On the almost-apparent paintings of Henna Aho and Kaija Hinkula An essay by Eero Karjalainen (FI)
for the exhibition Under Conditions / Henna Aho & Kaija Hinkula, 2023
Painting as a medium carries a heavy history with itself. As the most studied but also the most sold – and probably most produced – art form, a burden, according to many artists and art historians, has cast itself on the medium. How can one say anything about painting, if so much has already been made and stated? It is safe to say that painting has reached a kind of oxymoron: it’s role in museums and text-book examples is solid, but in the infrastructures of contemporary art it is not always taken as given – it is not too visible. The paradox lies in this notion of visibility since a change in the reception of painting has become apparent, having time to spread its roots. It is not, anymore, interesting to recognize something as a painting; the focus has rather shifted to the medium as an area of artistic operation.
Above stated is the main historical and methodological frame in which Henna Aho’s and Kaija Hinkula’s new duo exhibition Under the Conditions at KCCC settles. It also the only settling that takes place in the exhibition, which is constantly in movement. Comprised of new works from both painters, the movement could be described as a kind of double-choreography: that of the artists with the space, and of the visitor in the space. This is not to emphasize a sense theatricality, but to point to the stage-like essence in the way the exhibition is constructed. There is an active relation to this world in the exhibition, but it operates like a game with its own set of rules.
What could be the rules, then? The space is the first dimension – concretely and conceptually – to consider. Tactful and precise attitude towards an exhibition space has been important for both Aho and Hinkula in their practices and previous exhibitions, but in Under the Conditions a notion of site-specificity is taken further. The space, as the artists have stated, is the third agency participating in making the exhibition, and spatial intervention is the main starting point for Aho and Hinkula. It is still not meaningful to place the works in this exhibition to a certain category of site-specific art, since different categories of site-specificity – phenomenological, discursive, or institutional, to name a few – are constantly getting mixed and blurred. I would rather speak of performative site- and situation-specificity, where performativity points to a number of directions: conceptualizing the exhibition, building it with in part materials found in the location, or visitors engaging with the works. Could even this text be seen as an extension for the question of what site-specific painting is?
The artists engage with the space through the artworks in a multitude of ways. After thinking about the space, the urgent question, arising from the title of the exhibition, is that of what are the conditions under which the artists operate. Aho and Hinkula have both experimented at the borders of painting (un)systematically – one should not argue that they stretch the borders, since the borders know no limits. For example, ready-made objects, which are a seminal part of the artists working habitudes, are re-contextualized in the works. This happens by relocating the ready-made objects to the area of painting, but without them losing their relation to everyday realm. The usage of ready-made objects in the paintings is taken so far that it is not clear where the work starts and where it ends. Is the monitor presenting a video work physically essential part of the work? Or the heater, around which a site-specific painting is built? In the exhibition even painted colors have a ready-made -character to them, as they are chosen by color code rather than by mixing or experimenting. The burdensome history of painting is thus faded, only to emphasize the fact that it is first and foremost painting that is being considered here.
Still, there is nothing mystical in Under the Conditions. The references to this world are so direct that it is actually difficult to name them as just references. The works in the exhibition approach painting as a medium in painterly conditions. The rules applied are, thus, strict and loose at the same time: working-in and thinking-with painting, moving as far and as close as possible, and preferably at the same time.
Painting as a ball game, shopping cart, and vent pipe
An essay by Helsinki-based art critic Eero Karjalainen (FI), published in Finnish Painters 6/2023
Notes on the fun of space and place in the paintings of Elina Autio, Kaija Hinkula, and Lasse Juuti
For the last two and a half years, I have more or less actively thought about humour in the paintings of Elina Autio, Kaija Hinkula, and Lasse Juuti. The artistic practices of the three Finnish painters have never really left my mind; whenever I think about contemporary painting, I remember the joyous strategies with which Autio, Hinkula, and Juuti approach the inevitable problems of working in the field called painting. For me, paintings, or painterly objects-in-space, by Autio, Hinkula, and Juuti articulate a nonchalant yet earnest relation to the sometimes-insurmountable history of (especially western) painting.
