Stockholm, September 2006, It is an unusually warm day considering it is autumn. There is still a hint of the brightness of summer’s sun in the light. Mari Rantanen’s exhibition at Andrén-Schiptjenko glows in an entirely different light, however.
Her work Taking the Line for a Walk, which she made for this exhibition, is a multi-part installation. It spreads out into the gallery as a series of paintings on the walls and a painting on the floor. I stand in the gallery and rather than looking at the landscape of the paintings, I step inside it, into its space of light and color. I begin to feel at home. I start to identify with the space. I be come part of the space myself and gaze somewhere from within it as the time contained in the painting starts to slowly flow into me.
The interior of the gallery reminds me of an old atrium. The floor painting is below a skylight and framed by four thin, white columns. The 21-part painting on the walls progresses according to the sequence of the Fibonacci numbers: 1+1+2+3+5… The final element in the series - the floor painting - consequently has 34 parts. The piece has clear structure and makes complex references to the history of art ranging from the ruined courtyards of Pompeii to the way the late Arte Povera artist Mario Mertz referred to the same mathematical sequence in his works. The piece is entitled Taking the Line for a Walk, echoing a painting by Paul Klee.
As I look at the photos I took of the exhibition, I notice that the overall hue of the installation is very yellow, despite all the reds and greens, some blue and the warm and cold tones of various colors. The floor painting is made of bar-like elements of varying color - yellow, green, orange and red rectangles. They pattern the floor, repeating and varying the same structure. Strong pinks, violets and blues push out of the series on the walls. In fact, even the color scale of the exhibition is serial. Structurally, there is a similarity to modern music composition. The theme becomes apparent in the colors of the first three parts of the series and their ornamental patterns. They form moving patterns that remind me of a kaleidoscope as they change constantly with alternating architectural patterns consisting of ornaments and gates framed by arches.
I have never visited India and I have only seen and exporienced the famous Taj Mahal temple in pictures. Yet the image of it flickers in my head, lit by this slowly flowing light, and it is like a festive apparition.
Mari Rantanen, on the other hand, has visited India and Thailand in recent years. She has been impressed by Asian ornamentation and the sensual way in which Asian cultures use color. In the paintings, these influences have merged into colors and surfaces and the works themselves might well remind a viewer of not only of the Taj Mahal but of the art of the Sienese school of the 14th and 15th centuries and also of the Finnish painter Sam Vanni from the early 1960s.
The painter paints her own personal vision, her own emotional state. As I look at the painting, I begin to think about the painter’s gender and her relationship with the cultures of Asia, the art of Italy and Finnish constructivism. They are all part of her personal history and of the history of contemporary art and painting, which is rooted in modernism. Mari Rantanen has now lived and worked for a period of eleven years in Stockholm, and another eleven years before that in New York. A lot has happened during those twenty-odd years. High and low culture are no longer each other’s opposites but areas that are constantly slipping and merging into each other. Ever since the 1980s, women have also become more and more visible in the field of art as feminism has rolled from its firs wave to the second and now third one. Women have become masters, at one hand equal with men and on the other hand emphasizing their special womanness, bringing their own cultural place, the home and handiwork, in to focus. Rantanen really began to grow aware of herself as a woman and a female artist only during her stay in New York. She began combining ornaments applied and varied by women in handiwork with the iconography of masculine constructivism.
While Mari Rantanen has lived abroad for a long time, she has also been a very influential artist in Finland for many years. It is a long way from the gallery exhibition in Stockholm in 2006 to the Helsinki of the 1970s, where Rantanen studied at the Fine Arts Academy of Finland in 1975-1979. The School, too, experienced the tense and charged art debate of the period, which was generally based on the opposition of non-figurative and figurative, abstract and (socialist) realism. Abstract art and its tradition affected Mari Rantanen, who remembers thinking that ”abstract art is the extreme end of all progress.” She was very critical of figurative images, especially landscapes.
