An interview with Jaakko Rustanius

Jaakko Rustanius is a passionate advocate of the visual arts. In addition to being an active art practitioner, he has held positions in various art organizations for over a decade. Since 2008 he has chaired Kuvasto, the Finnish copyright society for visual artists, and from 2005 to 2014 he served as the Director at the HIAP Helsinki International Artist Programme. Rustanius is also a founding member and first chairperson of the artist-run Galleria Huuto. He is currently completing his PhD at the University of the Arts Helsinki. His doctoral thesis, The Makings of Meaning in Painted Pictures, reflects on introspection, assignation of meaning, and representation beyond the dichotomy between representational and non-representational painting.

1) Your paintings have evolved in exciting new directions over the past decade. I can still recall your Angeli e Demoni exhibition at the Husa Gallery in Tampere in 2008. Your paintings of that time – broken-looking angelic apparitions thrown into relief against a gloomy black maelstrom – were inspired by your residency in Rome, where you became acquainted with the iconography of the Catholic Church and the symbolism of angel motifs in Christian art tradition. The darkly regressive brushwork of your angels marked a radical departure from their Christian precursors. They were like negatives of ethereal, wraith-like figures captured in straight jabs of white paint, almost suggestive of x-rays. Your latest works, which you playfully describe as “pedestrian crossing paintings”, are colour-drenched canvases of varied sizes, square or rectangular, their content stripped down to little more than the line of the horizon. You have dispensed with representational forms and figures and replaced them with a sliding colour scale and starkly reductive colour planes and stripes. Why have you abandoned visual mimesis in favour of non-representational expression? What are you striving to say with these reductive gestures?

I don’t actually see my paintings as being non-representational. I struggled with this question for a long time until I arrived at the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a non-representational painting. Perhaps the very term is ultimately devoid of meaning, as it’s inherently impossible for a painting not to represent something. Some part of it will always trigger the assignation of meaning, regardless of the culture and whether or not this occurs voluntarily or consciously. If we confront a picture that does not compel us to interpret it somehow, this implies that we don’t really perceive it as a picture at all, because perception and interpretation are intertwined. We humans automatically categorize everything we see; we constantly decode and construct meaning into the world around us, whether we wish to or not. In this respect a painting is no different from a coffee cup, a Christmas tree, a friend’s face, or the architecture of Senate Square. We instantly begin interpreting before we fully register what kind of image we are looking at. If we happen to see “something” in a painting, this suggests that the painting is “representational”. Naturally this is a crude generalization warranting some qualification, for there are many different levels of “representation”.

A horizontal line is a case in point. At some core level, we have been hard-wired to perceive a flat horizontal line as a horizon. We cannot help it; it’s programmed into our mechanisms of perception. We can’t resist seeing a horizon whenever we catch sight of anything even vaguely suggestive of one. Every horizontal line presents the possibility of a horizon.

As I see it, a horizontal line is the minimum necessary form and most basic spatial divider that is required for colours to evoke a sense of space. This is important to me, as right now I want to focus just on colours. It’s also important to me that the horizon should convey a sense of peace, balance and boundlessness. An unbroken horizon suggests infinity: it represents an opportunity to travel anywhere, to walk as far as your legs will carry. Our body registers an awareness of this infinitude before we consciously process it. A vertical line, by contrast, is more active, more challenging. A vertical line suggests something blocking our field of vision, an obstacle, or the bars of a prison cell.

Whenever one colour slides into another, a form is born. My use of horizontal lines and sliding colours marks an attempt to minimize the role of form to make more room for colour. Why do I want to do this? I don’t really know. After all my prior digressions and experiments, I suppose I wanted to cast off all the baggage and start over again from scratch. I felt it was time to outgrow the notion of painting as drama, as a stage upon which psychological tensions are played out. I dispensed with human figures because I simply became bored with them. I also grew tired of the very idea of drama and wanted to seek something more tranquil and calming. I expect human figures might return again at some point in some new form.

2) In your Paraformalist exhibition at Helsinki’s Huuto Gallery in 2011, there were very few recognizable forms or figures in your stylized landscapes, but the radiant colours were highly evocative. In your accompanying hypothesis, you stated that “according to the paraformalist conception of art, the dichotomy between representational and non-representational art is a spurious one”. This hypothesis anticipated the focus of the doctoral thesis you are currently working on. Since 2013 your academic work has reflected on the representational dimension of non-representational art. Why do you wish to challenge the dichotomy between representational and non-representational art?

I guess because the dichotomy has intuitively seemed tenuous to me. The whole aim of my thesis is to articulate and validate this viewpoint theoretically. I believe that many painters today see this issue the same way I do. Few artists would describe themselves as working within the framework of a representational / non-representational dichotomy. The whole division is antiquated. The notion of abstract art being somehow separate from other art was a belief promulgated by artists of a certain era, but the idea still lingers persistently in the minds of the public and art critics.

