“Can't go on, Must go on”

Jurriaan Benschop

Photos: Johannes Säre

Can't go on, Must go on
Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn
Until November 30, 2014

Six artists from Estonia, all with an interest in painting, are brought together in this group show with a title that is a quote taken from Samuel Beckett’s “Unnamable.” The words seem to refer in this context to the situation of a generation of young painters: A lot has been done already and there are multiple reasons not to paint, and yet these artists continue to work in (or with) this old medium, simply because they have to. How do they proceed?

Mihkel Ilus

Part of the works aim to redefine the traditional canvas. Mihkel Ilus (who co-curated the show with Elin Kard) shows a sequence of 14 wooden frames hanging in two rows like a big sculpture. Some of them have actual pieces of canvas on them, but they appear more clearly as stripped paintings, showing the wooden “skeleton” that is usually hidden but now functions as a support for color. In the same room, there is a triptych by Kristi Kongi. What looks like an abstract explosion of colors is in fact a realistic depiction of a wall in the artist's studio, with traces of paint, colored rectangles, and try-outs for new works. The painting extends itself into space in the form of colored wooden columns. This way, a walk through the work is possible. In both Ilus's and Kongi's work, space becomes physical and real, instead of imagined on the flat surface of the canvas.

Mihkel Maripuu 

The work of Mihkel Maripuu comes from an interest in anonymous imagery. Maripuu takes and reshapes motifs that he finds on the internet and blows them up to a monumental scale, presenting them either as digital prints or as gif projections on the wall. Although the imagery and form of presentation still refer to painting and its aesthetics, there is actually no paint involved.

Anna Skodenko 

Anna Skodenko has constructed a dark room consisting of two small corridors, where the visitor can take one of several seats and look at the postcard-sized painting on the wall directly in front of him. Each image seems like a vague and abstracted landscape in black and white. The installation is called “Prisoner's Cinema,” referring to the images that the mind creates when a person spends a long time in the dark, without any visual stimuli. Skodenko touches on the borders of what can be imagined and visually reproduced. And she looks for a painting technique that approaches this effect as closely as possible, using photo negatives of pictures of snow as examples to paint from, and choosing aluminium as a slippery support to paint on.

Katrin Koskaru

Katrin Koskaru has been fascinated through the years by military installations and architecture. This dates back to her childhood in the city of Tartu, which under Soviet occupation was a closed city, not accessible to tourists. The way we are watched, also nowadays, concerns the artist, and even though it is not an explicit subject matter, it does inform her work. The history of the material that Koskaru uses is also important, and it is hard to decide if the works in the show should be called paintings or simply “fabrics.”

Mart Vainre

Mart Vainre presents the viewer with a double image, created over two neighboring rooms. In the dark room, he presents a maquette of an exhibition space. As a viewer, you can look inside the artificially-lit miniature through the windows, and then you see a small painting on the wall, built up of abstract expressive gestures in color. As you leave the dark room with the maquette, you enter the second room and encounter the same second exhibition space, but this time life-size and with daylight coming in. The there is again a painting on the back wall that is similar to the miniature. In this case though, it is not painted spontaneously, but it is instead a carefully-painted re-make of the miniature on a bigger scale. Vainre's contribution nails an important aspect of this exhibition, and of how painting is regarded in the early 21st century. His scale model looks like a beautiful but inaccessible memory from a past era. Nowadays, such expressive gestures in painting are more likely to appear as re-enactments or quotes, or with the awareness that it is just one out of many stylistic approaches, and not a “truth” in painting. It seems that an extra layer of reflection has been added. Or, you could also say that the accent has shifted to perception in a mediated way. This staging of perception is, in different ways, also addressed in Skodenko's and Kongi’s work.

Koskaru seems to be the only artist in the show who pairs her interest in the medium with more personal research, or if you like, unconscious content. There are existential concerns to be felt in her work even though you cannot pinpoint them as a clear subject matter. Koskaru is also the only artist in her thirties, while the others are still in their twenties, and she moved out of Estonia years ago to work in London, while the others all work in Tallinn.

In the first part of the exhibition, with works by Kongi, Ilus, and Maripuu, the main focus seems to be a formal redefinition of the medium. Even though the efforts of these artists are genuine, one can question what they bring new to the table. Putting the medium upside down or inside out can be liberating, but is in itself not enough to make a work appealing, also considering the fact that such experiments have been made by numerous artists before. Where is each artist’s “self” in these works? If their research is taken to another level, involving maybe even more radical choices, it could reach more depth and something other than merely a cosmetic facelift of painting. 

The variety of aesthetics and the different angles on painting make this show as a whole a good experience. There is a spirit of curiosity and open-mindedness, and the design of the show allows one to engage fully in the different artistic positions. The exhibition opened days after it was announced that the position of director at the Tallinn Art Hall, where the event took place, would become vacant. One would hope that exhibitions of this kind will set the future for the Art Hall. It offers insight in what direction an emerging generation of artists in Estonia is moving, and where their interests cross.