Artist Jani Leinonen has been chosen as the curator of the second M_itä? Biennale of Contemporary Art, which will open in the summer of 2021 at the Mikkeli Art Museum.
“At present, both the media and the political sphere from right to left focus in their messages in an emphasised on dystopias and threat scenarios. We are told that according to a recent demographic study, the population of the Savo region will decrease by over 15% and how large areas of Finland will decline and wither and how climate change will force us to give up a great many things, unless the end of the world will come. We are addressed mainly in terms of fears and concerns and reminded of what will go wrong in the future and how uncertain that future looks. The opposite of a dystopia is a utopia where solutions have been found for problems and a better world has come about. I would hope that in this exhibition artists would imagine without restrictions what the future of our dreams would be like. How the problems that beset us have been solved and how this is reflected as a feeling of security and the best of all possible worlds.”’
Something new is always being sought for realising M_itä? Biennale of Contemporary Art. A different exhibition venue and a new curator make it possible to renew the biennale every two years. The aim in Mikkeli will be to expand the event beyond the walls of the art museum to be part of the streetscape and public spaces.
Study for Guernica, 2021, acrylic and oil on linen, 270 x 600 cm
Study for Guernica discussion
Artist Ville Löppönen & art critic Mika Hannula
STUDY FOR GUERNICA
Mika Hannula: Study for Guernica artwork. Where did the process start? Or should I put it this way: what was your relationship with this iconic painting before and what is it now?
Ville Löppönen: Picasso’s Guernica has been in the background for me for a long time. It has been patiently hiding. My relationship with it has been distant but not indifferent. It has been buried in my subconscious for twenty years. The painting made an impression on me when I was in my twenties, but many personal interests pushed me to a different direction. Cubism and Picasso were overtaken by surrealism.
My interest in the methods of cubism in painting reawakened about a year ago, and since then, I have wanted to include some of them in my painting. However, it has been difficult and slow to find my own relationship and meaning with it.
I was invited to take part in the M_itä? Biennial of Contemporary Art organised in Mikkeli in summer 2021. The theme is utopia and dystopia. The exhibition is curated by Jani Leinonen. I had thought that I would offer the Phase of Metamorphosis in Cycle of Evolution series for the exhibition. The series explores the metamorphosis of painting, and I thought it would be a great fit. On our first meeting, I presented the series, and it was accepted. I can’t remember exactly how Picasso’s Guernica came up; maybe my kids had been leafing through a Picasso book and left it lying around, and when putting it away, I happened to notice Guernica.
The painting’s dynamic composition started to interest me, and I thought that that could be utilised. I realised that the painting is hugely topical, and it would provide ideas for approaching the topic of utopia and dystopia and could possibly allow me to get hold of the ideas of cubism in my own painting. I wanted to approach Picasso’s Guernica from my own viewpoint and temporal context. What fascinates me in cubism is how it looks at things from different angles and doesn’t necessarily break them but gazes at them from a different direction and with more versatility.
In recent years, I have become more interested in the fragmentation of life and existence. Life is, of course, whole, but the experience of it is at times fractured, and depending on the situation, we must look at and face it from quite different perspectives. It also provides one possible route to building a connection and presence. This came up as I listened to Kaija Saariaho whilst painting. I realised that I try and accommodate things too much in my painting, and that makes them conventional and too obvious.
MH: Do you know where the painting will be exhibited in the biennial? How much do you wish to uncover the background process of the artwork to the viewers?
VL: The artwork will be showcased in Mikkeli Art Museum. I don’t know if shedding light on the background process is important for the viewers; it may be interesting, but whether it is essential for viewing the artwork, I’m not sure. I think that the artwork works very well as an independent piece.
MH: I guess that brings me to the question of how the context of viewing is modified – as well as how the relationship with the other work of art, Picasso’s painting, is explored. It is clear that the artwork will independently assume its place, with its own presence, but let’s play with the idea that you explain the processes and facts of the artwork (e.g. When was Guernica painted? Where is it exhibited etc.?) to the viewers. How would that be done? A short text on the wall or on paper – online? We must also assume that not every viewer necessarily even knows the background to Guernica? And you can find people, pretty much anywhere, who think that Picasso is a rubbish car, a rust bucket, built by the French?
