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    The myths and dreams of Kirsi Neuvonen

    Michael Casey

 

"The Erechtheum has two porches attached to its flanks, a very large one facing north and a small one toward the Parthenon. The latter is the famous Porch of the Maidens, its roof supported by six female figures (caryatids) on a high parapet, instead of regular columns... One wonders whether these statues were the reason why a Turkish governor chose the building to house his harem two thousand years later. We cannot altogether blame him, for here the exquisite refinement of the Ionic order does indeed convey a feminine (though not a effeminate) quality, compared with the masculinity of the Parthenon across the way."

H.W. Janson, A History of Art.

 

Kirsi Neuvonen has developed a number of processes to further the production of meaning. But the fact that one can never quite specify "whose meaning?" is central to these various strategies, each of which carefully reveals and then obscures the artist's intentions. Neuvonen's well known willingness to comment on her own works and to reveal the sources of her imagery rarely illuminate the emotional transactions among her figures - her classical maidens. In this she is profoundly indebted to the history of art, images and ideas - from the antique to the post-modern.

 

Allegory, mother nature, ancient goddesses

While the spectator may feel familiar with Neuvonen's subjects and obsessions, it is his or her fantasies that are forcibly engaged. The more one constructs Neuvonen as object, the more one constructs oneself as subject. A similar experience attends the interviewer who has been showered with revealing responses, empathetic sympathy and disarming frankness. The natural grace of Neuvonen's generosity and the openness of the artist's demeanour are not unlike the ravishing surfaces of her etchings/prints. Nothing seems prior - the exterior skin does not obscure past decisions and changes. Just as there are few pictorial ambiguities to distract the spectator from the ostensible subject, so there is no verbal sparring to cloud the interpreter's notion of the artist's intentions. Nonetheless, one has to accept the ultimate irony that in Neuvonen's art the more that is known, the more remains indeterminate.

Those who have written about Neuvonen have been fascinated by the themes of her work - allegory, mother nature, ancient goddesses, etc. - and their relevance to contemporary society. Less often have the commentators attempted to describe, and even less to interpret, single works. Given the artist's own revelations, the apparent familiarity of her subjects, and the implied narrative structures of the works, how could any engaged spectator not be drawn into reading these dramas? In the late 1990s, it has become increasingly obvious that the contents of these works are encoded in languages and visual sequences that evade verbal description. It is not simply that the works might be understood variously by different viewers, but that most interpretations remain inadequate. Increasingly, Neuvonen's meanings are grounded in the languages of human bodies - by their sex, race, age, costume, pose and gesture; in the nature of the spaces that enclose and separate them from each other; in the textures and pigments that describe, surround and invade them; and in the rush of historical and psychological associations imbedded in each of them. Yet, these figures rarely operate as emblems or metaphors: they are simply triggers for deep but intangible and decidedly non-literary associations.

It is never the identity of Neuvonen's sources, for example, that enables one to decode a specific meaning (although one always desires the consolation of that knowledge), but rather their evocations of another cultural context, a timeless past, a primordial psyche, or even of the irretrievable promises of our own myths. It is the aura of syntax of human figures caught in moments of unguarded incipient bodily expression that contributes to those elusive and unconfirmable meanings we know to exist in our memories.

 

The artist's surfaces are changeable, uneven and transparent all at once

I do not wish to imply that the mechanisms of meaning are the exclusive focus of Neuvonen's works, but rather that they have entered into a very subtle dialogue with and on occasion have displaced our ordinary expectations of narrative pictures. This very dialogue emerges most cogently in the hints we have had of how the etchings/prints actually develop. Significantly, the most crucial element is Neuvonen's innate understanding that the processes by which she arrives at any given image are as foreign and as strange to her as are the ultimate meanings of the works.

Moreover, the sense of removal experienced by the artist in the act of making has permitted Neuvonen to reveal so ingenuously what little is known. Eventually one gathers that a good deal of the artist's commentary could either be rehearsed or - its opposite - invented. Both are true. By suspending narrative closure, and thereby suspending the spectator, at some remove from what appears as all too familiar, Neuvonen gently deflects attention from the artist's supposed intentions to those of the spectator. Clearly there are no choices right or wrong, only the uncertainty of meaning aided and abetted by the assertive presence of the etched/printed surfaces themselves. The artist's surfaces are changeable, uneven and transparent all at once. They are rich applications of concentrated pigments (charbonel), attracting the eye by promised sensuosities, and seducing the spectator by optical and material splendour. The agility, mastery and palpability of Neuvonen's linear configurations (evolved from floor and gable diagrams, doric, ionic and corinthian columns, etc.), the unexpected brilliance of certain hues, and the devices that incorporate the spectator in the space of the work and involve him or her in the dramas promise more security and safety than careful reflection can verify. The images that we experience - in Mary (1996), A Maid and a Unicorn (1997), A Blossom Tree (1997), for example - are designed for a "quick take," for an incautious involvement with a surface that tricks and betrays the spectator and eventually forces a reconsideration of his or her conclusions.

