Anna-Liisa Kankaanmäki & Katariina Katla: Päiväkahvit, Galleria Johan S. 4.5.-22.5.2011
Jenna Jauhiainen 12.5.2011
This review aims to look into an exhibition called Päiväkahvit, by artists Katariina Katla and Anna-Liisa Kankaanmäki, while trying to break down themes that circle around artistic “handicrafts” and social exhibitionism. I must begin by stating that I write from rather tendentious premises due to carrying a piece of work done by Katla on my body. For a more unbiased review I recommend Imetystä ja pervoa Tiffany-lasia by Pirkko Holmberg.
The opening of the exhibition in question was held on May 3rd, and the divided gallery space of Johan S was packed in the area where the Päiväkahvit exhibit was displayed. The name of the exhibition itself is, for Finnish speakers, quite an obvious hint towards something “casual” and sex-related. The artist couple was present and dressed in rather fancy gowns while carrying themselves proudly in the small space where their sexually provocative works were displayed. In two of five paintings, Kankaanmäki has portrayed herself and Katla amidst a breastfeeding scene. After talking with Kankaanmäki about her interests and goals with regard to the rather stuck up art sphere of Finland, I have come to understand that she wishes to conceptualize for herself the public image that artists give and take. This process of her personal gestation was very much embodied at the opening by the realistic, huge paintings that depicted stylized images of her private life and dominated the same space in which she and her companion mingled.
Although Kankaanmäki is skilled at tying together certain elements in her works together with colors, although in general she has room for development in her use of them, which hopefully will not happen at the expense of their intensity. The piece titled Imetys (“Breastfeeding”) is the best of her works on display. It is tantalizing and alluring visually while playing with feminine stereotypes of nurturing and vulnerability. What makes the work interesting for me is knowledge of the fact that on some level it stems from the above mentioned process of conceptualizing the social role and public image of artists. In Imetys, Kankaanmäki has herself, in posture and expression, submitted to the care of Katla while being contrasted with a lush environment that is filled with imagery that easily links the atmosphere to Victorian morality.
In order to create balance, the setting of Imetys is inverted in the painting hung on the opposite wall. In it, Katla is being breastfed by Kankaanmäki, who is now positioned to look down on her partner’s frail, naked body. The first image had its emphasis on nurture, while Madonna del Latte clearly leans more towards sexuality, which is interestingly enough observed by Jesus from a painting within the painting. The ornament-like style of the two artists’ tattoos works in both of these paintings as an assertive source of recognition as well as a method of highlighting a sense of unity between them. From the personalities and works of the two, one easily gets a glimpse of an “us against the world” attitude, which in its naïve romanticism must function as a source for the courage demanded by the exhibition of, especially, Kankaanmäki’s works.
Although the personal and “in your face” tone of her works is well embodied in the realism of her impressively large paintings, Kankaanmäki has a long way to go until she masters her use of materials and choice of subject matter, but nevertheless, without forgetting the esteem their big sizes demand. Experience will most likely wipe out all the flaws now present, such as in Rintapumppu (“Breastpump”) where a breast pump and a coffee cup are placed together with two sugar cubes and a candelabrum that depicts a naked child. The work is a bit too “obvious” and its technique could be improved. Personally, I think it would work much better as a small painting, instead of a two meter tall work.
Katariina Katla has three works on display. On the big arched window, a work titled Omakuva (“Self-portrait”) leans toward an altar covered in red velvet. Made out of a variety of different kinds of glass in Tiffany technique, together with forks and knives, Omakuva speaks on behalf of indulgence in both subject and “matter.” Benefiting from glass as the material of transparency, the overall impression leans towards kitsch to the point of being irritating, which challenges the viewer to come to some kind of terms with hedonism and the very well painted image of a naked, tattooed woman with a Mohawk.
In any form they may take, works in mixed media require careful input in order to create a feeling of balance. Omakuva does not succeed in this, but Tuulan omakuva (“Portrait of Tuula”) hung on the opposite wall is the most eye catching work in the whole exhibition for me. Empty perfume bottles glued onto a surface of mosaic mirror work serve as borders for a glass painting of an older woman, who has the sort of a look in her face that she could easily be looking at herself from that very symbolic mirror. Tuulan omakuva portrays the person who taught the tiffany technique to Katla.
I got to know Katla personally during the process of having myself tattooed by her. Six or seven hours in a state of uncomfortable pain was pretty much disassociated from my experience by concentrating on the conversations we had, which, not so surprisingly, dealt also with art theory. I had decided to have myself tattooed by her because, from her works displayed online, I had seen that her themes and subject matter were uplifting and intriguing. I was not really surprised that during our conversations it turned out that Katla does not only shares a liking with me for a certain kind of visual language but also holds a conscious philosophy of art that is very similar to mine. I could not have felt myself luckier to have a work of art made forever, from my limited temporal perspective, on me by a person whose attitude towards making art is respectful enough for my standards.
Katla’s philosophy on tattoo making, which I see reflected in her other types of work as well, is partly explained in this quote from an e-mail I received from her some weeks before our first session;
“I have a feeling that most of the people who get tattooed do not have the same criteria in regards to quality as I myself have as a person who makes tattoos. Or at least the criteria they hold are much less strict as the ones that I set up for myself. The biggest impact on the quality of the tattoos I make comes from the satisfaction I get from solving the problems related to the process itself and from striving towards a result of highest possible quality.
One can approach tattoo making as a sort of a mind game, in which the goal is to solve arising problems related to shape, color, the ways of reacting of the customer and issues stemming from the subject matter in a way that the process remains as fast and smooth as possible while adding the physical discomfort of the customer as little as possible. Inherent in the nature of these solutions is a very minor chance to fix or change them afterwards, so the trying out of different options has to be done through imagination and the confidence brought along by experience. The result of successful troubleshooting is a tattoo of good quality.
I define the quality of a tattoo in a very similar manner that I define the quality of a painting. The shape must be fluid, airy and have a feel of having been easy to make for the artist. Colors must support the impression given by the shape and be well thought through in regards to subject matter. Most importantly a tattoo must, in my opinion, fit to the part of the body it is made, and if possible, to highlight the personal qualities of the individual carrying it.”
Individuals with a desire to develop themselves and their skills receive great respect from me. The infamous modern project appears to have led to a point where much of that which had developed in the course of centuries to define the role and qualifications of an artist has crumbled down. “Anyone can be an artist” has a ghastly feel to it even though it should be associated with the democratization of making art. In practice, unfortunately, it tends to mean underachievement and the replacement of artistic goals with desires concerning one’s social status, income or whatever. My cries go to all areas of life that are impacted by attitudes analogous to modernist ideals, pleading for dear individuals to develop a firm set of standards in respect to quality.
Quality should be seen as something inherent in an object itself and not defined by external things such as social context or mere implications brought up by it. The quality of an artistic product should be defined according to what the object itself is, without taking into serious consideration anything but the technique and subject matter. That is to say that all works of art can be valued depending on the standards held by any given viewer. What I would wish, is for individuals to have their own conscious set of standards and values through which they observe all that which art is capable of reflecting from the set of standards and values of an artist. As my final word, I recommend the works of Kankaanmäki and Katla to anyone who wishes to become more aware of their own personal standards.