KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Dark Days, Bright Nights, an exhibition of recent Finnish paintings curated by Barbara O’Brien for the Kemper Museum, is a stirring reminder of how culturally under-represented that nation remains even in the age of digitally networked globalization. Yet instead of trying to determine the origins of Finland’s enigmatic ability to maintain a unique cultural identity while bordered on either side by Slavic and Scandinavian spheres of influence, this collection of 21st-century works concentrates its energies on overturning the image of Finnish cultural life as an “isolated” entity (as the exhibition catalogue and many other books on the nation remind us, Finland is the nation with the highest number of library visits per year, pointing toward steady levels of intellectual and cultural curiosity).
Put simply, the exhibition achieves a goal that should be standard for shows of the “geographical sampling” type. That is, it manages to present a cross-section of the chosen region’s artistic output without reliance on stereotypical images; without pandering to preconceptions (which, for Finland in particular, tend to circle around the suomi-kuva or national image of the “strong-willed, taciturn, hard-drinking individual who has the cool head to cut through undue fuss, theatrical behavior, and exaggeration,” as Richard Lewis put it in Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf). Only the swirling winterscapes of Anna Tuori‘s huge expressionistic canvases really come close to meeting pop-cultural presumptions of Finland, and even then the materials used in her work — extremely heavy fiberboard, whose weight suggests the “living” quality of personal and cultural memory — allow them to rise well above any kind of national kitsch. Elsewhere, Leena Nio‘s equally huge renderings of bulky turtleneck sweaters, “Ghost” and “Ladder I,” portray something that is surely a fashion necessity in Finland, yet the way in which the unraveling sweaters resemble a mass of electric cables raises more strictly universal questions about the relationship between technology and human interiority.
By avoiding the temptation to advertise the exhibited artists as “the Finnish equivalents of ‘x'” in the promotional material, the exhibition also avoids the kind of hand holding which can quickly nullify anyone’s sense of adventure. However, comparisons aren’t completely unavoidable, or necessarily uninvited, particularly in those circumstances where the artists are paying direct homage. One of Mari Rantanen‘s shield-sized elliptical paintings is entitled “Yayoi,” and its ripples of eye-popping florescent color easily recall Yayoi Kusama‘s signature constellations of dots. (Rantanen’s other three paintings on display follow a similar design motif, and are intended as abstract portraits of other influences that look uncannily like some of the “auratic” images used for the mystical manual Thought Forms by Theosophists Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater.) In other cases, influence is implied rather than explicit. The bodily distortions, facial blurring, and faded color palette of Reima Nevalainen‘s “Framed” and “Between the Lines II” provide intriguing takes on Francis Bacon’s illusion of motion within the painting, and a choice quotation in the exhibition catalogue from Nevalainen — that “[painting] is like shedding the skin to make a new matter or substance” — seems not too far off from Bacon’s famous wish to have his exhibited paintings leave a “memory trace of past events as the snail leaves its slime.”
As the previous two examples might suggest, there’s a decided emphasis on portraiture within the show, ranging from Rantanen’s aforementioned works at one end of the user-friendliness spectrum to, at the other, Rauha Mäkilä‘s spectral series of girls with facial features curiously omitted or smeared. Mäkilä’s approach hints at a northern European trend towards facial disfiguration (seen in many of Julie Nord‘s recent works, for example), though Mäkilä does achieve her own special resonance by filling in deceptively tranquil blue or pink backgrounds as the final element in her paintings. This cultivation of tension between placidity and fear is also at work in at least one of Nanna Susi‘s works (the expressionless gothic beauty of “Coming Going Thief”), in the accretions of bubbles that form parasitically around the subjects in Mari Sunna‘s “Cage” and “Gladiator,” and, lastly, among the boyish characters depicted by Jarmo Mäkilä (no relation to Rauha). In his “The Bow of Kings,” boys uniformly clad in white dress shirts and gray slacks appear to be going about spontaneous, unsupervised acts of play with the paradoxically grim determination of a military operation. His other featured canvas, “Europa, Europa,” actually comes the closest of any of the show’s pieces to being an outright political allegory, depicting an outsized drummer boy whipping a pack of German Shepherds into a frenzied dance as several other boys launch fiery darts through a grating overhead.
In an exhibition ostensibly dedicated to painting, two special exemptions are made for Jarmo Mäkilä’s sculpture “Lord of the Flies,” and for Vesa-Pekka Rannikko‘s “Canary” video installation (which its creator essentially views as a form of “light painting”). In this piece, projectors screen a set of overlapping monochromatic canaries while a set of taut climbing ropes stretch like optic nerves away from the projected images, providing on one level an intimate experience of “seeing sight.” What we are intended to see here, though, is the peculiarity of red and blue canaries, a wry reference to a 1924 experiment in genetically modifying the bird (and, consequently, a nod toward the strange personal obsessions that branch off from the larger obsession with overcoming animal and human nature). Rannikko’s subversive yet informative program is mirrored here by the works of Jani Hänninen, which warn against taking the most dramatic interpretations as the most reliable. What I saw in his “Twin Peaks” as a pair of nuclear cooling towers thinly disguised as mountain peaks were not, in fact, that, nor was the “radioactivity symbol” parked over them like a menacing sun intended to be anything like that. (In the exhibition catalogue, Hänninen explains that image as being no more than “a memory of a tattoo” of a friend who “went missing and came back.”)
All told, Dark Days, Bright Nights works as a strong, cohesive statement, though viewers looking for wry in-jokes and ironic statements on the likes of Nokia, Linus Torvalds, and pro ice hockey stars are advised to look elsewhere. Once it is done running the gamut from “trans-avantguarde” portraiture to pure abstraction, the lasting impression of this exhibition is not of a nation whose artists suffer in chilly isolation, but who stand firmly in the warm glow of creative independence.
Dark Days, Bright Nights: Contemporary Paintings from Finland continues at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (4420 Warwick Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri) through February 21.