The three artists dealt with here seem to represent an important set of routes as an answer to an argument posed by many critics and theoreticians (following Eugène Delacroix), namely that what has already been said about painting is not enough. This assertion points to the fact that even though so much has been said and written about painting within art history and theory, it still seems that there are problems or questions – both theoretical and technical – about painting as a medium in an unsolved state.
These three painters work with different concepts and ideas, yet elements of humour connect their work. Their work is often also characterised in writing as “funny” or “witty”. That is also where my eagerness toward Autio, Hinkula, and Juuti spans from. What is their relation to painting, and why – not forgetting how – is this relation funny?
Different materials, different discourses
Walking in a gallery space, one encounters a setting that reminds of a post-storm view. A turquoise shopping cart on its nose; banana peel and face mask thrown around and landed on a purple canvas; even a fire hose in a messy pile. Spending a summer day in the architecturally interesting Meri-Rastila, one notices two colourful anomalies in the somewhat grey surroundings: round-shaped canvases filling two formal openings on the façade of an apartment building. “This is painting” is hardly the first note one makes.
Kaija Hinkula is an artist who comments serious, formalist questions about painting with holistic fun from beginning to end: sometimes the most serious questions can best be addressed with humour. Her work is characterised by the usage of ready-made objects, a plastic finish, and site-specificity, amongst others. Her work plays with the idea that painting has to, in one way or another, behave like a painting to be considered as such. Hinkula’s exhibitions and installations, such as the ones described above in Forum Box (2021) and Pori Biennale (2022), take up many strategies from language. The work is motivated by discursive intentions rather than focusing on things such as surfaces or even paint.
Hinkula’s work has often been characterised as being in and defined by the ‘expanded field’ of painting – for example, as something moving between painting and sculpture. Not disagreeing with this, I would go further and highlight the painterly components and propose that Hinkula’s practice moves medium-specifically in the field of painting. She does this first and foremost through the act of deconstructing the traditional elements of painting and presenting them in new, context-sensitive ways – be it public intervention or site-specific installation. Her work always seems to offer a whole idea rather than exhibiting specific or small details. It is not to say that what we see in her works is random; on the contrary: the assemblages are carefully constructed. The painterly praxis of Hinkula presents new possibilities to react to painting as a moving, happy medium. When one places her work in the field of painting, and the everyday mess gets mixed with careful constructions of discourse, the reaction is like the best of jokes – taking its time but ending up with a deep laugh.
If one thinks about paintings where the setting is flipped – where laughter precedes contemplation – the work of Lasse Juuti comes quickly to mind. Juuti’s paintings have been gradually coming off the wall only to end up back on it again – or even becoming the wall itself, as in his installation at Mänttä Art Festival (2022). In his practice, Juuti uses contradictory and indefinite objects and large forms and shapes to activate the viewer, both bodily and intellectually, in this order. There is an exhilarating sensation of childlike awe when one is in the space with Juuti’s work. Finding familiar objects or realising that something actually belongs to the work itself is part of a language of painting that builds primarily on the materiality of the components. For example, the ready-made objects used – takeaway coffee cups (a recurring theme) or table tennis balls – gather new meanings for their context is so radically altered.
At first, it seems his paintings have an unclear nature, but by building his own world through the lack of sharp clarity, Juuti operates via a unique and self-sustaining language. Juuti’s paintings look as if they are made by hand without too much attention to minimal details, thus actively joking about the manly tradition of big paintings in an exhibition space. Still, there is not a lack of colour or experimentation of shape. There is a character of fooling or gaming in the work. That is visible in many of Juuti’s paintings, for example, in Collector’s Green (2021), a large painting depicting a distorted tennis field or pool table, sports associated with a certain grandeur. The work, presented in Helsinki Contemporary in 2021, reacts to both the gallery and the exhibition’s viewers in a harmless, laughable way. Collector’s Green aptly shows how Juuti works with materials in a way where the painted canvas is always present but always shaped anew, associated and connected with something that can’t quite be put into language. Like Hinkula, Juuti’s work also has a discursiveness to it. It builds on a tension between the materiality of canvas and paint – always moving towards the conceptualisation of painting but never reaching, or even trying to reach, it.