She lists artists who are still important to her: Sam Vanni, Matti Kujasalo, Timo Aalto, Outi Ikkala, Paul Osipow. Kujasalo, Aalto and Osipow taught her during her final years at the Fine Arts Academy. She also remembers an exhibittion of French art at Galerie Artek in Helsinki and the works of top Americans she saw on trips abroad - Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly - and talks about woman painters, too: Sonia Delaunay, Elisabeth Murray. Her experience of their works has also left a mark on her painting.
She had her first solo exhibition in spring 1981 at the gallery of the Finnish Painters’ Union in Helsinki. Back then, I wrote a review on the 25-year-old artist’s début for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. ”The exhibition stands as proof that despite her young age, Rantanen has an exceptionally confident approach and strong overall vision,” (HS 8 March 1981). Rhythmically striking interwoven patterns, or a wallpaper- like structure organize her exuberant, painterly calligraphy, indicating that this style of painting has been nourished by the spirit of international pattern painting.
The text reveals that we were in the first years of a new decade and I, as a young critic, felt the need to find something new and hot in the Finnish art of the 1980s, which seemed to be foreboding change. From the perspective of that apring, Rantanen’s début was truly promising and she has fulfilled that promise, too. Even her early work included patterns and structures.
Soon after her début, she moved to New York to continue her studies at the Pratt Institute with an ASLA-Ful-bright grant. At the time, she was especially fascinated by Frank Stella’s paintings. ”Stella started with minimalism and ended with baroque,” Rantanen recalls. She even wrote an article on Stella for the Finnish art magazine Taide. Since her first exhibition, Rantanen has had one in Finland almost regularly every year. The influence of Frank Stella was especially obvious in her solo exhibition at Galerie Kaj Forsblom in the summer of 1985. Leena-Maija Rossi, who started as a critic at Helsingin Sanomat around then, wrote that the influence appeared in a very personal and unique way. Rossi wrote: ”Rantanen takes off from Stella’s severe and precise linear compositions, allowing herself to rejoice in the act of painting. The contrast between her free brushstrokes and the unforgiving structure form a strong, compelling dynamic.” (HS 9 Aug 1985)
The tradition of visual culture embraced by Rantanen began to take shape as an increasingly rich language of painting. She remembers that the first time she saw Russian avant-garde – from the costars collection – was in the 1980s. She was also very fascinated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where she was inspired by old European painters, their use of colour especially, such as the early Renaissance artists Giotto and Fra Angelico.
But New York was much more than that. Leaving Finland and settling there in the mid-1980s was an introduction to postmodernism, although Rantanen had Found herself immersed in it already during her time as a student in the city. The city was a hectic feast of postmodernism. ”There was just so much stuff, so many people. Graffiti on walls. the visual culture of East Village. I’ve never seen so many films as I saw over there,” she says.
Her paintings began to grow larger and their geometric abstractions began to includee more and more expressive references and calligraphic elements. She also took an interest in Jasper Johns and the signs of popular culture.Gradually she, too, began to tell a story with her paintings.
As she painted, she started to lay open and blend various visual languages. The political ethos of constructivism transformed into postmodern ideas, and she became increasingly convinced that society was in chaos. In paintings, she could express the chaos with collage-like techniques, by manipulating paint, colour and shape in various ways. The impurities that had taken root in abstract painting began to fascinate her more and more, as was seen in her solo show at Gallerie Artek in autumn 1987. In fact, she had started to subtly question the Stella-influenced linear language of her earlier paintings and build a dialogue between contrasting colors and shapes. Pink, yellow and violet emerged as her prefer erred colours.