The dichotomy has also been perpetuated by analytical philosophy and its entrenched tradition of deeming visual symbols to exist in a direct referential relationship to objects, beings and events in the real world. Within this tradition, pictures and their meanings have been viewed from a very narrow perspective. In the case of a portrait, for instance, the real person who once modelled for the painting is only a minor detail within a broad spectrum of meanings that can be assigned to the painting.

Discourse on this topic is further confused by mixed usage of terminology. There’s no point is arguing over whether a picture is representational or non-representational if both sides use the term “representational” in different senses.

I believe that if we narrowly limit the concept of “representational” to pictures that refer directly to something that exists in the real world – to an object, place or event that is known to be real – then the majority of artworks deemed to be “representational” are in fact non-representational. If we look at a still life painted hundreds of years ago, how can we know for certain whether the fruits and rabbit carcasses ever really existed? There is no way of knowing. A skilled painter can conjure a highly realistic image purely from imagination. Even so, we recognize “real” fruits and rabbit carcasses because in our minds we have a relatively precise schema for identifying what different fruits and rabbit carcasses should look like.

The same applies when we look at any painting, be it monochromatic, concretist or fantasy. We can identify a unicorn or a red dot inside a blue triangle. The process of recognition is immediate and instinctive; just as we have a schema for categorizing a fruit or rabbit carcass, we also have schema for recognizing “red”, “blue”, “dot”, “triangle” or “inside”. There are countless things that a painting humbly calling itself “abstract” might represent. In the end it makes no difference whether the thing you identify in an abstract painting is a “red dot” or a “portrait of Urho Kekkonen”

Go ahead and try to paint a picture that contains absolutely nothing identifiable such as a “red dot” or “black surface”. It’s as difficult as trying to move objects telekinetically.

3) In what ways do non-representational paintings embody such things as moods or emotions? Do colours – coupled with “colour architecture” or “colour composition” – offer a valid channel for expressing feelings and sensations?

If we think about working with colours and how they’re linked to emotions, an analogy is traditionally drawn between painting and music. There is admittedly a physical logic behind this analogy. Every sound has a frequency and amplitude, just as colours can have a timbre and volume. Combinations of high and low notes can be likened to earthy, inflected hues. Colours can have a rhythm contained within a particular form just as a melody has a rhythm contained within a particular duration. Colours and melodies can be arranged in harmony or contrast to one another. And, by extension we might even argue that every emotion has a particular frequency, amplitude, clarity, harmony, and so on. These, roughly, were the ideas behind the Paraformalist exhibition. But I hasten to add that this is far from an exhaustive account of emotion in painting.

There is a slight flaw in the above reasoning, however, in that there is essentially no such thing as a separate entity like the emotion we call “sorrow”. An emotion is not an object, but a relation between a subject and object. It’s just as difficult for a painting to portray “sorrow” as it is to depict something like “on the left”. You need to show something that is saddening or something that is to the left in relation to where the viewer is positioned. All paintings that depict sorrow or “to-the-leftedness” are different depending on the relationship existing between interacting elements.

One of my favourite paintings, Raffaele Faccioli’s Viaggio Triste (1882) does not depict “sorrow” so much as something more like “grief experienced by a son upon the death of his father, which is tinged with uncertainty and fear about the future, exhaustion from the long journey to the funeral, and the wistful tenderness expressed by the mother towards her son.” But the painting portrays many other things in addition to all that. I actually feel that a masterpiece like Viaggo Triste is such a dense conglomeration of so many allusions that the painting ultimately represents nothing but itself. If we consider all its possible meanings, there is no pre-existing schema, event or situation that the entire tapestry of references woven into Viaggio Triste could possibly refer to other than Viaggio Triste itself. The painting’s many meanings unfurl and ramble in countless directions, but no single one of those manifold references exhaustively constitutes “what the painting represents”. Each and every one is a necessary and integral constituent of the ultimate fact that the painting is a unique vision, a one-off manifestation.

The conclusion to which this brings us is that the legacy of analytical art philosophy – if you will permit a slight hyperbole – is one of misunderstanding and over-focusing on secondary details. Nelson Goodman’s theory of representation is quite useful, albeit needlessly complicated, for interpreting something like a traffic sign, but for describing the meaning of a painting, it comes up short.

A painting might depict something like “the ominous atmosphere of an approaching thunderstorm”, irrespective of whether there ever existed a particular storm that the artist strove to faithfully capture on canvas. Perhaps such a storm did indeed exist, but it is equally possible that the artist invented the whole thing. Insofar as someone has existing memories of weather conditions preceding the arrival of a storm, they can identify vaguely similar features in the painting. There is no specific necessary and sufficient combination of characteristics that meets the credentials for identifying such a thing as an “approaching storm”. Everyone who has experienced an approaching storm has their own unique schema for identifying an approaching storm, and inasmuch as all storms on our planet are somewhat similar, as are people’s life experiences and mechanisms of perception, it is highly likely that different people’s schemata for identifying an approaching storm are correspondingly similar. It so ensues that many people can look at the same painting and analogously identify that it depicts an approaching storm…. but not necessarily everyone.

