Artist | Ville Löppönen (b. 1980, Savonlinna, Finland) graduated as a Master of Fine Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki in 2007. He is currently completing a Master’s degree in Orthodox Theology at the University of Eastern Finland. His works have been shown in Europe, North America and Australia. In 2015 he had solo exhibitions at The Bonnafont Gallery in San Francisco and Mikkeli Art Museum. His portrait of artist Henry Wuorila-Stenberg won third prize in the Danish Portrait Now! Brewer J.C. Jacobsen’s Portrait Award in 2013.
Images | HKI Art Guide
Contemporary art and Orthodox religion are two parallel worlds in my mind. The first is bold, forward-thinking and liberating while the second is strict, ritualistic and often limiting. For this reason and for the fact that I have been raised an Orthodox myself, Ville Löppönen’s works at Helsinki Contemporary instantly stirred my attention.
There is a strong connection between Löppönen’s art and Orthodox imagery. Paintings are made on icon boards and bear references to religious symbols. Light and darkness are deeply contrasting in his works, both formally as well as metaphorically. To Löppönen, the process of painting is a like a prayer or a confession. A dialogue with the Holy Trinity and his fellow men. The result is a revelation, but Löppönen sees it more as a mundane revelation, rather than a holy, religious one.
“I don’t have that kind of revelation. One needs to be a saint to paint a real icon. My artistic process approaches revelation when I am painting light. Then it becomes similar to a confession in the light of the icon, a process that for me is full of empathy and love.”
The imagery is familiar to me from the minute I walk through the gallery door. On my left there is a large-scale icon that portrays a luminous Jesus and Mary on a contrasting dark, almost black background. Although the setting makes for a traditional Orthodox image, something doesn’t quite fit in with this icon. It had started to peel off, showing the golden layer underneath. Its margins were simply left this way, unattended. As if hinting to a different layer of interpretation that might come into play.
Löppönen is not comfortable with the strict form of icon painting, so he chooses a more free expression that liberates him from the tradition. People play an important part in his artistic process. Many of the works do not show portraits of saints, as icons typically do, but they are images of real people who have played an important role in the artist’s life. Among them, friends and teachers such as Finnish artists Jukka Korkeila and Elina Merenmies. Light prevails in these works, as they reveal affection and empathy towards the portrayed person. In Löppönen’s view, the portraits open up a dialogue between the artist, the portrayed person and the viewer. A different kind of trinity, so to say.
Apart from portraits, the exhibition also displays works on paper where Orthodox symbols are still visible, but in a much more stylized, simplified way. The aquarelle used in these works also breaks the pattern of formal icon painting. A few smaller paper works with no frames are grouped on a wall like a mini-constellation. Their starting point was a painting spree of the artist’s two and four year old children. Löppönen noticed that some of the works were really beautiful and he continued working on them, leading to their finalized versions shown at the gallery. The result is sincere and heartwarming, bearing the marks of its innocent, clumsy start.
At the opposite pole, other works in the show feel dark and difficult. A series of paintings shows a man struggling to find his way in a dark setting, his head covered by some kind of veil or long cloth. It looks heavy, claustrophobic and even terrifying. To Löppönen, the veil represents people’s ability – or rather inability – to see light, whether this light is understood in the more religious sense of a revelation or if it stands for love as a universal human trait. Löpponen uses the term iconoclash to describe an inner process that we need to face for ourselves. In this context, dark paint signifies honesty. We need to face our dark sides and accept them to be able to finally grasp the light. If there is no acceptance for our own mistakes and shortcomings, we cannot truly find love and empathy for others.
This leads me to the subject of empathy and acceptance in the daily practice of Orthodoxy. Sadly, what often prevails in many encounters with church representatives is harsh judgement and penitence, rather than kindness and understanding. There is a strong emphasis on shame, in a context where nearly everything becomes a sin, including the most petty or insignificant aspects of our lives.
In his work, Löppönen makes a clear difference between religious belief and ritualism that is mostly lead by superstition, power, status and wrong motives: “To me, ritual is an external superstition and it shows a lack of understanding about the deep essence of things. Ritual doesn’t arise out of empathy, it is more about making amends, or it is an obligation to please.” Dressed up this way, moralism brings no revelation of love because it destroys everything that is good.
Yet, we see moralism taking over not only religion, but also other areas of our lives. We see it in businesses or organizations where the constructed models are deeply rooted in blaming and shaming others. The same model reverberates in our private lives where we encounter people who tend to feel better about themselves when they make others feel worse. The examples could go on further.
This is why Löppönen’s art brings up a subject that has a much wider interpretation, despite a seemingly unfamiliar starting point for audiences unaccustomed to the Orthodox imagery. Love and kindness towards others are universal human traits and they are perhaps more needed today than ever before.
Through their intertwining light and darkness, Löppönen’s works reveal this very delicate side of our humanity. As for conclusion, I found that the artist’s own words grasp best the essence and hope of his art:
“I want to believe that, regardless of whatever religious, philosophical or ideological interpretation of the world someone adheres to, it is possible to understand the love that sustains life, despite all the shit.“