Mika Hannula: The exhibition is called Interventions. What’s it about, and what does the name refer to?
Ville Löppönen: The name refers to the way that painting intervenes in normal life. A painting comes along and expands everyday life, just it is naturally part of it too. It goes deep and enables a point of view that few people are able to make use of; stopping in the midst of one’s everyday life to look at something mundane called a painting, and what it has to show. It offers a view looking both inwards and outwards. The painter is thus privileged to slowly watch, to observe the intervention and then share it with others. Slow viewing is dialogue, contemplation, prayer, silence, and ultimately, if it all goes well, a trialogue. By trialogue I mean a three-way conversation filled with listening that takes place at the canvas between painting, the context and the painter. Lots of things are happening in a small space. I like to use the word trialogue because it describes the event of painting and an ideal that beautifully refers to a Holy Trinity: the dynamic, loving conversation between the three parties which is characterized by constant intervention and observance.
MH: The exhibition undoubtedly conveys a movement, a break from your previous work. How would you describe this movement and change, or break?
VL: Movement is central because that’s what painting is. Painting is dynamic movement in the form of release and intervention. I see the nature of a painting as expanding movement. This means that the painter and the painting grow together towards a deeper level of compassion and understanding. The form of the painting changes and deepens.
The change that has occurred in my painting is probably due to a widening of my perspective and an increased understanding of the language of painting. By that I mean opening up to a more comprehensive verbal expression, the presence of the whole human being in the painting. Concretely, there are more colours and more actual painting. It’s ultimately about having faith in what one does. My painting methods and techniques aren’t new to me, but they’ve found a new use, and meanings, and need. There’s a need or pressure within me that requires new means of expression. I’ve found painting methods over and over again as a way of moving forwards. If you want to simplify things, it’s about moving in from the edges. From representation to the abstract, seeking deeper meaning and growth. Not that there would be any inherent difference in depth between representative and abstract painting, but there’s a shift from verbal to non-verbal, and back again.
MH: There’s a big difference between the paintings from your previous exhibition Contemplation, which was held in Helsinki Contemporary in 2016, and the present exhibition. You still refer to religious experience and use religious concepts at least to some extent to provide the background for the paintings, but religious references are no longer part of the paintings themselves. Why is that?
VL: I think that painting, for me, is an experiential matter – it’s not about naming things. Communication occurs at the level of experience, and the visual expression of the religious field is not enough. It has stayed behind the reality of theological speech and words. In painting, one certainly encounters the same events as those I describe with the language of religious experience, or better, through theological language. Different language games name things in slightly different ways and I’m familiar with using a theological vocabulary to talk about them. My works are still going in the same direction, and I still see and experience things theologically, even though religious or direct Christian symbolism has disappeared from them. It’s again about watching and seeing how one interprets what one sees what that interpretation relies on. I would hope it leans on the experience of love, which is, of course, a lifelong, gracious challenge. The thing I aimed for in the previous exhibition — the everyday miracle of presence and encounter – is now getting a more general expression in terms of the language and nature of the painting itself.
MH: Everyday motion moving in from the edges. How can this presence bring about proximity and distance, and movement? In other words: isn’t it also hard going if and when a painting is so strongly attached to everyday life and everyone close?
VL: Inward motion means that the movement is going deeper, moving determinedly towards the centre, which is in motion and moving forwards. This makes the movement an endless journey in the process of understanding and re-understanding. Very simply, this is currently happening through the figure moving towards the abstract. The painting runs from the background towards the figurative, blending the figurative and abstract as it seeks a natural relationship and continuum. The painting’s bond with everyday life is heavy, if the painting as an instrument has become heavier or strained, lost its movement and become a chore. And admittedly it’s like that sometimes. However, the beauty and grace of painting, like everything creative, I suspect, resides within the fact that one doesn’t always know what one’s doing. However, if this happens, the work usually stops and there’s a need to move away from it. Painting itself can be very enjoyable and comfortable. It makes it easier to handle challenging issues and offers a meaningful route to humbleness, that is, the opportunity to encounter and be present. The painter can be theirself here and now, without moralism or the pressure of rules and constraints. The painter can move away, if necessary, or step into the shadows, then return to look slowly from a distance. This manifests the beauty of the painting and shows how beauty is an important part of the painter’s work. It encourages and produces pleasure at the same time as one looks critically at oneself, and from oneself too. Or one can just look and let the gaze do its work, a conversation that leads to the aforementioned trialogue. This allows the painting and painter to develop and grow. It’s a pleasure that supports and hopefully creates virtues: empathy, compassion, encountering, presence. That is, love. This is the intervention again. It doesn’t happen through forcing, shouting or punishing, but through slowly watching.
MH: You’ve recently worked on portraits of artist colleagues, both well-known and more unfamiliar. How did this series begin?