Yet the spirited of conventional constructivism was still present in her exhibition in 1989 at Tampere Art Museum, as the new Young Artist of the Year. Her paintings were a counterpoint to the three-dimensional works of runner-up JanErik Anderson, which engaged in a postmodern dialogue with the tradition of modernism. The critic Tiina Nyrhinen wrote that the brightly-colored works of both artists made viewers unusually cheerful ”in a culture that swears by the profundity of dark colors and experiences in nature.” (HS 9 Jan 1989)
Rantanen’s erstwhile colleague, critic Timo Valjakka highlighted the issue in his piece on a Galerie Artek solo exhibition in winter 1990: ”The first thing a viewer probably takes notice of about Rantanen’s paintings is their tropical, lustrous colors and radiant light. Indeed, light plays a crucial role in Rantanen’s art. However, what is even more important is to observe the language, the myriad of ways with which the artist manipulates, works and shapes paint. In one of her works a pattern reminiscent of Islamic ornamentation is contrasted with Pollockian whirls of paint; in another, a band of equal-sized frames measures digital time and in a third the range of colors flows majestically like a tiny Niagara underneath palm-sized figures.” (HS 15 Feb 1990)
At the time, in 1990, Rantanen had been a painter for ten years and, according to Valjakka, had created a ”unique and constantly expanding vocabulary of abstract form, pattern and ways of manipulating paint, the nouns, verbs and adjectives of which she combines in a fresh and unexpected manner, making use of a full scale of knowledge and emotion.”
Working in New York, Mari Rantanen had gradually also grown aware of the masculine nature of the imagery she was using. ”In the 1980s, I’d decided that I wanted to be one of the guys. Now, when I look at the paintings I made then, they still seem very authoritative to me. In contrast, in the 1990s my painting became anti-authoritarian, my interpretations became more varied and deep and I started to look for a feminine language,” she explains. In other words, she continued the process of re-evaluating and questioning painting in the 1990s, a process that had begun when she had settled in New York. She embraced postmodernism and developed her own interpretation of feminism, but her conviction in originality never faltered. She believes that paintings must have a ”personal look” based on a particular color appearance. What distinguishes painting is colour and light, through which experiences and emotions can be conveyed.
Gradually, she also realized that abstract signs have multiple concurrent references. ”+ is both a cross and the plus sign,” as she puts it now. Architectural influences an d maps of subway systems began to appear in the background of ornamental graphic signs, and Rantanen also became increasingly interested in women’s culture and conventional references that understated women:Ornamentation, which she had used almost from the beginning of her career, was a negative thing in high modernism.
In her exhibitions in 2000 and 2002, her painterly renderings of subway maps were accompanied by floor plans of flats, which Rantanen had turned into fantastic states of emotion and experience with intense colours and a few geometric and ornamental lines. And the colours: intense pinks, yellows, violets, turquoises, greens and oranges, again. You could already notice the influence of the colors and ornaments she had seen and experienced in Thailand.
I can still remember Rantanen’s exhibition at Galerie Forsblom in Helsinki in 2002: The paintings communicated with each other in an exciting way. Hung on the walls were large paintings based on the subway maps of various cities and small paintings alluding to the floor plans of flats. Different shapes, structures, ornaments and decorations were engaged in a fascinating dialogue. Her controlled and painterly techniques were based on transparent hues and a sense of movement in the lines affected with a glue trowel. Visual references flowed from public to private and also to a very special experience – from feminine to masculine, from high culture to low and from past to present. The viewer is equally free to slip from one visual message to another, different one, as the painter.
Above, I have discussed Mari Rantanen’s work from the 1980s to the 2000s with her and with critics who have written about it, including my younger self. I will now go back to Stockholm and to Rantanen’s exhibition at Andréhn-Schiptjenko. Her work Taking the Line for a Walk invites me to take a short (more or less straightforward) walk with her recent works. Inevitably, I am reminded of her touring exhibition Svenska bilder which began at Millesgården in Stockholm in winter 2005. It was centered on the series of eight paintings entitled The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which she had made for the exhibition. Many considered the piece very fascinating. The series had been made earlier with the long wall at the Millesgården Art Hall in mind and was inspired by Rantanen’s trip to India and her experience of seeing the Taj Mahal.
