Affective Attunements at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard in Copenhagen

17.1. - 14.2. 2015


All photos: Anders Sune Berg

Painterly gestures by
Eeva-Riitta Eerola and Maija Luutonen

It used to be the accepted view in the traditional theory of emotions that in viewing a work of art, the viewer should perceive the emotional state that the artist was in at the moment of creation. Today, the focus has shifted to the emotions evoked by an artwork in the viewer. The paintings of Eeva -Riitta Eerola and Maija Luutonen offer suggestions for images – for what occurs on the threshold of perception. The operative word here is communication. The viewer here is connected to a work over there. The establishment of that connection can be examined using the concept of affective attunement, which was developed by the psychoanalyst Daniel Stern. 1 The affect triggered by a work becomes a contact space between the work and the viewer. In art, affective attunement can be viewed as a demand made by the work, with various pieces of sense data being com ­ ponents of immediate perception. Affects are psychological states that precede conscious emotions, sensations we have amassed in various ways and that we carry within ourselves.

An artist attunes herself to the process of painting in the context of her environment, physical state and inner world. Painting is a process of deliberation, approach, scratching, stroking, and pushing against the sur ­ face to come back to the painting – completing that which the artist had, willy -nilly, intended to do. The paintings by Eeva -Riitta Eerola now on dis ­ play at Galleri Bo Bjerggaard are from a more extensive solo exhibition that was mounted in late 2014 at Helsinki Contemporary. All these works elude the most obvious level of representation. Describing the way she conceptualises the spatiality of her paintings within the overall context of the exhibition, Eerola notes that she uses hanging to anticipate the view ­ er’s spatial orientation in the gallery:

“In this process I wanted to deal with space more concretely than I have done in recent years. While, in contrast, the black ground has been a part of my working process for some time – I am fascinated by its potential for filling up a picture from the inside. By that I mean that a dark ground creates its own distinctive feeling, that it contains more than the painting shows, and the gaze begins to seek out complementary aspects to the things shown. Of course, also present in the black is a powerful charge and drama, almost to the point of banality.” 2

Taken as a whole, the paintings create a web of echoes that generates a tension in the exhibition space. Individual paintings are like words in a sentence. Eerola points out the special feeling engendered by the black ground of her larger paintings, which creates a sense of depth and im ­ mersion, while providing a kind of blackboard background for the emer ­ gence of gestures. In visual terms, affects can be examined either as direct, indexical traces, or through the iconicity of the images. Recognition develops through perceptible qualities: playfully advancing lines and ele ­ gant leaps; perceiving the temporality of trajectories, the transformation of brush strokes into the roughness of wood (Brushwood I), as traces spilled on the canvas, which coalesce into images: a knothole, the feet of a child lost in a forest, seen in a cone of light (In Sight I, II). The way Eerola casts about for painterly gestures, the power and restless quivering of individual strokes: all these reveal changes in intensity and the sudden halt when the picture emerges.

The viewer, on the other hand, approaches the picture through likeness and recognition, through that which is familiar and distinctive in the image. At the same time, she examines differences and similarities between the works, and above all unwittingly examines the things that happen inside herself – I can imagine how Camouflage may bring to mind Kirkeby’s nature studies from the 1980s and 1990s, in which the brush seeks hints from the landscape in order to make the work an inquiry into the nature of painting: the very dynamics of surface and depth. Motion in Eerola’s paintings occurs in a mental space, a terrain opened up by physical ges ­ tures, deeds and non -doing. In this setting, gestures do not proclaim a master’s brushwork but rather suggest what intimacy and distance can be when these qualities merge. Suddenly, the observer is back in the centre. The works build up into a platform for the recognition and assimilation of soft and abrasive affective situations evoked by separate pictorial ele ­ ments operating primarily within a scale of greys.

Rolls of paper are stacked against the walls and folded into drawers at Maija Luutonen’s studio. The illusion of subtle vibration is captured by wisps of grey cloud, spray -painted and brush -painted on paper in cyan yellow, as in Testament Test, or by vanishing dunes rendered in petroleum blue. Luutonen uses the irregularity of the prepared ground as a starting point for the painting process. She describes the situation as what she terms the “fall of paint” onto a piece of paper attached to a wall – first from the right, then from the left. Shapes, created upside down on the ground in thin relief, are turned into motifs, into clouds, folds, blistered creases, and outlines of the body – intimate images that initially reference the process of making the picture. Then they move beyond the image, into the realm of the painter’s physical relationship between herself (indicated by G in her new piece), her desires and the world she has painted, making issues of the painting’s subject and femininity slide into the indivisibility of the surface of the paintings.