VL: To provide clarity, there could be a notice next to the artwork explaining that the artwork is an interpretation of Picasso’s painting Guernica, which is a depiction of Nazi bombings in the Spanish Civil War and of how the holy Basque town of Guernica was completely destroyed. Maybe that would be a sufficient introduction to the context. If you go into too much detail, the attention moves into the history and away from what my painting is about.
MH: How do you avoid conventionality and ready-made or easy solutions?
VL: What is conventional and in relation to what is the issue. It is important to give time to viewing, slow viewing. The artwork must be surveyed long and hard. Then you need to take a break from it, move aside and then come back to it again. You are looking at it even when you can’t see it. Conventions are eliminated and revealed during this process. You cannot avoid them; they are there, but they must in some way be painted out, gradually processed. You cannot get everything out on one go or in one artwork or even a series, but some of it you can.
It is also important to move away from your comfort zone and accept a challenge from elsewhere. In this case, it is Picasso who does the challenging. The challenge is not a competition but a way to mutually view and experience. By experiencing, I mean the conscious understanding and compassionate expansion of your viewpoint to include others. Not so that you would move from one to another but so that you would embrace others. It is about challenging the form of painting and the motion of potential development.
MH: How is this kind of an enormous painting constructed and how does the work progress – in concrete terms?
VL: I did not have the space to match Picasso’s original size of 249 x 777 cm; I had to shrink the work to 270 x 600 cm and divide it into a triptych. Firstly, that was the biggest canvas available at the time. The pandemic meant that material orders did not make it to Finland, so I had to accept what was on offer. The second reason was that there was no way of getting a bigger painting out of the studio and the third reason was money. However, my version is scaled, so the integrity of the original ratio stays the same. A fascinating detail about Picasso’s original painting is the width of 777 cm, which is the figure of the perfection of the Trinity and represents God in the allegories of the Bible. Who knows what he wanted to tell with that if anything?
But about making the artwork. Once the linen was stretched and grounded, I firstly projected Picasso’s painting on the canvas and drew everything necessary using oil pastels; in other words, I produced a rough sketch. After that, I started painting. Painting for me is very impulsive work. Colour has to be spread here and there using different methods. I use oil pastels, acrylic paints, oil sticks and oil paints, various spatulas etc. It is about walking from one end of the studio to the other and observing what happens.
The artwork’s physical nature surprised me a bit. The corporeality of painting becomes magnificently obvious. You can make big gestures and movements. That is enjoyable, and the Picasso painting to be changed and followed in the background was a great help. But there were some challenges too. The canvas is hard to manoeuvre. It cannot really be turned or lifted higher up because there isn’t enough room. So, I have to lie on the floor painting or paint with my head practically touching the ceiling; whilst I am good at reaching, this was the first time I needed to use a ladder. The other challenge was how to perceive the artwork’s scale whilst painting. When you’re used to painting small, it is easy to start painting small again, but that didn’t work in this case. You have to change the way you’re used to doing things.
MH: How did the work progress? Were there moments when you became stiff and lactic acids stopped you on your tracks?
VL: My enthusiasm for painting did not decrease or stop, but of course I got cramps. Problems occur when you have a lot of energy and fervour. The means and techniques of painting are so diverse and the desire to combine them and experiment with them is considerable – it is easy to over-burden yourself and you lose your touch. The result can be slack and meaningless. However, quite quickly the work started to come together and find its form.
Usually, there is a moment in a painting when you don’t know what to do and where to go. That’s when it’s good to ask a friend to take a look and share a few thoughts about the painting. After that, you need to let the artwork rest a little, so you don’t make hasty decisions. There are always those moments, and there were this time too. Usually, you just process and solve them.
There were no real moments of desperation with this work, however.
MH: So was it hard or harder than usual to decide when the work of art was finished? Or let’s put it this way: did you have the desire or the state of mind to keep going, keep adding details?
