Portraits by Essi Kuokkanen, Rauha Mäkilä, and Camilla… | CHART

Portraits by Essi Kuokkanen, Rauha Mäkilä, and Camilla Vuorenmaa in a Historical Context

Essi Kuokkanen
Man Contemplating Important Stuff, 2018
Oil on canvas, 143 x 133 cm.

Photo by Jussi Tiainen.
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Anhava

In Finland, female painters have a long and continuous tradition. Since the mid-1850s, female Finnish painters have been particularly remarkable, to such an extent that they are highlighted — also in a historical context — in relation to their male colleagues. During the 19th century, the nation’s art schools figured as a central element in the proposed strategy to challenge and work against the intense Russification taking place until independence in 1917. Public art schools were to work towards a nationally founded art, as an element of the general struggle for cultural identity in the years leading towards the liberation from the Russian Empire. These schools accepted both women and men from the get-go, and they worked side by side — and since the founding of the direct predecessor to the Finnish Art Academy (Finsk Kunstforenings Tegneskole) in 1846, the persistent focus on painting has been a notable feature of Finnish contemporary art.

There was a wide-spread ambition amongst these artists to create and develop their work in an international context, motivated further by the lack of recognition and attention they received in their own art scene. Traveling became an obvious alternative to remaining in the national and conservative home context, where male artists dominated. The international perspective of modernism united the female artists with a strong personal expression, resulting in a a notable diversity in the Finnish art scene. It’s interesting to note that figurative painting figured widely both then and now, just as portraits remain a widespread motif throughout the decades. Needless to say that much has happened since the turn of the previous century, but the artists’ work, where an international perspective fuses with an interest for the proximate and the personal, is an interesting parallel.

The portrait-as-motif also runs through the work of Essi Kuokkanen, Rauha Mäkilä, and Camilla Vuorenmaa. Despite significant differences in their painterly starting points, the human figure is a recurring theme in their art. The self-portrait and portraits of others indicate the existential inquiry that runs through each of their work like a red thread. With much self-awareness and width, we encounter interpretations of society that are humorous but also highly expressive.

Essi Kuokkanen

The figures in Essi Kuokkanen’s paintings are vulnerable in their introspective inquiries and actions. Whether it’s the ingestion of a worm or of liquid, toxic garbage that constitutes the precarious situation of her subjects,

There lies beneath the humorous surface a pronounced solemnity and depth. Often, the inquiry into the relationship between human and nature figures as the central theme. Through this, the figures are able to represent specific characters but also overarching narratives interpreted with great insight and sympathy. The figures invade the picture plane and take over the space around them; they fill it out in their insistence of their place within it—concretely and metaphorically, just as they dare to turn their vulnerability towards us, the audience. The figuration that materializes through grand, amorphous strokes that characterizes Kuokkanen’s more abstract paintings finds an origin in surrealism, and carries its tradition of female artists securing central positions in the art world in greater numbers.

“There lies beneath the humorous surface a pronounced solemnity and depth. Often, the inquiry into the relationship between human and nature figures as the central theme.

Anne Kielgast about Essi Kuokkanen's practice

Camilla Vuorenmaa
Séance, 2020
Painting and carving on wood, 150 x 120 cm.

Photo by Jussi Tiainen
Courtesy the artist and Helsinki Contemporary

Rauha Mäkilä
Sofie, 2020
Acrylic on canvas, 65 x 50 cm.

Photo by Jussi Tiainen
Courtesy the artist and Helsinki Contemporary

Rauha Mäkilä

A seeming lightness also characterizes Rauha Mäkilä’s paintings. Her portraits of celebrities — singers and actors from our shared cultural image album — appear in contexts along with her closest family, most of all her children. Seemingly spontaneous in their snapshot, Instagram-like quality, holiday photos and everyday motifs mix with professionally constructed images that Mäkilä utilizes as the basis for her paintings. The fluorescent colours of the painting, the fleetingness in the characters of the motifs, and the particular brushwork seemingly embrace the carefree self-performativity of youth and exude a real joy towards the motifs. The intimacy of the paintings, as well as the formal and social qualities of the found imagery, are important aspects of the paintings that radiate pop-cultural energy. In her later works, we find an increasing reduction in the colour palette, suggesting a growing ambivalence: sympathy for the depicted but a slight hint of melancholy looms in most of the snapshots. With the expressively stylized form, you’re once again tempted to connect the work with Mäkilä’s historical predecessors, who also let expression emerge through colour choice and brushwork, adding intimate insight into its subjects.

Camilla Vuorenmaa

Variations and weird mutations of human bodies dominate in Camilla Vuorenmaa’s paintings. Bodies and faces function as portraits — also of animals — that are simultaneously inviting and uncanny. The decorative heads, faces, and bodies are adorned in patterns and colour flows that give them a weird expressivity, bringing inner states to the surface through powerful, synthetic colors and linework.

Vuorenmaa, too, uses found images as a basis for her paintings. Even if the dreamy figures in the paintings seem out of this world, they have concrete references and just as concrete titles: Goalkeeper, Zombie, and Shepherd. The paintings are all outcomes of Vuorenmaa’s thorough inquiry into topics as diverse as domestic animals and clairvoyance, found and interpreted through analogue photography. The works unite painting and relief and are often executed in large scale. The tactile surfaces serve as concrete objects in the space they are exhibited. The physical and tactile surfaces of the reliefs stand in direct contrast to the synthetic, computer-like colors. In this way the past meets the present, and framed by the strange, decorative, and distributing expression of her figures, Vuorenmaa conjures up a deeply personal universe.

“Even if the dreamy figures in the paintings seem out of this world, they have concrete references and just as concrete titles: Goalkeeper, Zombie, and Shepherd.”

Anne Kielgast about Camilla Vuorenmaa's practice

Anne Kielgast is Chief Curator at Kunstforeningen GL STRAND in Copenhagen and has an MA in Art History. She has worked in different art museums and non-profit art institutions curating exhibitions on modern and contemporary art throughout the years. Solo exhibition include David Lynch, Kara Walker, Yang Fudong, Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Yinka Shonibare MBE.

Private photo.