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A glass bead game of repeating patterns

Elnara Taidre (1/2021)

Elnara Taidre analyses the joint exhibition "Repeating Patterns" by Sirja-Liisa Eelma and Mari Kurismaa.


29. I–4. IV 2021
Tallinn Art Hall Gallery
Curator: Tamara Luuk


Continuing its tradition of exhibitions that engage artists in a dialogue, Tallinn Art Hall invited Sirja-Liisa Eelma, a creator of series of minimalist paintings based on conceptual repetitions. She, in turn, chose as her partner in this dialogue Mari Kurismaa, whom she has long considered a kindred spirit in terms of artistic method and approach as well as the topics she considers important. Kurismaa, who has been dedicated to exhibition design and interior design in recent years, returned to painting. However, she does not offer a direct continuation of her powerful geometric metaphysical painting of the 1980s but has moved on, finding a new, more relevant way to express herself, a new visual language.

Curator Tamara Luuk has been an excellent collaborator and commentator; it is quite difficult to add anything to her sensitive and multifaceted text based on conversations with the artists.1 Paraphrasing Mari Kurismaa's comment on Sirja-Liisa Eelma's series of paintings "Emptying Field of Meaning" (2014–…), I could say I had the feeling that I could have written this text myself. But aptly articulating the points of contact between Eelma and Kurismaa – the orderliness, sensuality and non-violence of their minimalist compositions – Luuk sees their shared roots in artist and art thinker Tõnis Vint's (1942–2019) talks (held in his home) and studio visits, which they both attended. Vint's interest in different visual sign systems and their synthesis, ornament, empty space and meditativeness is also important for Eelma and Kurismaa, without being too obvious. As all good students, they have created something unique, rather than imitating their teacher.

An important theme picked up by the title of the exhibition, "Repeating Patterns", is the repetition of visual structures and meanings. Repetitive motifs, while primarily decorative in a pattern, quite often perform a symbolic function in ornament – at least historically. The works of Kurismaa and Eelma are precisely ornamental: in their fabric, references to the visual systems of different periods and regions are interwoven, growing into a symbolic field of meaning. In the case of Eelma, these are the motifs of her new series of paintings "To Write One's / Your Name" (2020). Shown for the first time in this exhibition, they are reminiscent of Rococo stucco decor as well as later interior forms, and other historical artefacts or even living beings. Kurismaa's paintings combine Japanese ornament, art deco ornament inspired by it and famous interior design elements, such as the klismos, a type of ancient Greek chair, or a window from a building by Adolf Loos.2 The works of both artists feature ornamental fields of repeated semicircles or semi-ovals, which resemble stylised waves but, as in the works of Kurismaa, can also signify trees in a park. Or a bird, a fan, a butterfly, a feather, a mirror and much more – like the open-ended key shapes in Eelma's paintings.




Sirja-Liisa Eelma
To Write One's / Your Name
(S4; S10; S19; S12; S21; S5; S13; S7; S18; S20; S22; S9; S3; S11)
oil on canvas, à 50 x 55 cm
Courtesy of the artist
Exhibition view in Tallinna Art Hall Gallery
Photographer Paul Kuimet




Alongside ornament, combinations make up another important aspect of Eelma's and Kurismaa's works: carefully selected sets of elements, experimenting with different layouts or combinations to construct both individual works and entire sets of paintings. In the rather austere picture plane of the works of both artists, with nothing superfluous, every small change has an effect. Variation in individual significant elements is the beauty of the game: make a move, take a step back and see – what has happened and how it works, in terms of both aesthetics and meaning, what nuances and parallels emerged in the new combination.

This procedure is like a Hermann Hesse glass bead game: a synthesis of mysterious sciences and arts to make new connections, but also to ask questions. The artistic methods of Kurismaa and Eelma speak clearly of the bittersweet burden of the modern person – awareness of the multitude of cultural phenomena of the past and an attempt to cope with this heritage. However, this palimpsest of contexts and meanings works side by side with the desire to achieve a minimal expression. In this way, immersion in abundant images is combined with visual abstinence; a resemblance to the meditative practice of creating a mandala indicates the goal of purifying consciousness.

Another connection with meditation in Kurismaa's paintings is provided by the branch motifs, in which the artist was interested in paying attention to each individual leaf. The simplicity of these works in the series "Little Green" (2020) also reveals something much greater than meets the eye. One cannot help but think of J. R. R. Tolkien's short story "Leaf and Niggle" (1938–1939),3 where one leaf painted with great devotion gave birth not only to an entire real tree or even an actual forest, but an entire world in another, probably higher reality. When Kurismaa talks about depicting invisible things of importance, it is filtering through her painted foliage that they start to appear.

The leaves on the tree seem similar, but each is different. Each of Eelma's paintings based on a recurring motif is also unique, although together they are like a powerful repetition, like the foliage in the crown of a tree. Both Kurismaa's and Eelma's paintings enchant the viewer with the paradox of the simultaneous presence of difference and repetition.4 Discussing a thesis he attributes to David Hume – "repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it" – Gilles Deleuze has shown that habit always draws something new from repetition, that this is a need essential to habit and the human mind. In the case of the works of Eelma and Kurismaa, we could say that as the mind changes, it also changes the repeated objects every time.


1 Tamara Luuk, The abundance and modesty of repeating patterns. – Digital guide to the exhibition "Repeating Patterns". Tallinn: Tallinn Art Hall, 2020.

2 It is worth mentioning that Loos' notorious quip "ornament is a crime" was primarily about architectural ornament: the geometric structures of his buildings and the texture of the materials, on the other hand, created a kind of pure ornament in its own right.

3 J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964.

4 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp 70–77.

Elnara Taidre is an art historian, critic and curator. She works as Head of the Graphic Art Collection at the Art Museum of Estonia.

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