From tormenting ghosts to gentle prayers
Mika Hannula: In what way is the work in this exhibition different or linked to the works that we saw in your previous exhibitions at Helsinki Contemporary in 2014 and Mikkeli Art Museum in 2015.
Ville Löppönen: The works in the exhibitions from 2013 and 2014 were ghosts. They occupied a liminal space, torn by ritual and prayer. They were ghosts on the border, where there was only a rough picture of the future; it wasn’t personal in the sense that it could be presented in a mundane form.
Understanding the differences and similarities between an Orthodox icon and my own work in the experience of painting was still in a process. This has now apparently gone off in an unexpected direction towards everyday life, which strives to assume concrete forms and move away from symbols. Perhaps we are talking about taking a close, deep look at our fellow human beings. Seeing icons in everyday life and seeing Christ in one’s fellow man.
After a long break I’ve started drawing and using aquarelle again. They have allowed me to distance myself from the locks that were part and parcel of painting. Adopting a faster method brings out a lot of things that have been left open and unfinished, and which haven’t matured. These are also subjects that can stunt the growth of painting. I don’t know, but approaching things through faster instruments helps dialogue flow. Many conversations get stuck when the other party – in this case me – cannot progress in their thoughts. In the same way, as a painter, the instrument can get stuck because its movement has been slowed down by the artist’s lack of ability to cut himself free and let go.
Now drawing and aquarelle have revealed why I have been getting stuck. The speed is so fast that there is no time to properly taste the chunk one has bitten off. Painting itself turns into a ritual if it is not slowed down and brought to a halt.
Icon painting left such a strong impression that I had to get rid of it with a faster instrument to allow my paintings space to grow. In that way, making drawings and aquarelles was a purifying experience. It’s like they helped the process move into a new cycle.
MH: And what relationship is there to icons in this exhibition?
VL: This is not about content so much as matters of form, which of course affect the content or the dialogue itself if it doesn’t move on and open up. In other words, dialogue is present in everything I do, but with drawing and watercolours I have found my own voice and distanced myself from the icon tradition, which has inevitably exerted a strong influence over me.
I have become familiar with the form and essence of icons during the last two years of my master’s degree in orthodox theology at the University of Eastern Finland. In my thesis, which studies the relationship between icons and paintings and humans assuming a divine form, I have gone deeper into the similarities and differences between the icons and paintings themselves. My study focussed on whether a painting can be seen as a prayer in the same way as an icon. In the Orthodox tradition the process of making an icon is understood as a prayer, and conversation flows through it. In other words, the icon is a place of dialogue.
The Contemplation exhibition is a continuation of my previous exhibitions. They cannot be completely separated and removed from each other. They are a continuation of the same discussion. My prayer goes on.
MH: The exhibition features large paintings that are contrasted with rather small ones. In these small ones in particular the theme is sometimes a person, a colleague in fact. This time Jukka Korkeila and Elina Merenmies are included – and we remember your portrait of Henry Wuorila-Stenberg, which won a prize at the Brewer J.C. Jacobson’s Portrait Now! portrait painting competition in Denmark in 2013. What is the significance of the subjects? What is so special about portraits or paintings of other painters that are born of a specific situation and moment?
VL: These paintings are very important. They open up the road to understanding everyday life through painting. I mean that the colleagues I paint work more-or-less with the same themes that I do. These portraits are a way of showing the beauty of everyday life. To see something good and encounter contradictory people with an understanding of these contradictions creates empathy. This is a good opening strike in the direction I might be heading, or which I might have been invited to take. Secondly, these colleagues are my former teachers and I owe them a great deal. I want to respect the legacy that they have passed on to me.
These portraits also help me to understand myself and open up my locks and fears. As teachers they have left a deep impression on me, and it is also important to recognize that the challenges they left in their wake form a part of my own painting. In a way I deconstruct the tradition that has been handed down to me and process it in a way that it becomes part of my own experience. Then I throw the ball back and challenge them to progress too. I bring my own experience to the painting, so the portrait becomes like other paintings, a place of dialogue. I am in dialogue when I am making these paintings but the conversation extends to the viewer through the finished work. Painting portraits is not therefore in any way different from other types of painting, apart from the fact that it challenges the subject to participate in direct dialogue. At the same time the dialogue is also possible for others.
These actually differ from normal portraits in the way that the inspiration to make them has come from me. I have wanted to make these paintings and asked if the would-be subjects would agree.
In the exhibition I get to grips with everyday life, although at the same time I am still in a spiritual context. Although it is not obvious, it can be helpful and take my work forwards onto a new level. Colleagues in a way support where I’m going and challenge me to fine tune my work and at the same time make it open and accurate.
A good companion for conversation – painting as a compass and a seedbed
MH: You speak about painting as an encounter and interaction, as a dialogue. What does it mean to you?