A painting represents whatever it is experienced as representing, but this doesn’t imply that a painting can arbitrarily represent anything and everything, because our prior experiences are neither arbitrary nor random. Assuming we are not in the habit of perceiving our high school maths teacher as an elephant playing the accordion or as a vertically strung-up zebra crossing, then why would our experiences of paintings be any more weird or arbitrary? Everything has a reason, and there is also a reason why paintings represent what they are perceived as representing in the eyes of different viewers.

4) What kind of representational or non-representational paintings have inspired your artistic practice? And where do your scholarly interests stem from?

That’s an interesting question, because artists are often asked to name their role models, but I have never tried to emulate anyone. At least on a conscious level, I don’t look to other artists for inspiration. I never longed to paint “as well as” this or that artist. It goes without saying that I’m often frustrated by my limitations and would like to be a better painter, but that’s a different matter. The goal I set myself is always more or less a mystery; something eventually manifests itself when I pursue it, but the end result is always cloaked in haze, hidden behind the horizon.

I can recall how long ago people kept saying that Claude Monet must be my idol. I was bewildered because such a thought never even crossed my mind. Of course it’s true that artists are constantly absorbing influences; when you eagerly skim through art history books, all kinds of images inescapably leave an imprint on your mind. By the same token it’s also true that there is something inherently universal about all styles of painting, so someone who has never even heard of Monet might make similar technical choices and end up “painting like Monet”.

When I was an art student, I did some paintings that were reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, not consciously, nor because I especially admired him, but simply because certain paints have certain technical characteristics. I experimented with Miranol (a technical alcydic paint) – not because Pollock did, but because of the aggressive way it spreads – it literally screams to be drizzled onto the canvas à la Pollock. Pollock took a particular style of representation and pushed it to its logical conclusion, but Miranol would tempt anyone to try the same.

This reminds me of a pet topic of mine, namely how there are certain methodological parallels between art and science. Both art and science seek knowledge, but their respective categories of knowledge are different. Both ultimately yield knowledge about the same things: the world and people. Science seeks to explain how the world works and why certain things occur. Art in turn aspires to make visible the potential that exists both in the human mind and in the structures of the universe. Science aspires to formulate laws while art strives to present simulations of everything that might exist or occur. Art does to seek to identify general laws; rather, it searches for possible worlds.

Naturally there are many artists whose work I admire. Or, to be precise, I should say there are many works I admire, because many artists who create great works also produce many bad ones. And there are certain artists who have created one memorable painting that has stayed with me while all their other work has left me cold.

I love art history. If I had limitless resources at my disposal, I would go on a never-ending tour of the world’s art museums and second-hand bookstores, and I would buy myself a new art book every day. I find it inspiring that there are always new painters waiting to be discovered who have solved something that never occurred to me or approached something in a way that I could never have imagined.

Maybe artists should be content to achieve nothing more one painting they can be truly happy with.

5) When I first became acquainted with your work around the turn of the millennium, when we were both attending the same writing course at university, I seem to recall that your oeuvre consisted mostly of photographs, videos and drawings. When did you choose painting as your preferred medium, and why – what is it about painting that fascinates you?

Painting is the closest you can get to corporeal thought. When you paint, your thoughts are corporealized. Every movement of your mind and body – including things you don’t even notice about yourself – are laid bare on the canvas. You might assume you’re thinking rationally and feeling balanced, but when you pick up your paintbrush, you confront a reality check: “who am I again?” Painting is a merciless, ruthless process. Everything is laid bare. Sometimes it’s harsh, but in the end painting is the only way of connecting with the person you truly are deep inside.

There is no limit to the things you can do with photography these days; you can keep on manipulating images endlessly. So when do you know that the work is “finished”? When you paint, you can feel in it in your bones, but I don’t see how photographers can know when a work is “finished”. How can you know? Photography is like standing at the edge of the ocean and being told: “Feel free to travel anywhere. Where would you like to go?” I would be tempted to answer: “Nowhere.”

There was a time when I experimented a lot with Polaroids, and in hindsight, the beauty of Polaroids is in the limitations of the technique. There are few parameters you can actually influence beyond how you frame the shot and when you click the shutter. When you shoot Polaroids, you can’t have overweening ambitions about what you’re doing.

6) The subject matter of your art also seems to have witnessed a radical shift over the past decade. Many of your photographs from the late 1990s examined masculine identity through self-portraiture, while your paintings from the early to mid-2000s explore subject matter such as the iconography of Catholic art. The themes and subjects of your most recent paintings seem to have taken a back seat to a more formalist, self-reflexive approach. What has inspired your current paintings?

The subconscious. Moods and impressions. Ineffable, unidentifiable feelings. “Whereof we cannot speak”. At the moment I’m trying to avoid literary allusions – there are no narratives in my work for the time being. I’m intrigued by the idea of a painting that is difficult to say anything about, but which nevertheless leaves an indelible impression.

Kati Kivinen, art historian (PhD), curator, 2018

Translated by Silja Kudel