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Word, Space and "Compulsion"

Eero Kangor (2/2014)

This year's exhibition programme at the Tallinn Art Hall will map the current state of Estonian painting through three large group shows – Eero Kangor critiques the first part of the trilogy.

14. V–15. VI 2014
Artists: Vano Allsalu, Manfred Dubov, Mihkel Ilus, Liina Kalvik, Mihkel Maripuu, Soho Fond, Jaan Toomik.
Curator: Teet Veispak.

Image and word

Today's institutionalised art places increasing importance on the word. If an artist becomes a favourite of a curator who is lexically skilled, even a dim talent can become a star, although fame of this kind may not last long. For an authoritarian curator that has risen above art, art itself is only a subject expected to depend on the mercy and temper of it who rules. Nevertheless, talented painters have always critically responded to attempts to subjugate their work and due to the painters' evident creative power, their works can continually be viewed from new angles. This creative power lies in the ability to activate in the viewer a compulsion to create new meanings. Images start telling their own story. Yet when the words are telling one story and the images another, when the text is not explaining or directing, but throwing the viewer onto new paths, when words are affecting one sense, while the images have an impact on another and images are created that cross, conflate, inflate and spread like rhizomes and lay themselves all over the wide landscape, limited only by our knowledge and imagination, then the word has a significant position next to the image.


Artist and space

The current situation in art poses another challenge to the artist. They do not have to create works and dedicate days, months or years to a single painting, rather they have to work with a specific exhibition in mind and consider its spatial implications. An idea must emerge within the limitations of this one space and place in order to best display the message of the artist's images. When after an initial exhibition, an image (painting, figure, installation, video) convincingly "works" in another space, it is a remarkable feat. When a motive that is repeated throughout several paintings does not end up being boring, the artist has found something universal for the exploitation of which they are not punished, but praised. The artist of images must rule both the internal and external space – the roles of painter and exhibition designer must complement each other.


Tallinn and Tartu

For a long time, I have observed and compared the works of painters graduating from the department of painting at the University of Tartu and those from the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA) in Tallinn. I have witnessed that these two sides have been ignoring each other for years. When a painter from Tartu opens an exhibition in Tallinn, the number of people at the opening is notably modest. In Tallinn, artists from Tartu are mockingly called "Pallas-school artists"1, with the intention of suggesting they still live in the 1920s and 30s.

Having said so, I am only happy to see the increasing exchange between the north and the south of the country that surely benefits young artists. For example, Laura Põld began her studies in Tallinn but went on to do her master's degree in Tartu, with Jaan Elken as her supervisor. Mihkel Ilus and Mihkel Maripuu, on the other hand, started in Tartu and are now continuing their studies in the master's programme at the Art Academy. Even though the only art programme available in the University of Tartu is painting, in my opinion, it prepares the students better to succeed as artists, as the academic diversity of the university helps them to advance their lexical skills and also broaden their horizons in general. The people who have studied in Tartu, are equally capable of working with images, words and space.


"Compulsion" and other exhibitions

On 13 May 2014, the exhibition "Sund" (Compulsion) opened at the Tallinn Art Hall, providing an excellent overview of the works of the two schools of painting. However, the curator, Teet Veispak, introduces the exhibition in a very shallow and imprecise manner: "The title of the exhibition – Compulsion – stems from the immanent condition of the artists that in its own way is conditio sine qua non, the basis of their work. This is the starting point for presenting a vision of self, the world and of what is going on in it (---)" and so on. This text could have been written for whichever random exhibition/artist(s) and for any period in time. True, it is difficult to find a common denominator or a connecting idea between the paintings displayed – so maybe it would have been more honest to provocatively title the exhibition "Suvaline" (Random).

The connections between the artists presented at the exhibition are more personal if anything – works by professors and their students are displayed side by side. The "random" exhibition includes works by the new president of the Estonian Artists' Association, Vano Allsalu, the Art Academy's professor of painting, Jaan Toomik and their students Soho Fond, Mihkel Ilus, Mihkel Maripuu, Manfred Dubov and Liisa Kalvik. The main exhibition space at the Tallinn Art Hall displays paintings by Allsalu, Kalvik, Dubov and Toomik. The gallery to the left is occupied by the paintings of Toomik, the third hall presents a spatial installation by Ilus and the last hall is left for a video installation by Maripuu. The exhibition lacks a uniform design, which becomes especially evident in the main hall. The other rooms each only display works by a single artist, which definitely benefitted the whole.