If Hinkula’s humour relies on discourse and Juuti’s on materiality, Elina Autio is an artist whose work is located somewhere in the middle. An interplay of colour, form – mainly by modified and shaped stretchers – and ways of mounting, Autio’s work activates the viewer to think about what a painting is and how it can be defined. Through minor, subtle gestures, Autio turns the accustomed viewing situation into a new position and builds restrictedly on the moment of watching. For the last few years, Autio has worked with traditional qualities of presenting painting; when the work – the singular painting – is not hung on the wall, it usually rests against it. She has also repeatedly researched the use of colour and angular shape of painting, as in the works seen in Kunsthalle Helsinki (2019) or tm·gallery (2021). In both exhibitions mentioned, a gesture of transition was present, from one architectural space to another, from inside to outside.
Autio moves in the field of historical painterly narratives, commenting abstraction and colour theories. In her earlier work, such as Pipework (2013), seen in the exhibition Elements (2015) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, a reference to building infrastructures is also present, as in the later work, but in a more concrete way. The mentioned work consists of spray-painted cardboard-made ventilation pipes, provoking the viewer to pose questions about the placement of these components in buildings and architectural environments. The transitional nature of the work is present in the movement between a building and the idea of a building. Besides this, the work also has a suspending quality, encouraging the viewer to stop and look.
Autio can be seen as organising a play where the viewer needs to actively move from looking at the painting in a traditional manner to examining the materials and connecting all of this to the surroundings – both the actual space and the space of painting as a medium.
Endnote: painting is free
Looking at Finnish painting of the 21st century, one notices that the boundaries of painting have become counter-restrictive. So much about painting has already been said that a space of freedom has made itself apparent. This is exactly where Autio, Hinkula, and Juuti work – by moving actively between questions about painting as a medium and a space of having fun. The argument seems blunt at first but in the sphere of contemporary painting it appears radical: the painting itself seems free. The humorous nature in the work is essentially connected to the medium of painting through the implementation of ironic, affective, and colourful strategies.
Text: Ph.D. Juha-Heikki Tihinen 1/2023
The solo exhibition of Kaija Hinkula, Stargazer, in the HAM Gallery presents new sides of the artist’s boundary-breaking expression.
In recent years, Kaija Hinkula has repeatedly expanded the possibilities of painting by creating works that could be seen as spatial interventions, such as those presented in Forum Box (2021) or the Oulu Museum Of Art (2022). In these both, the artist created a reinterpretation of the exhibition space with her installations. Hinkula can also surprise the audience, for example by bringing the aesthetics of construction site into the gallery room, as in Gallery Harmaja in Oulu in 2019. Hinkula’s newest exhibition, Stargazer, remains within the HAM Gallery, but now she will recreate the painting object.
The works exhibited in Stargazer are, in the artist’s own words, ‘modelling manuals for a new universe’. The artist has also described her previous artistic vision by stating that ‘my works are centred around displacing a place, an observation or a material from its context and transforming it into a new shape, space and action.’ But what does this mean in practice? In her new works, the artist has laser-cut holes in a painting canvas. The works may feature fake braids or thread as well as ceramic miniature sculptures hanging from the canvas. Hinkula’s exhibition will reach its final form in the gallery space as the works are hung, but the space will feature works of different kinds, moving somewhere between paintings and sculptures, which could be described by using the artist’s own expression, fantastic minimalism.
What is fantastic minimalism? It is – naturally – imaginative and colourful, but it can be just as well characterised by minimalistic monochrome tones and disciplined language of form. Hinkula blends different worlds together in uninhibited ways creating playfull fantasies, so the severity or restraint often linked to minimalism is not present here. Readymade and handmade as well as two-dimensional and three-dimensional are both contradictions that the artist combines together one work at a time. This time, spatiality is present inside the paintings, where audience can peek into, thanks to the holes cut in the surface. On one hand, Hinkula’s works bring to mind parallels to cubistic ideas or Brazilian concretism of the 1910s, but they also seem to fit well in this time and place while also reaching towards the future sci-fi aesthetics.