Above all else, Neuvonen's etchings/prints have been known for their collage-like procedures. These overlays of separate, diaphanous figures facilitated composition by improvisation, a method not unlike that of Robert Rauchenberg who returned time and again to a repertoire of figures similarly derived from a combination of sketches (observation), photographs and a vast range of mixed media images. Neuvonen's descriptions of how her subjects emerged - almost of their own violation - themselves have a long pedigree. Her remarks about how subject and meaning seem to unfold during the process of etching and printing disclose the same fascination with a sense of the inevitable. What is not revealed, however, is how often the artist has rehearsed her motifs - birds, snakes, unicorns, acanthus leaves, among them - in the form of drawing, in which many figures are worked up from her stockpile of books on classical painting, sculpture, and architecture.

As much as we have delighted in naming Neuvonen's pictorial sources, there really are no beginnings. We are exposed to an artistic process that is as much about making as inventing, one that allows continuous self-discovery through exploitation of the methods of finding. In the very malleability of the etching/print, the artist has found a "natural" vehicle for her obsession with the interchangeability of fable and ancient female deities (Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, etc.). It is this construction of meaning that Neuvonen has so keenly honed, which is not unlike the approaches used by her contemporaries - Outi Heiskanen, Leena Luostarinen and David Hockney.

 

Restricted areas of meaning

There are many ways that Neuvonen's processes are indebted to those initiated by Robert Rauchenberg. Both artists proceed by the collage method, raking in the leftovers of any given moment, which generously excavating the past for its images and symbols. But while Rauchenberg is mainly concerned with the meanings of media and the impact of its images on modern life, suggesting very general categories of stylistic and metaphoric interpretation, Neuvonen devotes herself to far more restricted areas of meaning: the awakening of sexuality, the conflicts arising from desire, the collision of cultures, etc. All of these seem concerned with the psychological rather than the formal conditions of post-modern culture. In like fashion, the two artists' methods of composition betray both similarities and fundamental differences. Rauchenberg invariably set himself the task of finding coherence in materials that lay at hand and, in the 1960s at least, constructed his tableaux so that the graphic codes of his sources (e.g., reproductions of sporting events from a day's newspapers) were a critical aspect of his content. On the other hand, Neuvonen, who also might commence with a limited repertoire of images (e.g., caryatids from the Erechtheum on the Acropolis), is concerned with codes of posture and behaviour and their implications for human interaction and social discourse. And while both artists manifest similar feelings for the interweaving of the depicted object, Rauchenberg tends to oppose handmade and reproduced images, while Neuvonen prefers to elide the languages of medium, gesture, and figure.

Both Rauchenberg and Neuvonen share a deep conviction that meanings are as much a responsibility of the spectator as of the artist. Rauchenberg's media plots are no more readable than Neuvonen's narratives are resolved. But Neuvonen raises the ante in a new way: images are allowed to appear and disappear during the process of work; meanings alter themselves by suggesting new figurative motifs. And these changes are always those that affect the way we perceive the "archetypal figure" and, of course, our interpretation of the notion of the "classical adolescent." Does Neuvonen, as did so many of the American Abstract Expressionists, believe in the mediating role of the classical adolescent, in the androgyne who combines male and female, life and death? Attractive as such metaphorical readings may be, they rob these etchings/prints of their deeper poetry, which depends far more on mutability, condensation and displacement than on literary interpretations.

 

Metaphor and metonymy

It is doubtful that Neuvonen worked towards any clear programmatic goals during the execution of these etchings/prints. Rather, she proceeds to establish variations among the techniques she used, the archetypal figures she borrowed, and the changes she extracted from any given image. There are pairings of man and animal, flagrantly erotic and cautiously naked, and so forth. Narrative is both parodied and contradicted, as demonstrated in her "Grecian Goddess Series"(1997), by the unexpected and unexplained sequencing (vertical) of human elements: physique, posture, and attire.

Our interpretations are metaphoric when spe- cified by our own fantasies, but metonymic when they are suspended and allowed to remain indeterminate. If desire is the energy that fuels narrative, it is the suspension of fulfillment that drives Neuvonen. In her printmaking, desire is embodied less in terms of specifiable emotions than in terms of change, dominance, and eclipse. A capricious, even willful malleability of objects takes precedence over the logic of cause and effect. Accordingly, the "actors" on Neuvonen's "stage" have been seized from the dream world of Neuvonen's sourcebooks and driven by the slippery processes of the unconscious rather than the logical structures of the composed narrative. Perhaps it is the contrasting of these two modes of thought - metaphor and metonymy - that is at the heart of these indeterminate narratives. In this sense, meanings are confined much more to the surface, to appearance and association, and to the physical materials of the work, rather than the symbolic or hidden structures.

Nonetheless, Neuvonen has repeatedly compared cultural ideas: male vs. female, tribal vs. classical, myth vs. fact, modern vs. contemporary, open, loosely-worked images vs. the more closed, black-line style of traditional etching techniques. And nowhere does one formulation emerge privileged, any more than a single style or technique has been claimed as the artist's own. As in all the arts, complexity and suggestion are entwined with economy. There are no truths in these dream images, only vehicles for self-exploration that, in their techniques and methods, uncannily mirror the methods of the imaginative, post-modern mind.

Michael Casey is an Irish art historian, lecturer and critic, who is completing his thesis at the University of Helsinki.