VL: The adding phase was actually at a fairly early stage of the process, at that stage when there is paint everywhere, and the internal movement and dynamics of painting are looking for directions. Fairly quickly I realised that it would be a good idea to simplify and cut back. A piece of work this size does not really leave room for tinkering. It is simply such hard work to paint small details on large and rough grain linen that it starts repelling it. They can disappear into blur from a distance. But painting details can also mean that you define some things, change the focus from large surfaces and gestures to smaller ones. I am currently fairly happy with the work. I could do some things differently, but I don’t know if it would be necessary.
MH: Your relationship with Picasso? Now and before?
VL: I don’t feel that my relationship with Picasso has changed all that much from what it was. When I painted Guernica, I didn’t really think about Picasso. I read up some basic things about him and recalled details about the painting. Picasso’s time is far away in the past. Guernica is special for me and, in my mind, stands out amongst his other works. Of course, there are many magnificent artworks by Picasso, but they have not been an object of my interest this intensely. To me, Picasso represents something that is still far away from me, and it has been an important detour, but I can’t see myself staying there for long. As I have said, I am interested in the fragmentation that I see reflected in the methods of cubism. Simultaneously, it is linked to the metamorphosis, which I have explored. Cubism is in a way a step closer, a path in a direction that leads my painting forward and a place for movement in which metamorphosis can happen.
MH: What about your relationship with cubism?
Or maybe: what could be a topical, not updated and through that somehow arrested, solved version of cubism, but instead cubism that is fixed in our own era? So, if cubism about a hundred years ago broke the picture, so to say, what could it be here and now when the picture really is broken, disjointed? And, if and when cubism found that alternative, that imaginative otherness particularly in African artefacts, what could that otherness be now?
VL: Quite a difficult question and a big question. Now we are moving onto a slippery slope. I guess our time is, on some level, defined by the attempt to understand the quantum world, studying it and understanding other dimensions. Cubism aimed, to some extent, to look into the future and utilised in that the means of primitive art forms. I have for a long time been thinking, maybe slightly oddly, about some sort of synchronism, the collaboration of matter. How things can be piled up together allowing us to see beyond and more in-depth. The idea about dismantling and breaking things leads largely to nothing but the analysis of the fragments, and in the end, entities stop functioning. For example, my study of an icon led to a situation in which nothing but the context remained. The pieces that make up the icon can, in another context, be built into something else. My thoughts easily lead to the topics of collage and montage or even just image sampling.
I write fairly carefully about this, because I feel dubious about the idea that a new phenomenon akin to cubism would surface in relation to painting. For me, painting has been about movement and growth, whereupon the evolution, transformation in painting has been about seeking and of course also about finding. And that constantly establishes some new direction.
Cubism has been re-found in the art of painting, and that, in my eyes, is utilised by at least Adrian Ghenie and Jenny Saville. Ghenie paints a lot based on photo collages and Saville evidently using a live model. George Condo also clearly utilises the means of cubism. It is about combining representational and non-representational painting for different usages, which of course contains a wide spectrum in contemporary painting.
At this point, I am tempted to ask about the possibilities of a painting to find that other. Can a painting be used to build and synchronise things so that dimensions can emerge and become visible? The question is also about not just illustrating something that has been established or perceived through other means, but about the potential of a painting to look, because how a painting works is based on a gaze. A gaze in and a gaze out. I believe that the materialisation of the gaze is one strength and factor that speaks for painting.
Painting aims to bring things from nothing to material. It can also bring forth dimensions so far as they are present and receivable by the human body. This is starting to break and disappear; a vision fades when you try and write it down and explain it. So, I do not know what could be or might be coming. Only intuitions and even they are hesitant, which comes across as me not understanding anything about this topic. In fact, the only thing that I understand these days is that I paint and paint, because it interests me, creates rhythm and brings joy.
