Review: Teemu Korpela’s Olemisen Ehdoista (Terms of Existence)

Every once in a while you step into a gallery and get blown away by what’s been put on display. That’s what happened when I took a look at Teemu Korpela’s autumn show at Helsinki’s Gallery FAFA. Korpela’s primarily a figure painter and this he does with abandon. But what really hit me was what he does with his canvases.

The paintings tend to be very fleshy – the show includes a lot of work that recalls Baroque masters such as Rubens – and most have been ripped off their stretchers and torqued into various irregular configurations. A stand out work that was positioned directly opposite the gallery’s entrance is Deposition 2.  Mounted nearer the ceiling than the floor, this rearranged crucifixion has been crumpled and draped over a metal rod. It is at once decorative in the way it suggests a window valance and reminiscent of Rogier van der Weyden‘s influential masterpiece, though with an inverted curve.

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Deposition 2

Some might hold that the artist has destroyed the work. On the contrary, the work hasn’t been ruined. It’s been reborn. In manipulating the canvas Korpela has pushed the idea of painting into unconventional territory. Though the buckled canvas fragments the image, it has also reveals parts of the painting normally hidden from view. Both the front and back of the fabric support are visible and the brittleness of the paint film has also been conveye, especially in the ways it tends to crack, cleave from underlying layers and restrict the canvas’ flexibility. This violation of the work’s 2-dimensionality has turned it into something that exists between painting and sculpture.

Portrait of a Young Lady

Several other works in the exhibition have been boxed in Plexiglass vitrines. For example, Deposition 3, a large coffin-like case, remains largely empty. Its floor is littered with bits of paint, fabric remnants and other debris. It sparks questions like: Have the contents have disintegrated over time? Restructured portraits of a young lady and a king connote archeological finds. Their encasement underscored their fragility and altered the viewing experience by enabling viewers to circle the boxes. This process gave viewers the opportunity to resolve the disparities between the image and its shape and reconstruct the facets in the mind.

Included in the exhibition was a small and darkened room that held a dense and wall filling collection of rolled paintings, drawings and fabric remnants. This installation – another Deposition – offered an additional way of seeing, or perhaps not seeing, art. It seemed to be about the interim stages in the life of art works, that time between creation and exhibition, different exhibitions or periods of dormancy on the way to completion. This installation spoke of practical realities, of the artist’s ongoing efforts and all the projects he may have started, temporarily stopped or given up on, as well as of the evolution of his thinking. What appealed to me was that the composition presented work in a normally considered to be in an unpresentable state.

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Navigating the exhibition according to the accompanying numbered list introduced a narrative that recalled the Stations of the Cross. Though a number of the titles and some of the imagery connote religious themes, the story seemed more about the hurdles facing an artist than the representation of any religious scenario. The impression is of a person working within a specific artistic framework and striving to transcend that framework’s limitations. For Korpela, painting involves a lot more than just dashing off pictures in paint with a brush.  For him it’s a very intensive and materially tangible process that necessitates physical manipulation and the addition of supplementary components. It embodies drama, imperfection and the taking of risks. Gilded frames cannot restrict the vigor of his work.

The final work in the sequence forms a most fitting ending that also best expounds this approach. The tumultuous Assumption, a giant wave structured out of fabric, paint and plastic sheeting that crashed into the wall with such force it nearly falls back on itself, bristled with energy bordering on chaos. Projecting into and through space, it is full of contradictions. And yet, with a little time, the viewer becomes aware of the rich interplay of colour, texture and form, the tactile qualities of the materials, an intricately balanced composition and its underlying strength. Here painting rags, protective film and wrecked paintings contribute equally to create something that epitomises accomplishment. The work is intense, even stressful to look at, but also fascinates. It seemed to want to draw the viewer into its crescendo.

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On the surface Korpela’s production bears affinities with artists whose work has defied painting’s traditional 2-dimensionality or depended on the outcome of destructive acts. Examples of the former range from the Würzburg Residenz, wherein the sculptural additions to Tiepolo’s frescoes which link the images to architectural space, to Frank Stella’s aluminum constructions and Lynda Benglis’ painted knots.  In the latter category artists such as Lucio Fontana and Leon Golub, who have both cut into their canvases, and Jeff Wall – consider his stunning Destroyed Room – exemplify the visual potential of violence, whether inspired by anger, frustration or other causes, in the creation of compelling works of art.

His compositions also have rapport with John Chamberlain’s sculptures. Assembled of painted sheet metal, torn and dented automobile parts, his reuse of this material simultaneously provided new contexts and changed our understanding of it.

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Assumption (detail)

The fact that Korpela incorporated a storage space, however makeshift, and painter’s rags into this exhibition also invokes the disarray of Francis Bacon’s studio. The condition of Bacon’s studio contents conveys its own unique aura and offers evidence of his working process and inspiration. Considered a ‘terrible beauty’ (1), this description also applies to Korpela’s material accumulations and distorted bodies. One’s initial surprise at the state of his works soon gives way to sustained contemplation. They generate consideration on the nature of figure painting, its past and present, and the directions figure painters might take in the future. So many ideas seem to have been swept into these visually and intellectually intriguing works that it is difficult to forget them. Korpela’s fervent declarations linger on in the mind.

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Deposition 4

Images courtesy of the artist, photos: Sami Parkkinen.

Notes: 1 The exhibition Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty (Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, 28 October 2009 – 7 March 2010) celebrated the centenary of the artist’s birth in Dublin, Ireland, and revealed the wealth of material in all its categories from the relocated and archived studio.


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