VL: One has to invest in a painting to make it possible. Not submissively but with humility, or the dialogue will turn into a monologue. In practice, this means being open to the painting, spending time in the studio, listening and waiting. The painting replies and listens too, because that is where one can encounter both the other and the self, and eventually see union. By union I mean the life that is shared by a human being and God: God lives within people and lights up people’s minds with grace and love.
Painting is a prayer and the prayer is respectful empathy. Listening and being heard. One has to be honest and reveal mistakes and wounds. Through this, painting comes into being as a relationship between the two as a gentle instrument, an old friend, but not an easy entertainer. It is a teacher, eliciting deeper feeling and growth. To me, a painting moves away from ritual because it’s a sanctuary of real-life dialogue.
MH: Away from ritual? Why do you underline that a painting is a prayer – instead of saying it is like a prayer?
VL: Away from ritual because the painting is a place of live conversation and genuine presence. It is not a performance, or it ceases to be a painting. A painting can conceal ritual features and traces but it has to be seen, recognised. Ritual means something that is performed in order that we could be something more – more true, or more sacred. However, the problem is that it faces the wrong direction. Ritual doesn’t arise out of empathy, it is about somehow making amends, or it’s an obligation to please. It’s about being true but it is born of the wrong motives.
In other words, a painting has to break free of ritual to become real, so that the two can come together instead of being a fantasy or presumption of one, which excludes true presence and humility. To me, ritual is an external superstition and it shows a lack of understanding about the deep essence of things. If one does not know painting and its potential it is nothing more than ritual. The painter has to be released in the process of the painting. The painter may be released without fear.
Here we also get to why a painting is a prayer. It is not necessarily a prayer, but it can be and in my own case that’s how I perceive it. Prayer is dialogue. Conversation and presence between two friends or two other people that respect each other. It is humility not servility. It is the stripping away of power and control. Prayer is growth which becomes concrete as action. In my case it happens while I’m painting.
Prayer does not have only one form, it is not individual formal repetition or the norm for submitting requests to God. It can be that, but it has to grow out of it. To my mind, prayer is not something apart from a person’s daily life, rather it should grow inside all mundane matters when one attains a clear understanding of the ongoing dialogue. Prayer is dialogue that is concerned with seeing and understanding what is good. It is not moralism, nor is it driven by it. The goal is different.
Now when I spend the bulk of the day painting in silence with an icon or Life and its Source of creativity, which is a godly virtue, I am in dialogue. In this conversation I am involved with creativity and its Provider, or God. That’s why it’s a prayer, because I understand that I am having a conversation with the Good Lord.
Why is this so? Because I am revealed in the dialogue and get a taste of love that does not judge but rather leads us away from judgement, fear and shame towards empathy and integrity. Through the painting, the dialogue brings out the good and the beautiful, even if on a pictorial level it would not be called beautiful. Painting enables me to see the good because I can open up in it and reveal myself. Prayer is the person’s entire soul and body growing towards good. The Orthodox tradition calls it theosis when a person grows to become like God.
Prayer is seeing the good and the growth of trust in different kinds of ways. For me, the method is painting.
Everyday contemplations give words to love
MH: I have a difficult question in mind, but I will open it up. Your actions and your practices are connected very clearly and organically to a certain, in this case Orthodox spirituality and its relationship with God. How are your works possible for those who do not belong to the same faith, or do you not consider their relationship with God to be important?
VL: My work grows from a religious context by using its linguistic expressions in order to get to the bottom of the question of life and growth. I receive words for things, events and experiences that I have had the concepts for. I am also rewarded with travelling companions from whom I learn and with whom I can share experiences.
Religion, if we are now speaking of religion as opposed to faith, is a system of symbols that we use to strive for the essence of life. My paintings have addressed this religious way of seeing things and naming them. It has opened up a perspective for me that I am able to put into words. There are of course central concepts that are very difficult to change, but if we look at things in the Orthodox context that I subscribe to, things that are related to God in particular have many names and means of expression. This is so that the matter can be approached from different angles and no doors would swing closed. We are talking about mysticism, the creator of the natural world, encountering something that transcends humanity and the personal growth that gradually occurs when someone gains clearer vision. It is a question of the union between God and man, but they do not merge with each other. Once again it is about humility, respect, and the dynamics of love.
This way a painting can be a prayer too and express a relationship with what lies behind everything. The religious side is not important, it is more important to have faith. We see things through faith. The target of faith can change and the depth of faith can vary. If faith is about what is good then everything that comes of it is available and open to everyone. It is not necessary to spread this or declare it to everyone. Faith must be humble so that it also respects those who have no interest in it. There is no reason to think that my work should open up to everyone or even many people in the same way.
