EXHIBITION REVIEW | Marcus Eek – Tapetenwechsel at Helsinki Contemporary

Artist | Marcus Eek (b. 1968 in Stockholm) lives and works in Berlin, and graduated from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm in 1997. Eek has taken part in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the Nordic countries and Europe. He is also known as one of the curator of Berlin-based collective Black Market, which organizes exhibition happenings and events. His works are included in collections such as the Swedish State collection and the Saastamoinen Foundation collection in Finland.

Featured Image | Exhibition view, Marcus Eek, Tapetenwechsel at Helsinki Contemporary | Photo credit: Jussi Tiainen

Article Images | Courtesy of Helsinki Contempoaray and the artist.


Another beautifully curated painting exhibition at Helsinki Contemporary presents the recent work of the Berlin-based Swedish painter Marcus Eek. Eek’s new series is distinguished by a combination of dynamic, sometimes edgy energy, a joyous mastery of colour, and an experimental boldness of technique. The title of the exhibition, Tapetenwechsel (a German term for a ‘change of scene’), refers to Eek’s recent shift in artistic direction, from a recognisable semi-figurative style to a dynamic form of lyrical abstraction. Characterised by lusciously painterly brushstrokes, Eek’s previous work frequently depicted (or heavily invoked) natural scenes and floral still lives; heady purples, pinks and blacks thickly rendering exotic blooms of a distinctly decadent sensuality.

Over the last few years, however, Eek has turned away from the motif of these fleurs du mal to an experiment in pure painterly dynamics. With a new palette of vibrant, sometimes fluorescent colours, the occasional use of collage, and an evident enthusiasm for the possibilities of working on a sleek aluminium surface, Eek’s new output bursts from the walls of Helsinki Contemporary’s white cube space like the sudden explosion of a Nordic spring. On entering the gallery, the first work we encounter, Center (2016), rightfully stands alone. A whirlpool of a painting, both attracting and repelling its viewer; its architectonics bringing to mind the Futurist dynamics of Giacomo Balla, yet without the bombast. On the opposing wall, however, this work is wonderfully offset with the intimate and almost bucolic Field Trip (2016), which invites the viewer in with its soft bands of buttery, cream-coloured paint and gently tilting tree-like horizontals of green.

This is yet another exhibition in which Berlin-based curator Mika Hannula displays his profound love and respect for painting, as well an acute sense for the evolving craft and sensibility of painters. Hannula is also keen to present artists at this gallery who are unabashedly immersed in the pleasures of paint. This is very contagious. In Eek’s case, artist and viewer engage in a deeply pleasurable, albeit subtle communication. The artist has titled this ongoing series Tells, hinting at the card-players’ game of reading and revealing the slightest of gestures. This apt title conveys the playful and yet searching nature of the works on show. Perhaps no longer concerned with a certain seduction implied by his previous series, Eek seems now even more free to explore an irrepressible joy for the vital materiality of paint. This is far from rampant expressionism, however, and while some works here clearly reveal the artist’s vim for colour and vigorous gesture, an overall sense of technical prowess and nuanced restraint prevails.

The cherry-picked selection of Eek’s works on display presents a fine balance of colouration, tonality, and mood; from the scintillating, nervous energy of the black and cadmium-orange Harvest Moon (2017) to the serene, almost snow-scene-like Heimlich-ness of Change of Mind (2016). While figuration is ostensibly absent from these works, the relation between colours, emerging forms and titles nonetheless offers abstraction on a discreetly human scale. This is an artist who understands the absorbing pleasures of paint, and how the eye finds deep gratification in the reveries prompted by the indeterminate, or simply by contrasts of colour and texture. There is also warmth here, a fervent pursuit of communication that invites us to stay a while, and our engagement as viewers is richly rewarded.

Eek’s work offers instant sensory gratification but also it just keeps on giving. The musically resonant As Time Goes By (2016) presents a playful arabesque of forms and colours. At first dazzled by the starkly contrasting curvaceous matt blocks of bright orange and deep black flanking the left and right sides of the canvas, our eyes take rest in a central recess in which intricate sweeps of black and white suggest celestial or atmospheric visions. The optical game here is partly induced by the collaging of an unfathomably black velveteen fabric, so mesmerising that it recalls Anish Kapoor’s bewitching trademark colour Vantablack. In other works, such as the well-placed trio on aluminium Here Comes the Sun, Breaking and Entering, and Bet in the Dark, black is no longer dead still, but is swirled around with burgundy and orange-pink, misty lilacs and purples, and molten fissures of peacock blue. Eek clearly enjoys creating a certain mystification through varying technique and a lushness of layered and dissolved colours that ensure that his paintings welcome us but never entirely give up their secrets.

Numerous works on show contain a particularly intriguing painterly effect, that might owe something to the work of Gerhard Richter, who began applying oil paint with a squeegee in the late 1980s. More commonly associated with silk-screen printing, the squeegee enables the artist to move around large bands of paint at once, creating fascinating complexities of wet and drier colours as well as giving a bold directional dynamic to the paint. The pace and slight unpredictability of this technique is especially effective in the works on aluminium, such as Suggesting Landscape (2016) and Cutting Corners (2016). This pair can be distinguished by the relation of the paint to the slick metallic support, which, because it seems less forgiving than canvas – it reveals everything of the painterly gesture – has clearly determined a certain technique: a fairly rapid execution of marks but probably considerable pause between them. These works leave the impression of having required the artist to develop a rather strict relation between contemplation and action, hence appearing somewhat Zen-like in construction, much deliberated but decisively exacted.

Eek’s use of this technique also gives rise to another more general effect that could be related to a kind of metaphysics of painting or, to use Walter Benjamin’s appealing term, the “optical unconscious” of painting. Precisely, this relates to how the optical effects of these very painterly techniques nonetheless recall other media: the uncanny black and white static noise of old TV sets, motion blurring in film and photography. That deliberate fusion of media, the uncanny sense of painting as a form of screen found in the work of Richter, Warhol, and Rauschenberg; that physical investment of the painter which somehow seems to absorb and reflect the flickering confluence of history, memory and media, is also resonant in Eek’s work. It is, however, from within the logic of painting itself, from the painterly processes of immersion, joy, discipline, and experimentation that this historical or psychological depth emerges. And it is, of course, not necessary to recognise this in Eek’s paintings, which can be entirely enjoyed on the delicious level of surface, and yet it marks these works with another dimension, and one, importantly, that reveals how through play and pleasure profundity emerges.