bother her, and which she feels the need to address in some way. They have to give rise to the feeling that she wants to include the disturbance and ambivalence arising from them.
Anna Tuori studied at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts as also in France. In Finland, there was a strong tendency toward expressionist painting, while in France it was the complete opposite - conceptual art was prime. The joint effect of these experiences was that she started to become interested in working in an expressive way with the brush. "There simply isn't a mindless connection with the heart that people want to take expressionism for." According to Tuori, there can be a place in painting for highly conscious deliberation, but this derives from expressiveness, rather than seeking to be natural. Authenticity, she says, is the most essential thing for the artists, but it is something other than aesthetics which can lead to a certain sort of mannerism.[iv]
Janne Räisänen is a descendant of the expressive tradition, and in particular the style know as bad painting, of which the most prominent figures are David Salle and Jean-Michel Basquiat. They mix high and low culture in their art, with varying bad and good taste. Janne Räisänen sees himself as primarily an artisan and works accordingly. To him paintings are physical objects, to the highest degree, and producing them means familiarizing oneself with a range of materials. Based on a process of trial and error, his work is guided directly by the materials he uses. This materiality is also often directly reflected in the titles of his works.[v]
In this way Räisänen is similar to the artists above. He wants to reflect on the how materials interact, and the end result shows their coming together. This artisanal approach which Räisänen shares with Tommi Toija, for example, is somehow reminiscent of the Finnish sculptor Kain Tapper (1930-2004). Picking up a piece of wood, Tapper starts scratching on it, creating fascinating results. Räisänen for his part, takes a canvas and starts manipulating it with the same passion as his sculptor colleague. Fantasies become tangible through their material manifestation. Räisänen's oeuvre is baffling in its versatility, because he has also produced three-dimensional sculptures and now and then his paintings include relief-like surfaces, not unlike Toija. His remarkable performance pieces and his way of constructing exhibitions should also be considered as part of his artistic oeuvre.
"All my hobbies are interlinked, and thus also linked with painting. I see many similarities between painting and cooking, or DJ'ing. I also like the sandbox-effect of painting. In school, some of my favourite subjects were history and chemistry. These two subjects also pop up constantly as I paint. Chemistry on a material level, and history (and also sports) on a thematic one." This type of openness has been apparent from the beginning of his career. He has always stressed that the roots of his art lie in music and other cultures, rather than within the confines of fine or visual art.[vi] His sense of humour is evident in naming works, such as "Your Sex Life Complications Are Not My Fascination". In texts like this Räisänen leaves clues for his audience, and they work as an independent literary forms through which the artist separates himself from the frequently unnamed austerity of modernism. Plays on words and thoughts are sometimes hidden. Look at the back of a painting in his studio, and you will find several names for the same piece. So talk he does. It is clear Räisänen is not shy of talking, about sex or much else. Black and mischievous humour emanates from his work.
Playing with the paints and indulging in technical experimentation provides something of a motif for Maiju Salmenkivi's painting - another very processual artist. Salmenkivi's paintings are a combination of fantasy, dreams and Salmenkivi's personal observations on every day life. The starting point for the piece "Before the Storm" (2010), found in this exhibition, is an ice skating rink across the road from the artist's apartment. She sees flags of ice hockey fans and fire works. The scene, however, is turned to into an idyllic winter landscape of skaters by her emphatic brushstroke. The traces of the process carry their own narrative. She creates special atmosphere based on everyday life, such as in "Saturday Dance" (2009). This approach underlines temporality: the nature of a painting as an event. For Salmenkivi, like for the other artists in this exhibition, the artistic process is paramount. Painting or sculpting defines what can be done, and the shape of the work is only known when completed.
"Trial and Error" shows artists proceeding by their own way of working, thinking, failing and trying again. It shows that they cannot be put in cage like Kafka's Tittorelli. There is a freedom in their expression.
Translated by Ivor Stodolsky
[i] In The Trial (Der Process) a painter with the adopted professional name of Titorelli is a burlesque caricature. He is utterly dependent on his patrons who, in the metaphor of the play, is tantamount to the (court of) law. The painter Tittorelli is forced to live most of his life inside a barred cage, from which a back door opens directly into the chancelleries of the court. Having both his home and his atelier in the court, Titorelli keeps humbly and gratefully painting virtually nothing but portraits of the judges, exactly like his father and grandfather before him. It is an inherited position regulated by a myriad set of secret rules - rules that Titorelli follows unflinchingly to the extent of being gradually turned into a sort of confidant of the court, a conformist par excellence who has even started to speak like the attorneys. Kafka's absurd stories have the stunning ability to eventually transform themselves into alarmingly accurate depictions of our society. Indeed, it is hard to not consider the thought that Tittorelli the court-portraitist somehow epitomizes the instrumental role in which artists and art institutions find themselves in the 21st century. Much like Titorelli, who is expected to comply with his abstract employer in matters of "shared" interest, art institutions are today being asked to deliver evidence on how their work can support governmental goals, such as national competitiveness, health, employment, diversity, accessibility, etc. For policy-makers, creativity is no longer merely something to keep a suspicious eye on, but rather something to keenly utilize for economic and socio-political ends. What Titorelli and contemporary art institutions seem to have in common, is the shrunken space for critical-rational political thinking. Like visual culture today, Titorelli has precious little to say, caged into his inherited position, as art institutions have on the increasing prevalence of evidence-based policies and the resulting interminable exercises in performance and efficiency measurements.
[ii] Multiple Personalities, Kirsi-Maria Tuomisto (ed.), Interview by Jonni Roos, Lapua Art Museum, 2008, I-Print.
[iii] Annorlunda Verkligheter, Kungliga Akademien for de fria konsterna, Stockholm, Four Interpretations of Paintings by Juha-Heikki Tihinen, p. 13, 2009, Galerie Anhava.
[iv] Annorlunda Verkligheter, Kungliga Akademien for de fria konsterna, Stockholm, Interview by Martti Anhava, p. 61-63, 2009, Galerie Anhava.
[v] Enjoy My Minimal, Janne Räisänen, text by Juha-Heikki Tihinen, Anhava, 2/2008.
[vi] Enjoy My Minimal, Janne Räisänen, text by Juha-Heikki Tihinen, Anhava, 2/2008.