VL: The portraits began in my previous Contemplation exhibition, for which I painted pictures of my teachers and the people who had laid the ground and directed what I was doing. Now afterwards I’ve come to think that’s it’s about seeking and intervention again, in the sense that the people I painted have appeared and brought something along to look for and ponder. I’ve wanted to watch these interventions so that I can find out what has been given to me, something that I can watch and experience as I paint. It’s about the continuum and seeing its beauty; feeling the painting behind and moving it onwards.
MH: At the end of 2018, the Hyvinkää Art Museum held a Manifesto of Silence group exhibition which included your series of portraits of Francis Bacon, and works that followed from those pieces are shown in the present exhibition. But what is it that you find interesting about Bacon?
VL: I’m interested in the beauty in Bacon. I’ve painted him maybe five times and made a few drawings of his face. It took some time before I realized why I only painted his face. Bacon shows tragedy, contradiction and beauty. The contradiction and tragedy didn’t take over the beauty that appears in his paintings. The way Bacon painted is even funnily light and extremely delicate in relation to the horror or pain that his paintings depict. I think that, through Bacon, I learned something about painting that I didn’t get from Lucian Freud, who I’ve also painted a lot. Painting Bacon’s face has allowed me to see, experience, learn from and understand this. It’s a discussion of how painting works. Bacon teaches us the difference between illustrating and painting. It is learned by looking at his works. Freud came from a slightly different angle and has shown me what looking can be. What does it really mean to watch?
MH: So, Bacon and Freud are distinguished by what they painted: the former painted from photographs, often taken for this purpose while the latter painted a living model with great concentration and devoted himself to that topic. Does this come close to the idea of really looking, with great focus?
VL: For me, personally, looking is not so much about how I look at something and using that as a route into my own painting – be it a photograph or living model. By looking, I mean how things are viewed, the direction. In my view, Freud looked at his models, thought his paintings, with great humanity. He saw through the materiality and colours of his painting into the heart of the person in a different way than Bacon. I understand Freud was a slow painter who spent a long time on one work. This way of looking, both inwards and outwards, is slow, and it shows in Freud’s colours and materiality. How he applies shades and paint. It’s not a spectacular imitation of nature, but rather slow expression, if you will. Bacon’s beauty lies in sensitivity and impulsiveness, while the beauty of Freud is how his character is present and stripped of power and status. I’m not talking about external symbols, but pure presence. The slowness of Freud’s gaze, in my opinion, has deconstructed things to allow encounter and presence. It moves in from the edges. Gaze and action together are contemplation, silence, slow viewing, seeing.
MH: What about self-portraits, where the starting point is everyday life with children. What is the role or significance of self-portraits in the process?
VL: I don’t know exactly whether the self-portrait is somehow fundamentally different when it is connected to painting a family as opposed to painting Bacon and Freud. Maybe everyday life with children produces more positive stimuli for painting than the presence of Bacon and Freud. Self-portraits are a return and an attempt to identify and locate oneself. To take and measure the distance from the community to the individual. An individual is always an individual within the community. The community, in this case the family, interprets and defines me as an individual. Similarly, the tradition of painting, such as the continuum left behind by Bacon and Freud, defines the painter in its own way. Even though the lone individual breaks down and fragments, because there is nothing to look at or through, private time is also needed. So with my self-portrait, I look back at myself differently, because the way that I paint myself, for example, can reveal fantasies and inner feelings that might not otherwise be seen. Another key point is to understand how I look at myself. What do I find when I look at my face through painting? What happens to the painting when I paint myself, or does anything happen at all? The process is however intuitive, and self-portraits are largely born of intuition. That is, the role of a self-portrait can change with the process, and move in a direction so that we’re no longer talking about a concrete self-portrait. Self-portraits, like paintings of my wife, have traveled with me along the way. It’s about a dialogue, and how that grows and progresses as changes occur. A photograph of a person or persons is the starting point for a journey and viewing that only becomes present through the instrument. I return to that slow look again. Painting, as an action, can accelerate, but the gaze should slow down. With children and family, the gaze has slowed down, and this is probably the case with the self-portrait too.
MH: Not quite seriously, but still: isn’t it hard to look at your own face so much? And then a little more seriously: what is the possible relationship between the self-portrait and self-love, and how can that impasse be transcended?
VL: Staring at your own face. We live in a time of different kinds of magic mirrors, or selfies. People seem to enjoy staring at themselves and sharing it with others. The difference is that the painting process alienates the painter from just painting their own face and carries them away from familiar facial features, elements of identification and recognition. This is because painting is not easy. It’s challenging. It requires concentration and silence. The painting requires a gaze that bypasses fantasies and ideals. Of course, this aspect can be ignored if the starting point for the painting is already somewhere else. The problem of self-love doesn’t spring from painting a self-portrait, but from somewhere else, that everyone has to think about that in themselves. Self-portraits can, of course, be used to promote self-satisfaction and vanity. But is that a self-portrait any more, or more of an image of your own fantasy? Buy fantasies and become alienated from yourself – this is the content of our fast consumer culture. That’s why the aim of the painting is to move in from the edges, create space and opportunities for watching slowly, so that we may become visionaries in the dark.