Dark Days, Bright Nights review in KC STAR

Dark Days, Bright Nights review in KC STAR


Photo credit: Allison Long, along@kcstar.com


In 1993, a slender thriller from Denmark, “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” became a sensation in the U.S. thanks to author Peter Hoeg’s lyrical descriptions of the endless complexity of frozen water. A survey of contemporary Finnish paintings at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is similarly transporting. “Dark Days, Bright Nights” creates an ice palace atmosphere inside the museum’s main gallery. There’s a sensation of entering a world where light and color have different qualities than they do in our part of the world.

Museum director Barbara O’Brien visited Finland twice, in 2012 and 2014, to select works for the exhibition. She wanted to showcase what she describes as two distinct currents of Finnish painting.

One is hard-edged geometric patterns, known to Americans through Finnish design house Marimekko.

The second, less familiar, tradition is the dream narrative arising from “all the darkness and all the light — extreme experiences,” O’Brien said.

The works by 13 artists represent an array of styles, yet they share a Nordic emotional coolness, compositional order and purity of hue reminiscent of the colors of light glinting off crystal.

The show is multigenerational, with works by painters born from 1947, in the gritty aftermath of World War II, to 1984, on the cusp of European unity and the collapse of communism.

“Europa, Europa,” a large-scale painting by Jarmo Mäkilä of young schoolboys playing in an abandoned KGB bunker as large dogs jump at them, calls to mind Günter Grass, author of “The Tin Drum,” a dreamlike tale of war seen through a child’s eyes, juxtaposing innocence and menace.

Indeed one of the figures in the bunker is playing a drum, which to Mäkilä represents power, according to museum director O’Brien.

She says Mäkilä draws on his experience growing up after the war in an ancient village on the west coast of Finland.

“Boys, separate from the culture of girls, had a sort of wild life, rather like animals,” O’Brien said.

A second large canvas by Mäkilä, “The Bow of the Kings,” depicts schoolboys playing amidst ruins in a shimmering glade of birch trees. One beats on a large drum, another brandishes a human skull atop a long stick.

In addition to the narrative component in Mäkilä’s works, O’Brien was drawn to their beauty.

“When you get close to the surface, it is so luscious. He draws like an angel,” she said.

On the floor in front of the painting, Mäkilä’s schoolboys come to life as a cadre of cast concrete statues the size of garden gnomes. The installation, called “Lord of the Flies,” is a mesmerizing study in the unformed aspect of pre-adolescence. The boys are nearly identical but not quite, and they stand in a loose group but without making eye contact with one another.

The boys look away from the paintings, Mäkilä told O’Brien, because “boys are always looking out into the world. They are always in a pensive state, uncertain of their movement toward the future and uncertain of their relationship one to another.”

Dreamscapes that blur the boundaries between waking and sleep and night and day are also the arena of three large works by Anna Tuori.

Tuori’s 8-feet-wide, 5-feet-tall panels contain bright snow-globe-like bubbles painted against darkly receding backgrounds.

“Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More” is a frozen wonderland sparsely populated with a small house, a bicycle, a bird — images that recur throughout the exhibition and offer a peek into the Finnish psyche. They speak to the comforts of a modest home and a vast and dramatic natural world.

The two Finnish impulses of geometry and narrative come together in “Framed” by Reima Nevalainen, a large multi-layered painting of a grotesquely splayed human figure at odds with an organizing grid, whose face nevertheless exudes childlike placidness.

Women’s work has traditionally been fertile ground for feminist artists who sought to create pieces in fiber and beads — new media where the rules and traditions had not been established by men as they had in painting and sculpture.

Marika Mäkelä at once advances and subverts that agenda with three oversized paintings that appear from a distance to be exquisitely rendered in beads and fine thread but are actually painted using the finest of brush strokes and drops of paint infused with glitter.

Seeing Mäkelä’s works for the first time killed off a long-held bias of O’Brien’s.

“I was very skeptical of painters using glitter or sparkle or reflective materials of any sort, but I realized that in Finland it means something very different to embed and hold light within the surface of a painting,” she said. “It is a longing for light during the darkness, it is a celebration of light during the months of endless sun.”

Mäkelä’s “Tibetan Bridal Saddle” evokes the sumptuousness of Gustav Klimt and the lightness of Alexander Calder while making a feminist statement by placing the intricate feminine subject on a massive, roughly carved wooden panel that serves as a masculine foil.

Although this exhibition is weighted heavily toward what O’Brien calls “the painted gesture,” a video installation, “Canary,” by Vesa-Pekka Rannikko fits in seamlessly. Obvious connections to the other works on display include a bird as subject matter and a colorful grid created by climbing ropes, but the Finnishness of the work runs deeper.

With a 5-minute loop of canaries of many hues hopping within the confines of a shadow cage, Rannikko references early 20th-century genetic experiments that tried to create a red canary. The work also conjures the 20th-century horrors of ethnic cleansing in Europe and the particular experience of Finland, a land of permeable borders and identity whose people seemed trapped in a no-man’s land between east and west.

Artist Nanna Susi inhabits that otherworldly space as well in deceptively spare paintings.

“Cottage” presents vernacular elements — a small house, a tree, water, sky — in a humanless landscape that unfolds in depth and interest the longer one gazes at it. Susi’s thick, layered application of paint creates the illusion of viewing the scene through an ice-glazed window.

Asked about the painting’s ethereal hues of turquoise, lavender, indigo, carnation pink and dusty white, Susi told O’Brien, “Finnish colors always have the smell of freezing air.”

“Dark Days, Bright Nights” is a deeply satisfying exploration of that exotic palette and the artistic impulses born of endless light and endless dark.

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