Mihkel Ilus /HHH/

Mihkel Ilus
painting installation
Exhibition view at Tallinn Art Hall,
photo by Andreas Trossek
Courtesy of the artist



The right-hand wall of the main hall has Allsalu's matching clear-toned canvases of different sizes, the titles of which attempt to add at least some character to each of the paintings. Comparing these works to Allsalu's previous shows ("Süütuse aeg" (The Age of Innocence) at Hobusepea Gallery in 2010, "Unepaanika" (Dream Panic) at Draakoni Gallery and "Igati" (In Every Way) at Haus Gallery in 2012) and considering the titles of his paintings, we can conclude that Allsalu is talented both at writing and painting; nevertheless, one without the other does not stand so strong. What is lacking in painting must be complemented by wit in written form, but when the words lack drama, they only cast a meek shadow upon the images.

The other large wall of the main hall presents an array of paintings by Dubov. These can also be better evaluated if we remember his previous shows ("Invocatio" at Hobusepea Gallery in 2011 and "Fracturae" at Hobusepea and Draakoni galleries in 2013). Just like Allsalu, his professor, Dubov also focuses on poetry, but even if there is a spark of creative force in his paintings, it diminishes the moment he realises he is following the lead of a greater master. His works also lack originality, which Dubov tries to compensate for with the beautiful words that he uses to title his expressive paintings.

As with Allsalu and Dubov, Toomik's paintings have no significant connection to the title of the exhibition either. Of the works he has on show, the most interesting ones are from this year and present a strong motif, borne of his previous work. The repeating and connective black human figures bring to mind pictographs or hieroglyphs, but also allow us to draw parallels from art history. The witty titles add a secret meaning to the images and refer to creation, reproduction, cloning, copying and other similar processes both in life and art. At the same time, however, Toomik's other works display, in my opinion, traces of a recent creative crisis. This indicates that Toomik is himself capable of overcoming his insecurities, but his inconsistency as a teacher only does a disservice to his younger painting students.

If Ilus and Maripuu had not studied painting in Tartu, their current works would not have the qualities of certainty and cogency that allow them to subjugate the exhibition space to their will. I was not impressed by Ilus's previous painting installations at Draakoni Gallery and Vaal Gallery in 2013. At Draakoni Gallery (solo show "Robusto"), he had worked with the space and utilised it well, but it was executed with a certain irritating sloppiness. Sadly, however, at Vaal Gallery (solo show "Kuuse asemel" (Instead of a Firtree)) the space was too large for his project and the composition could not present its full force. (In my opinion, a good use of the space in Vaal Gallery could be seen in Laura Põllu's 2014 solo show "Loss" (Castle)). Yet, in the Tallinn Art Hall, Ilus has found a great spatial balance. The positioning of the sheet metal staircase, windows and towers seizes the viewer's gaze and allows it to wander from corner to corner and to the centre without finding meaning. When it comes to Ilus's installation, the title of the group show – "Compulsion" – is indeed appropriate.

Maripuu is exhibiting a video at the Tallinn Art Hall titled "Tuleb mingil ajal mingist kohast ja läheb mingis suunas" (Comes from some direction at some time and goes to some direction) (2014). It is a visually gripping video that almost has a narrative, even though the only thing we see is a rhythmic movement of different images. It almost seems to have a message, as the image, colours and symbols take hold of the viewer's senses, yet the meaning remains elusive and even after the end, the video leaves the viewer's thoughts restlessly looking for each other. Maripuu can make himself noticed using words – as proven by his 2014 solo show "#anonymous(im)possibilitiesintheivorytower #xoxo" at Hobusepea Gallery. The press release for the exhibition is misguiding rather than guiding and assisting; it is written to cause the artist to disappear into philosophical Sophism and then it invites the viewer to read between the lines or look at the exhibited paintings more closely instead. In his works, Maripuu has remained faithful to his method and traits. The Pop-like neon coloured found-object "paintings" make up a tasteful composition in the corner of the gallery and as a reference to a previous exhibition – "Hiilgav generatsioon" (Glowing Generation) at Draakoni Gallery in 2012 – we find a neon blue fluorescent light with a naive postcard of a kitten. A study of post-internet culture, as promised by the press release, can be found in the video downstairs.


The cultural endowment and the clique

How could the rivalry of different schools be overcome? How could high-level art education be organised in such a way that the best opportunities for development be granted to the most talented? How could talent be recognised and promoted? There are no simple answers because it seems that with each year the distribution of the diminishing resources (see how the grants are distributed by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia) is becoming increasingly intense and the decisions are not guided by objective and unselfish reason, but rather by bigoted favouritism. Now that the Estonian Artists' Association has new leadership, it is time to embark on a public discussion on how to organise the work of art institutions so that the best artists could represent the country at the Venice Biennale, rather than those whose work is only made successful by the skilful words of the curators.


1 The Pallas Art School was the first school of higher education for the visual arts in Estonia and was established in Tartu in the early 20th century. – Transl.


Eero Kangor is an art historian, critic and junior researcher at the Academic Library of Tallinn University.

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