COFFEE WITH AN ARTIST | Defining the Abstract: Eeva-Riitta Eerola’s ”Senses of the Other”

Artist | Eeva-Riitta Eerola (b. 1980) graduated from the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki in 2010. She also studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris. Eerola is represented in collections such as the Saastamoinen Foundation, Sara Hildén Art Museum and the Wihuri Foundation Art Collection.

Featured Image | Detail of Eeva-Riitta Eerola, In Turn, Oil on canvas, 2016. Photo by Jussi Tiainen

Article Images | Courtesy of Helsinki Contemporary and the artist. Photo credits: Jussi Tiainen

How do we talk about abstract art? How do we verbalize something that is undefined or undetermined? When seeing a non-figurative painting, it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is we relate to, or to express in words what we intuitively perceive.

This has been a recurrent theme in my conversation with artist Eeva-Riitta Eerola when visiting her atelier a few days ago. Eerola’s exhibition ”Senses of the Other” just opened at Helsinki Contemporary and it showcases her recent oil on canvas series of paintings.

In the calming afternoon light of her studio, we’re sipping coffee and I’m staring at the works – only a few are left after most of the series has been already transported to the gallery.

Eerola’s works are abstract, although at times they contain hints of figurative – an oval opening of a cave or a contour of a face, a stylized frame of a window, a volatile curtain ruffled by an imaginary wind. It’s not with immediate effect that these elements take shape in my mind. They rather come in waves, one by one, upon looking closely.

First, it is the colors that pour in, then the lines that separate each shade. Our human eye, hungry for clinging to familiar spaces, tries to define each shape into something that makes sense. We place forms, colors and lines in a context, a space that becomes almost physical, even though it only lives in our imagination.

Portions of paintings feel void, empty, un-allowing. As a paradox, the emptied spaces are also the ones that give way to new possibilities – nothing can now become anything. By contrast, other sections feel full, plumped, inhabited, inviting and warm: a corner of a table, a light coming through the opening of a door, an idilic nature landscape.

Then textures take over. Rust, wood, marble, velvet, transparent fabric. They are all part of Eerola’s visual language, one that she seems to master without effort.

What was your starting point for this exhibition, where does the title ”Senses of the Other” come from?

The exhibition name relates to Otherness, although this is a very broad subject. I wanted to bring into discussion the painting itself as ”the other” and what a painting can stir up in the mind of a viewer. Much of my work is about communication, about opening conversations and making people susceptible to embracing or considering new perspectives. I also use “The Other” as a title for some of the works shown in the exhibition.

Is it important that you have a specific concept when you start a new series? Does it help you define your abstract work in a more concrete ”red thread” that you can follow through?

When painting twenty works at the same time, there is inevitably a dialogue that forms between them. Some of the works might go to trash but they still open up or make room for something else, for an idea. It’s important to me that there is a cohesive body of works for an exhibition – especially when it’s a solo show. I always question if a work belongs to the same theme, if it is part of the same world. Having an overall concept is necessary, even though in my case it is a loose theme, rather than a strict idea.

Do you already know how the finalized work is going to look like at the moment you start painting it? What is your usual process?

I cannot predict how a work is going to end up. I have to go through the painting process – revealing what a work is going to be has something to do with the practical act of painting. The surprising moment can sometimes happen when I take some distance from the work. After I let it settle for a while, one gesture can be that missing piece that it still needed in order to continue, to become what it is now in its finalized version. It’s always a play between consciousness and unconsciousness, between the determined act of painting and the undetermined intuition.

You deal with many types of forms, spaces and textures in your paintings – how do you decide to put them together?

I can be quite restless and I like to investigate how different ways of working create readings for my works and open parallels between them. I love dealing with simultaneously existing spaces. As a starting point I try not to overthink what I am doing, although sometimes it is much more difficult to let go and be sensitive enough to let the painting flow. When I already have a body of works, I start making more organized or conscious decisions of what to place where. Then the theme or main concept starts to play a part in my painting processes as well. Still – without the intuitive, unconscious part of my work – what would be the point of making it, what would be the purpose of that investigation, of trying to explore all that hidden knowledge?

Tell me about the different motifs that can be observed in your works – the window, the oval shape, the rectangles and sharp lines. What do they signify to you?

The window metaphor is of course charged with symbolism, but I often reference it with the idea of a window to the world, or with the possibility of a new perspective. The oval shape makes a strong reference to the human face, and at the same time it can be a new vista or an opening to a cave. Rectangles are sharp, architectural elements and they cut spaces in an almost violent way. I use them to create a certain dynamics and variation in my work, but I also like playing with the idea of clear form and modernistic spaces with a bit of a humorous twist. But even though similar shapes appear in different works, the references and interpretations can be very different in each of them.

Colors are perhaps the first visual elements we as viewers notice in an abstract painting. How important are they for you as an artist? Is color a starting point when you work on a new painting?

Colors are an important part of the process, but for me they don’t come first. It is the layers and traces, the composition as a whole that comes first. I see colors as tools to separate spaces. They’re also instrumental when working on a series – choosing a certain palette or combination of colors gives coherence to the entire series.

Do you have a favorite color you like using in your works?

I think black – a non-color – is my favorite color (laughs). I love it because it is emptied with meaning, but at the same time it gives way to new meanings. 

Despite the abstract setting, there is still a human presence in your works, even though it is very discreet one. Has it always been part of your visual expression?

Yes, human figures or elements were always part of my practice even though most of the time they were rather abstract. In this series of works I am again including the human figure, but in a much more implicit way than before.

What would you hope your works transmit to the viewers?

I hope that my works go beyond the clean and conceptual first impression, that they also give warmth and accessibility to viewers. Even though the visual landscape as such is built up. Much of my work is inwards looking and concentrated on the act of painting, but it is always open – it can evoke something to the viewers based on their own experience. 

”Senses of the Other” is fresh, surprising and engaging. It showcases Eerola’s talent not only as a skillful artist, but also as a great visual storyteller. Her painting process might not consciously begin with a story, but it often ends up creating one. It is this last bit that transforms her abstract works into conversation pieces – they suggest just enough to get the discussion going, but they leave room for plenty more to explore.