MH: So in simple terms, is it about you combining illustrative, figurative and abstract painting styles in your paintings which are individual yet happening in a continuum? And, thus, about how these separate but plural viewpoints, why not outlooks, feelings that are little more than hunches at this stage can be brought together into an entity that is greater than the sum of its parts?
VL: Photographs have played a very strong role in some of my painting. They have been the starting point for my artworks, and I have struggled with the concept for a long time and tried to find some other approach. And one approach is evident in my version of Guernica. But it is nowhere near there yet, as you thought, it is still in progress. I think about how to move away from figurative art whilst remaining true to where I’m coming from and where I’m going. I aim to further things by painting not just by combining, although I do that too; the idea is that the painting is something outside the photograph and independent from it but not purely abstract.
Maybe that is the reason why I referred to Adrian Ghenie’s and Jenny Saville’s painting methods. So now, what Picasso did – turning the model and the organic state into a different viewpoint – and George Condo still does from a different direction, would be viewed from the perspective of the material and imprint of painting. I don’t know if this is about disagreeing as an end in itself but the finish has developed, and its materiality has become more diverse since cubism. Changes to painting techniques have allowed a painting to fluctuate between figurative and non-figurative even though figurative art in itself does not imitate or depict anything existing but refers to it through a certain process. Either it refers to the material or immaterial, to the other side, to the inside, of which we have nothing but the imagined, the pathologist’s words.
MH: Why did you choose this particular artwork? Is it connected to the artwork’s thematics (anti-war) or something else?
VL: The artwork in question was chosen slightly by random. But the theme does play a key role. I think the work of art offers a good place to face our time and the pressures linked to it, such as the pandemic, climate change and the inevitable changes with the energy economy or the parallel diversity movement originating in cultural diversity that sets demands on densification, accepting diversity and otherness and coexisting. In other words, society is in turmoil which
challenges and tests us.
My version of Guernica does not aim to discuss those themes but to be a place in which as a painter, I can adjust and be present, continue my own motion and relationship with the surrounding world. Continue painting and finding its meanings.
MH: And what about the so-called iconic nature of the artwork – did you not feel anxious or bothered about it?
VL: I wasn’t anxious or bothered. I don’t feel that I have to try and compete with Picasso or even attempt to achieve a certain level. It is about the artwork offering an opportunity for a new approach, and for me that is the essence. The original can, after all, be repainted completely. Maybe the fact that I am such a different painter from Picasso means that I am not under any pressure to succeed. And then there is the tradition of painters borrowing from previous masters through the ages. Using the painting felt natural.
MH: So, it’s a study, a version, a movement from one place to another. Tell about that journey, that interaction and of course the dialogue?
VL: It is about the transformation that happens within the painting. The attempt to find meaning in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. The need is to paint and express, but why is it exactly that painting and that painting again and again. Painting is strongly challenged by digital technology. I could imagine that I am stupid for hanging onto painting, an ancient practice that has been re-invented, re-interpreted and re-made so many times. There is a belief in the familiar and yet alien form. Or an obsession. The fear to accept.
It is about the painter’s movement and about change, the means and meaningful ways to continue what you’re doing. It’s about change and adaptation through painting or maybe not even adaptation but revisiting things, re-interpreting, the suggestion to experience and be present. A conversation with antecedents to discuss with those who have found and moved on along their aesthetic journey. To consider the methods that we can utilise to find a space and a continuum in our time. To offer something meaningful to counter the absurdity of the world.
The artwork is a nod to Picasso and a message of gratitude for all the help he has given. It is not an attempt to fall short or surpass but to encounter for a moment and at a distance alongside something that can be shared in both timelines and then continue on.
MH: What about the future – do you find it meaningful to continue this kind of an approach?
VL: I do and I am currently painting Picasso’s The Young Ladies of Avignon and another very referential version of that. This has been a relevant way to broaden my painting.
MH: What about after Picasso? Klimt? Klee or Pollock?
VL: I don’t know who will inspire me next. Maybe not the artists in question. I need to travel this journey first. It is hard to see the future continuum since it doesn’t follow the chronological order of the history of art. The journey to Picasso ventured via Bacon and Freud last time.