One of the qualities of affects is their intensity, qualitative as well as quantitative: the sudden emergence of an affect, recognition of its asso ­ ciated memory, then its gradual subsiding. The Thought You Most Likely Will Not Have (2011), with its heavy shapes spilling over the edges of the paper, does indeed raise the issue of a lump that bogs you down, an affect evoking a thought that refuses to yield. Luutonen proceeds in the spirit of post -conceptualism without abandoning her aesthetic intuition. She gives herself assignments, methodic definitions for the work, directions and instructions – which she tests out while making the painting. One of the most delightful is a diptych titled Nature Is Relentless Part I and II (2013). Here, Luutonen has abandoned herself to an affect as she listens to Rihanna’s Umbrella (2008). She made the first painting while dancing to the song with a spray can in one hand, and the second one with a spray can in each hand. The sheets of paper are covered almost entirely with the rain of midnight blue paint. During the paint dance, Luutonen almost forgets the assignment she has given herself for filling the paper, as she loses herself in the flow of simultaneous actions.

The image in her mind and the process of her practice do not make life easy for Luutonen. Sometimes she can only attain loose expressiveness by first reaching a dead end and then overcoming it. Here she is helped by the conceptual laboratory work she did for the series International Paper. The title derives from the American standard paper size, Letter, and the term International Standard used for the A4 sheet. The Polish curator Sebastian Cichocki relates the allusions in the series to the artist’s studio practice, its rationality and unpredictable outcome: “Luutonen comments on institutional regulations and codes of practice, regarding, e.g., trans ­ port, contact with the artist, insurance or conservation; she also points out the grey areas in artistic production, which hover between adhering to the rules and breaking them.” 3

Luutonen applies pure colours to the paper in a predetermined order, so as to create layered membranes. Folding an A0 sheet into A4 size, she makes the work easy to store and possibly send to the next exhibition, where it will be opened and smoothed out. Over time, the folds start to reveal earlier layers of paint and cracks begin appearing in the mono ­ chromaticity of the work. Luutonen’s international papers continue the tradition of geometric abstraction by adding to it such determinants asmovability, monochromaticity (Blue Black Replacement and Multichrome), narrative patterns created by creases (Blue Cross) and qualifiers of time, as she asks herself the question: What does an empty sheet of paper look like at a specific point in time? (Now, Later).

Both these artists operate on the cusp of the emergence of the image into visibility. If Luutonen lays down a strict conceptual method before com ­ mencing the work and either complies or violates the rule, Eerola tests her own handiwork and cycle of motifs in process -intensive paintings. The line between a finished and an unfinished work is very thin indeed. Both art ­ ists play with the postmodernist tradition of the pictureless picture, break ­ ing up pictorial elements only to recombine them in a new sequence. The openness of the paintings leaves a space for the viewer to participate in the visual game.

Attuning yourself to the paintings requires a period of commitment, of giving time to the gaze awakened by the paintings, and comparing the picture to the feeling arising from the unconscious; feelings that are eva ­ nescent, intensive and transitory, but the viewer’s own and therefore recognisable. That which was there is now here.

Leevi Haapala Curator and Praxis Professor in the Exhibition Studies MA Programme at the Academy of Fine Arts, University of Arts, Helsinki

This essay is based on interviews the author conducted with Eeva-Riitta Eerola and Maija Luutonen in December 2014

1 Daniel Stern’s concept of affective attunement was originally applied to affection and a child’s ability to regulate its feelings in later life. Affect attunement refers to non -verbal communication between child and parent and to how the parent reinforces the child’s expression of affects. Parents are sensitive to the reactions of the child as it encounters new stimuli. Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant. A View from Psychoanalysis & Developmental Psychology. Basic Books, New York., 138–161.

2 Eeva -Riitta Eerola in ‘Discussion – Eeva -Riitta Eerola & Mika Hannula. The Touch of the Gaze,’ Accessed on 17 Dec. 2014.

3 Sebastian Cichocki, ‘Maija Luutonen,’ Society Acts – Moderna Utställningen / The Moderna Exhibition. Edited by Andreas Nilsson and Julia Björnberg, Moderna Museet. Narayana Press, Gylling, Denmark, 2014