A partial review of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” was published in The Pitch on February 10th, 2016.
Now, in late December, the people of Finland will experience their darkest days of the year. With only about 4 hours of sun per day in some regions, winter has officially arrived. Lakes freeze over with meter thick ice, and snow can rise a couple feet off the ground, covering every inch until March when spring starts to hedge in. It is the perfect time of the year to see “Dark Days, Bright Nights” at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where a collection of works by Finnish artists mirror the dropping temperatures outside. Political and personal, each piece in the collection feels a part of something bigger than the individual artist. Everything taps into a shared experience of living in Finland, be it the landscape, the necessary layers required to venture into the snow, or the brief but deadly wars that divided the land—the artists here are struggling against something bigger. Cable knit sweaters—familiar worn articles that would spell a frozen death if left behind in a moment of carelessness—are painted with as much care as it would take to knit the garment itself. Memories of a lonesome farm covered in snow bloom from large canvases like selections from anxious dreams. There are no fires in the images, but the glow of a functioning artistic community lights up the work from deep inside. What emerges is a sense of never being relaxed, never being inattentive to what the country produces by weather and by culture.
Finland is reflected in every face, pale and stoic, hungry for warmth—a unique landscape in itself. Rauha Mäkilä’s portrait series—five altogether—are of haunted girls and women with empty eyes and carnivorous expressions. Against flat, single color backgrounds of rose pink and icy blue, the women seem to be momentarily caught in the frame of the paintings, either as they pass through or try to escape their oppressive walls. These are faces in the winter. The uneven exposure to the sun and snow has left splotchy marks around the foreheads and high on pallid cheeks. Mouths have been ripped out or erased, eyes have been blindfolded, and the women press onward through the season, leaving behind something vital as the landscape around them dies. “Petite,” the largest of the five, is striking red and orange, but the warmth of the colors is not a comfort. A young woman bows her head in profile, but it is her mouth we are focused on. Blood and scabs replace what would have been a willowy pout, matching the crimson background. To the left, a smaller “Doora” looks directly into the viewer. Her high white collar suggest a religious association, but the way she stares out with almond shaped eyes sunk into the shadows of her face is deeply upsetting. Her small mouth puckers hungrily like a wolf on a dusky prowl.
Jarmo Mäkelä’s series, “Kärpästen herra (Lord of the Flies),” “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” and “Europa, Europa” depict identical boys in school uniforms in three surreal developments. The most striking of the trilogy is the eleven knee-high sculptures of the boys, identical in their stance and solemn expressions, emerging as if from the paintings of themselves on the wall. The material looks like concrete, although the description says clay, and where the mold for their shape was broken, hard flaps of stone stand out from the figures. Material leakage is common in mold-made sculptures, but Mäkelä’s decision to leave the surface unfinished is a queer one. As the little boys march forward into the gallery, they proudly wear their flaws on their skin, on their small faces, like some uncivilized troop of future sovereign. “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” directly behind the sculptures represents the boys in a more animated and disturbing backdrop. They brandish sticks, raise a skull above the battleground like an ominous flag. Boys ride on their twins backs, ready to joust, and one of the decanonplets (what is the term for 11 twins?) beats a drum above the frenzy as he looks deep into the woods beyond—or possibly out at the sculptures of his brothers. “Europa, Europa,” the second painting, is a busy, contained drama of the same boys trapped in an underground room with hysterical German Shepards leaping off the ground. A boy’s face on the body and clothes of a grown man stands giant on an oil barrel in the small room, beating a drum strapped to his chest. Above the scene, two of the boys balance on an unfinished roof like fencers in combat. Mäkelä’s series explores the country’s civil war and eventual independence, which had to be defended during the Second World War when Soviet Russia rose to power. The identical boys, locked in battle in the paintings and banded together in the sculptures, signify the internal struggle Finland endured as the people fought for control during the transition into an independent nation. Their strength of self-preservation has eventually paid off, and a young, independent Finland has grown and even prospered.
Although most of the show focuses on paintings, Vesa-Pekka Rannikko’s colorful two-channel video installation, “Canary,” is set up in one walled off part if the gallery. Follow the taut climbing ropes, the sinew that stretches from a carabiner in the wall to the larger-than-life canaries projected into a corner. Masses of bright colors fill the shadows created by the ropes as birds alight on a perch and flit around. While we expect canaries to contain a certain amount of yellow, these birds are flat with primary colors, no shadows or varying hues define them. They are cadmium red, sunshine yellow, and bright cyan. The ropes and their matching shadows build a cage, and although the projected birds can move about freely, the effect of a controlled natural state prevails. A quick search into genetic modification exposes The Red Canary, a story of the first attempts to engineer an animal outside of it’s own evolutionary arc. This popular bird—in the wild and in captivity—caused English canary breeders to experiment with feeding the birds different types of food in attempt to change their color. In the installation, the color of the birds have been digitally modified (another type of human intervention that disrupts the natural state of things) erasing defining features like eyes and feathers and thus erasing naturally occurring traits. The story becomes a metaphor for ethnic cleansing and selective populating—with Finland experiencing some of this during World War II while their borders were still fluid. While the red canary was never perfected, Nazi leaders took notice of the experiment and admired the scientific approach to their brand of ethnic cleansing. While the literal desire to cage and control a wild life may be overstepping the meaning of the piece, the struggle against natural forces in the environment and political landscape which one exists can be so tiresome—so repetitive—that one wishes to exercise any amount of control at all. Within the context of the “Dark Days, Bright Nights,” the imposed cage of shadows reflects a nation’s desire to be self contained.
Anna Tuori’s three large paintings, “It Is All Now You See,” “Splendor in the Grass,” and “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More” follow the dreary, reflective tone of their titles into glimpses of cold landscapes. The three paintings pulse like a memory slowly coming into focus. The vignette format of these large scenes keep the images from reaching the borders of the canvas, remaining in the stillness of a certain time without overtaking the present. A dreamy countryside is glimpsed through a clear spot in a frosted window, swirling with cold wind that does not disturb the culminating icicles. From our vantage point, the rural locale is safely in the past where it cannot freeze us. Tuori takes us gently into these moments while keeping us out of harm’s way, and as the vignette seems to breathe—expanding a little and contracting slightly—we may feel a stiff and far away breeze reach out to us from the cool colors of “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More.”
Once outside the museum, the cold sets in for real. Chilly winds blow down Warwick and above the nearby park. Cheeks chap and fingers search for the warmth of deep pockets. It is as if you have traveled a great distance in a short amount of time, retuning home with a new appreciation for the environmental restrictions art can thrive in. There is no such thing as a culture without art, and the perspective the artists of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” bring to Kansas City is a fresh and effective reminder that anything can be accomplished in any weather.
“Dark Days, Bright Nights: Contemporary Paintings from Finland”
October 2nd, 2015, to February 21st, 2016
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
4420 Warwick Blvd
Kansas City, MO 64111