I like to believe that despite any religious, philosophical or ideological interpretation of the world, it’s possible to understand love, which maintains life despite all the shit that is going on. Recognising it is a universal human trait, and that is why we are here. It is created inside us. A baby or child responds to love no matter how young they are, and they will also respond to hate. It shows us our human nature. We can deprive it of light or we can make it shine. The brighter it is, the more our lives are based on empathy. This brings Christ back into the picture again as his life was suffused with empathy and love. This sort of thing can probably not be foisted on anyone because it would be counter-productive to what love, empathy, humility and respect are all about.
The challenge is how to spread good. The point is not from where and from which form of tradition the good comes. Shared goodness expresses the place it has sprung from. I don’t say that I would succeed, but it’s the direction I would like to grow in. Perhaps that is why icon painting is not possible for me, although I respect it immensely when I come across it. Not all icons are genuine. An icon has to be therapeutic and care for people, but it can be too direct and difficult to approach for those who are unfamiliar with the language. The fault does not lie in the icon but in how the concept is muddied by superstition, power, status and the wrong motives in general.
MH: What about everyday life – the idea of everyday mercy and how it carries and supports acts and series of several acts?
VL: I should explain a little of what I mean by everyday, because not everyone experiences and lives it in the same way. In my own case, the mysticism that is latent in the everyday opens up for me through understanding empathy and love, in other words through internal vision. The everyday can manifest in a piece of work very strangely, and the picture is not always beautiful. And the challenge is in expressing this to others in a way that the everyday could open up in the same way that I have experienced as an artist, in a way that the image will also pose a challenge to the viewer.
Because of this it’s difficult to get the mundane into the painting without any religious symbols, because it should be understood as a part of the liturgy, the worship of God, so that it doesn’t become a ritual. That doesn’t mean that religious worship in a church is a ritual, but it can easily happen and continue into everyday life, in which case it becomes a performance. In a painting this difficulty becomes concrete in the sensitisation of the language to empathy and pathos. The challenge is thus extremely big. One can’t just walk into it because it asks for a clear vision and deep experience of love which everyday life, understood as the experience of a family-minded artist, tries to show me and teach me. The mystical dimension of the mundane grows, therefore, when one can ask if it is still mundane, or is it contemplation, theosis – in other words, a prayer.
MH: What do you mean, how the mundane becomes a prayer?
VL: Everyday life exists and changes in different directions, just as the artist either changes or is changed. This is not fun any more, and that’s part of everyday life too, when one works on the border of egocentricity and ambition, inside them and mercifully also outside them too. The mundane asks for trust, but speaking as a painter this is frightening, and that is why many people seek refuge in everyday life in ready-made rituals. Grace opens the door to daring. The grace to be a painter and paint in everyday life, fleeing and hiding with the mundane. As a moment of empathy the tears carry us to a place where we can see and the mundane opens up as a heavenly sight and the painter’s calling to love. In this case one moves away from ritual.
In other words, the mundane can be seen in the smallest nuances such as looks, gestures, bodily expressions and in life’s great questions such as birth and death. In all work and idleness. It can be clearly seen as God’s message and hope in life. But how does one relate to suffering with empathy rather than hate? How does one relate to everything in life through empathy? How can one be a painter without a religious language and worldview and trust only one’s heart and it filling up with empathy? We must have the courage to commit and believe in the mundane, and dare to find Christ in our hearts in the middle of our mundane lives.
Therein lies the painter’s lifelong challenge, and it doesn’t progress according to a schedule or art degrees.
MH: How does this everyday challenge progress and deepen? Doesn’t this place terrible expectations and demands on a piece of work – for both the maker and the viewer?
VL: It progresses through humility, in other words though silence, listening, being present in the moment and through painting. And it is always progressing because the companion in dialogue is love with no beginning or end.
In my case it progresses through painting. For someone else it progresses by any other means. If action doesn’t happen, neither will anything else. Thought still doesn’t create change. It has to happen through movement and events. It is the natural and original essence of action and thought. They are related to each other. Body and spirit, body and soul, man and God. Action is wordless thought which can to a certain extent be verbalised but it is not always necessary because action functions and affects things without words too. Even though a painting is a mute thought, it is very Verbal too. By this I mean that a painting enables dialogue about the living word, in other words Christ and Love, through which everything exists. The word is not therefore speech or writing, rather the way that we try to express God through language. It is action becoming physical.
In my opinion this is not a question of demands because unlike ritual, humility doesn’t contain demands. It is always about growth and increasing depth. For that reason, expectations are always in line with growth and are appropriate. However, there is an internal conflict that sometimes makes painting impossible and its demands insurmountable. And so we return to everyday life and tears. Tears promote the gift and mercy, meaning empathy. This is how something begins. A painting is an open space without demands or expectations because it is an encounter between two things as respect and presence. In that case there are no demands or expectations. There is only space to grow in a good direction at one’s own pace through laughter and tears. The space is lost when one enters a ritual and that is why one must fight one’s way out, not by force or violence, but by waiting and listening so that faith and trust return. Time flows eternally, and always for the duration of a painting.