Painted with hot, glowing colors, the work was constructed to create movement both horizontally and vertically, with colors and light flowing from one panel to the next and within individual panels. Together, the eight paintings presented a flickering image of the Taj Mahal at sunset. The same subject had obviously been an inspiration for the solo exhibition at Andréhn-Schiptjenko in autumn 2006 and for a small display of Rantanen’s prints in Helsinki the same autumn, which was centered around a series of monotypes entitled Perfect Sunset, in which architecture and subtle hues seemed to overlap with each other.
These paintings and monotypes, inspired by India, were made in 2004-2006 and were the result of a very long process. Visual allusions such as Monet’s impressionistic series of sunrises and sunsets on the Rouen cathedral in Freance, lead you to the source of abstract images and distance these works from abstract art as a sign. Her aim was not to question but to unite the intellectual with the experiential. In the piece The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which of course is an allusion to Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name, ornamental strokes of the brush reminding one of the painter’s multilayered handwork are filtered through and overlap with bars of color, which she had painted using masking tape.
In my thoughts, the 21-part series Taking the Line for a Walk begins to take shape as a multicolored ornament that is constantly moving and reshaping. In fact, it is a cluster of many ornaments of different color. The line has gone for a walk! Seen from a distance, the series is like a decorative Oriental textile. As I give in to the experience, the colors of paintings begin to tempt and seduce me, offering me a chance to have a strong and vibrant, powerful encounter. But what is also important is color or colors.
In her essay Giotto’s Joy, Julia Kristeva writes about Giotto’s frescos in Padua’s Arena Chapel. She dismisses the conventional readings and interpretations of mediaeval iconography and discusses what can be found behind the colors Giotto uses – the stunning overall blueness and the intermediate pinkness. Kristeva underlines the role of corporality and instinctually in defining artistic experience. Interpretations of art unavoidably based on dominant cultural codes, to which the viewer and artist are also bound. According to Kristeva, interpretation starts with the instinctual and flows from the subconscious to symbolic order, that is, cultural codes. The color of a painting is tangible, concrete, and a viewer’s experience of a color and colors is a private and instinctual experience, which nevertheless is always associated with a cultural grammar. In other words, the experience of colour is more than a simple visual observation of colors and their interaction. As Kristeva writes, it is a question of an experience of the eroticizing body, which is based in the space constructed in the painting and also in the material being of the painting.
Mari Rantanen’s paintings are especially fascinating material spaces, which attract or seduce you to join them, to encounter and ahare with them. What is more, writing about them is like that, too, sharing and walking with them. Rantanen’s paintings make the viewer ponder the timeless relationship between colour and line because in her works the space defined by colour is always parsed by structure, an ornamental construction consisting of straight and decorative lines. Their cultural grammar is European, no question, but they do engage in an encounter and dialogue with other cultures, too. The line has been held in high regard ever since the Italian Renaissance and the concept of disegno in classical art history. It has signified both order and beauty: After all, a good drawing is the basis of a painting.
Modernism, however, took a different view of the line and questioned its significance. For example, the grid,web and parallel-line drawings of the American artist Agnes Martin are conceptually reverted to ready made art, from which they distanced themselves. The endless movement that is born out of the continuity of the lines is more than just the merging of waves into a far off horizon. Behind them are found objects from the shores of oceans; metal wires or nets. Structurally, they are also reminiscent of woven fabrics. In addition to the optical space created by the lines and grids, the patterns are also haptic and invite one to touch and feel.
I am still inside Mari Rantanen’s installation-like Take the Line for a Walk. I walk with it and experience strongly how its colours give me strength and energy; colours that towards the end reduce, thin out and transform into light, which, ultimately, remains.
Rantanen has said that she used to make ”paintings of paintings” but that she now is interested in different visual languages and combining elements. She draws on the signs of other cultures and cities rather than nature. While modernism has despised decoration, for Rantanen decoration means visual thinking, and is there fore interesting and meaningful. It is returned to daily life.
– Marja-Terttu Kivirinta
Published in the book
ari Rantanen Paintinga 1986-2007