Pessi Rautio: Universal Particular -The Life and Works of Markku Pääkkönen

Pessi Rautio

Universal Particular
-The Life and Works of Markku Pääkkönen

It seems to me that when writing about the art of Markku Pääkkönen, you often end up writing about the person of Markku Pääkkönen, and the register tends to be more personal than usual. I do not know why.

Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Pääkkönen is so open that you get slightly confused and lose your defences. Without scruples, Pääkkönen recounts his world view and the smarting changes in it, as well as his love life and boozing, both face-to-face and on his website. Sitting in his studio, he tells me – who is supposed to conduct the interview here – about his Omega Point Theory: when the universe again diminishes, a virtual reality generator will emerge to simulate all the events of the world in a short moment. This moment he has depicted in his latest paintings. All this he says with a laugh, and tells me that his brother called him crazy when he told him about his theory. I guess Pääkkönen likes to have the image of a weirdo, although the next moment he sounds sane enough. He also likes to say it out loud that working with architects has not always been so smooth, and – with a grin – he boldly announces that in his public works he has added to the architecture what he found lacking.

You are not supposed to say something like that, are you?

Pääkkönen, or shall we say Markku, cannot be taken as a distant figure, which is even stranger when you take into account that his most popular works of art are very much shared, communal, lofty, transcendental, non-individual even. We are now talking about the public works in which Pääkkönen has ”crept on the skin of architecture”, those controlled, lofty miracles in colour. Sometimes they are so subtle that the ”caretaker’s old lady couldn’t spot where the art was”, when she went to look at a church hall ennobled by Pääkkönen’s work.

It is odd that Pääkkönen should have such a strong personal presence if you recall his first works from the 1980s: they were among the most immaterial and from-beyond works in Finnish art, with the person of the artist almost entirely faded in the background. I am referring, of course, to his contre-jour works, which were sheer colour and light. ”Well, that is pretty, and nice to look at,” Pääkkönen laconically sums them up, yet goes on to point out that, of course, they also had to do with the search for the supreme brightness.

Pääkkönen has a very tangible personality – he tells and writes about everything in a down-to-earth, intimate, dear-diary manner. Yet I think I see a pattern in his art: if he travels to, say, Andalucia, to paint landscapes, good old-fashioned individual pieces of the world, he suddenly finds himself painting images of the Omega Point. Creating an explanation of the universe, that is.

Or when Pääkkönen has managed to paint a few small, elegant landscapes through a square of tape he has pasted on the window of his studio in Italy, and when a friend of his wants to buy one, he ”ruins them” by making them parts of a three-dimensional composition of cubes. Adding them to a bigger scale model of the world, once again.

After ”getting tired of colouring rectangles”, Pääkkönen began to draw men’s faces, carefully observing and recording each personal feature during a few hours’ encounter between two people. He also provided the drawings with the precise time of that special hour. If that is not dealing with particular cases, what is? But as it happened, Pääkkönen decided to draw a hundred and one faces. Enough to create a system, the big picture of manhood.

It seems that nothing less satisfies Pääkkönen than the big picture, the ultimate image of everything.

Pääkkönen does admit to being a ”really helter-skelter artist”, says that the longest period of following a method of some sort has been his going ”on the skin of architecture”. Yet despite his haphazardness Pääkkönen seems to have constantly been searching after the Great Explanation, a grand coherent plan, although he knows he will never get there. With regard to his earlier work, he liked to refer to transcendentalism; now he speaks of beyondness, something you can pursue but never actually reach. As a young man Pääkkönen was into meditation, establishing an art school around the philosophy. Today, Maa Art School is different, and so is Pääkkönen: he has a scientific worldview, acknowledging the Western idea of the possibility of pursuing and increasing knowledge. Yet it might well be that here, too, we are dealing with the same ideal that you infinitely pursue but never reach.

When Pääkkönen designed a work of art for the St John’s church in Männistö, Kuopio, it took two years. Even the actual process of painting took six months, with the artist dangling high up in the church ceiling.

I see Pääkkönen the artist as if in two archetypal images. In the first, he is among architectural drawings and scale models, an icon of the matter-of-fact planning society. In the second he is as close to heaven as you might possibly get, figuratively and symbolically, as if engaged in a private devotional, adding colour as evenly as possible on the church wall, in a prototype of art, artistry and religious praise similar to Michelangelo creating the image of the universal structure on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

And then comes the next image, with the same man talking about his depression, his love and his pub-crawls. And how he got into art, how ”a girl I used to know dragged me with her to the Free Art School, and when I opened the door and smelled the turpentine and the dammar varnish and whatnot, and saw Thomas Nyqvist painting there, holding the brushes smartly crosswise in his mouth, then I immediately got the feeling that dammit, this is where I’m going to stay.”

I think Pääkkönen was hailed as the most gifted student of Tor Arne and Carolus Enckell when he held his first exhibitions.

Pääkkönen did distance himself somewhat from the staunch dogmas of the Free Art School. ”It was like a religious community in a sense. If you tried to do something differently, your mates would tell you to get back in line, to do what you were supposed to do.”

”Your brushwork tended to become mannered; the line was of no importance whatsoever, so it could not support your painting.”

Now that Pääkkönen has himself taught a lot, he takes a more tolerant attitude towards the dogmas of the Free Art School: colour theory is a pretty handy tool, after all. Pääkkönen went into teaching, ”spreading the word”, right after he had finished school. ”It was a bit daft – now I tend to think that only after being in the profession for twenty-odd years I may actually have something to give.”

Pääkkönen has indeed been in the profession for twenty-odd years, but he has more or less given up teaching. He says this much: now he would emphasise that you must have something to paint about. Colour alone is not a good enough reason.

Perhaps Pääkkönen has been a haphazard artist after all. On the wall of his studio in the Lallukka Artists’ Residence, there are all kinds of materials and finished works: small and bigger, neat three-dimensional colour plates and expressive Mediterranean surges, drawings, Polaroids and ”aphorisms of the day” quoting Kant and what have you.

Yet art is based on tangibility, materiality. Even the works of Pääkkönen, whom many may still associate primarily with ethereal colour paintings, have concrete elements. Some colours he used in the works he made a few years ago were inspired by actual stone surfaces: it was the hard nature that gave the hue. Pääkkönen has also painted water in different places, at different times, looking in different directions: the coordinates and the timestamp as the titles of the paintings bear witness to the particular, special character of the given situation.

We also have to bear in mind that since the very beginning, Pääkkönen has stretched his paintings towards three-dimensionality, materiality, into objects that have physical presence in a given space. It is worth remembering that colour also, no matter how sacred or immaterial it may be, must have a place in order to exist. At one stage, Pääkkönen had huge symbols, shields, swords and staffs to carry colour. But then there are these images, too, these heads of men. Pääkkönen is really good at drawing, I do not know how and when he did that, too.

Colours and colour theory seem to be a magician’s stone, an element from which to build a system of the visual arts, like they do in music. Yet Pääkkönen, who knows his colour theory inside out, denies that there could be an absolute experience of the effect of colour that we could all share. ”The effects of colour are so individual, you can’t know them beforehand. If you beat a child in a yellow room, for example, he will sure as heck hate yellow for the rest of his life.” What makes colour so fine, says Pääkkönen, is the fact that it is so relative, sensitive and subjective.

Try and make a theory out of that.

There are commonly shared systems, although you cannot predict their individual, emotional effects. We all feel our own feelings, system or no system.

Or as Markku Pääkkönen puts it, in a very Markkupääkkö­nesque manner: ”Everything is about explaining the world, like how much you love and why.”