Hinkula’s material world is opulent, as she supplements the traditional painting pigments with a wide range of other materials. In the works of Stargazer, she has also used MDF, alkyds, spray paint, fabric, nylon, polyester thread, ceramics, a globe and metal pipes. Recently, the artist has also become interested in moving pictures, which will open up new possibilities for her in the future. Hinkula’s work process is characterised by multi-temporality and multi-materiality, which she applies to explore the possibilities offered by different forms of work or their different presentation methods. Or, as the artist herself expresses her current way of thinking: ‘I have been thinking about futures. I have been thinking about new logics – and methods for a circle.’
When the artist asks if it would be possible to imagine alternative realities and word orders, the answer is yes. And she proves this through her works and exhibitions, showing how art is always a form or dissidence and rethinking. Hinkula takes her audience into an experience that reveals surprising directions and views. She does not offer a static style or expression, but rather shows the fantasty-like views born in her studio. Hinkula’s workspace does not have a chair, because the artist never remains still and is always in motion. The same applies to her art, described as ‘malleable geometry’ or a ‘place between realities’. Stargazer à la Kaija Hinkula takes the viewer to galaxies far, far away, simply by sight. This, if anything, is fantastic minimalism.
Kurátor a autor textu / Curator and author of the text: Kristýna Řeháčková Překlad / Translation: Eva Galovičová Dubová
Finnish artist Kaija Hinkula let the audience enter a new world: utopian visions inspired by a disappearing underwater universe.
The inspiration for the site-specific installation Boulder Star made for the Pragovka Gallery was the artist’s own fantasy
world, created in her head in her studio. By bringing the installation in the gallery, the piece takes on its final form becoming
a space for the play and imagination of the audience. In her own words, Hinkula gives the audience a manual for modelling and
understanding a new universe, according to which their own world may or may not arise.
Kaija Hinkula’s artistic work includes the expanded painting, where a spatial intervention is created with the distinctive qualities of painting such as color and composition. She explores the spatiality of painting and its expanded materiality. According to artist and art theorist Mark Titmarsch, expanded painting can be viewed as a free game with painting inspired by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein
and his notion of a game. While Wittgenstein considers speech a game, Titmarsch applies this principle to painting. Just like
the free play is allowed in tennis despite the rules given, the basic set of conditions that determine a painting can be deliberately
omitted, and in contrast other elements, such as videos, fabrics, threads, ceramic objects, colored plates and other materials
can be added.
Formally, references to the minimalism of 1960’s can be traced in Hinkula’s work. However, the austerity and restraint
associated with minimalism is absent in her work which can be labeled as fantastic minimalism in the author’s own words. The
term was coined with some exaggeration while preparing for her previous installation Stargazer in the HAM Gallery, Helsinki, with
art historian Juha-Heikki Tihinen to describe her current work. Although she is minimalist in the use of monochromatic colour tones
and discipline of a form, Hinkula’s work is also playful, colourful, fantastical and organic in its shapes.
The world presented here feels organic, inviting the viewer into the sea to watch the coral reefs. In English, Boulder Star refers to an endangered species of coral. The created environment is a visual inspiration for the artist’s utopian visions in the first place, nevertheless, environmental aspects of her work emerge too, as she creates a fantasy world out of items that may soon no longer be part of the world as we know it today.
Hinkula’s work is also characterized by recycling and repetition of elements, materials and colors. The finalization of
the work took place directly in the gallery where individual elements acquired new connotations and meanings both from the
artist’s and from the viewer’s perspectives. The created worlds allude to Hinkula’s previous installations, which this exhibition follows up on bringing the installation to other levels.
Kaija Hinkula (b. 1984) holds a master’s degree in painting from the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and the Saimaa University of Applied Sciences in Finland. Her works are represented in the collections of the Helsinki Art Museum(HAM), Oulu Art Museum and The Finish
State Art Collection.