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About working

The Material Image

Whether executed with thick paint on canvas or the line of a pencil on paper, an image made by hand is always of a material nature. Painting and drawing are the cooperation of hand and eye, and materiality is the point of departure for that collaboration. It is hard to speak of the content of a painting without referring to its technique and materials. A painting is distinguished from other images in particular by its layered and concrete nature. These properties make a painting something that is distinctive and intense in comparison with an immaterial image. A painting does not consist of two dimensional areas of colour spread on a surface hovering in space, but is instead a three-dimensional visual stratification.

The paints and other materials of the layers cannot be distinguished from their motif. The form taken by matter could not exist without it. Form is matter. A painting is concrete, not a representation of something concrete. The third dimension, therefore, is not only based on perspective or the illusion of light and shade: a painting has a time-space, a stratum that is overlaid or disintegrating to reveal earlier layers. It is also possible to find the same space in a drawing. A pencil may sometimes perforate the paper, or markings on the reverse will leach into view from behind the image. Perforating the surface of both paper and canvas is not just part of my technique; it also has a metaphorical connection with the motif of the image. The layers are like the human skin, or the earth's crust.

Brokenness and absence are characteristic features of my paintings. As methods, mixed media, collage and décollage – the removal of layers – are just as important as adding paint on canvas. Painting is based on failure, doubt, errors, the unattainable. The images remaining between the layers or torn and left on the studio floor are intermediary stages of the movement in which the painting is formed. By the same token, the finished painting often marks the beginning of a process for another painting, leading in turn to a new image. Paintings are samples from a stream of images of which only a part is ultimately seen. Occasionally, an image just has to be removed and the omission must be left visible. A painting is not just a background for the visible, it is also strongly influenced by that which is absent. The result is what remains rather than what is created.


The Colour of Matter

Covering and removing layers are at the same time acts of seeking, bringing things forth and abstaining or relinquishing things. Absence creates a tension in the image, and less is more also in colours. A strong colour is a loud sound, and I do not want the painting to take up space. Instead, I would want it to create a space of its own that one can enter. Colour has a strong and dangerous effect. I try to see the elements of a painting without the addition of colour to them. I do not think in terms of colours but instead in materials whose colours do not change in different lighting.  I want the material to become dirt, fabric, bone, skin, earth, oil, wood and other concrete elements in a painting. Can I create a figure or space without colour or light and shade? Is there a colourless material that could be the material of form in a painting? What is the colour of a trace?

Black and white are the strongest colours, the absolute ones. The blacks and whites of different materials are also different. A glossy black surface smoothed by many coats of paint reflects the space outside the painting; it is alive and anything but dead or neutral. The white of the canvas is a pure primal fog, while thick white paint that has absorbed sand turns into bone and stone when it dries. The materials of painting and their colours are the elements of a new world. The painting is a magical interface, in which the material, upon attaching itself to the painting, turns into real matter and no longer just represents it. The material does not change, nor does it remain the same. A new reality with its own laws and elements emerges from it. As the starting point for an image a tactile idea is just as valuable as a visual one. If the material and its colour feel right while painting, the work is on the right path. Or rather, when the material has become the right one in the painting. You can feel it through your eyes.


Live and Lifeless Human Being

I paint to make the human being visible while at the same time I try to purge it of emotions and meanings and leave a comprehensive silence and an open void. I am not interested in personality, nor do I want to tell stories. I seek something underlying these properties. The theme and the symbolism often serve as a framework or path for the feeling of veracity of a painting, where its unique power and content reside. For example, in my paintings a skull-like head without a gaze is for me analogous to the anonymous and timeless foundation that is shared by individuals. It is the background for the muscles, fat and sinews that define persons. It is the human being before an image of the self, or after it.

I want to look under the layers, to see the essence of things without properties. Existence as such is also more interesting than the things with which it is often covered with. My attitude to depicting a human being is to try to forget concepts, names, learned behaviour models, function, convention and the self-evident. Therefore, people in my paintings often appear contorted, worn and bare. The anatomy disintegrates along with familiar positions and functions.

The human being in my painting is vulnerable and clumsy, yet strong in his or her weakness. Out of place and confused; vigorous and mummified at the same time. People in my paintings are consumed by nature in the same way as nature is consumed by them. A human being is a landscape resembling a body, lying on the surface of the earth and reaching towards space. The human body is like a space bending or being destroyed by every movement that it makes. If it moves, it becomes something else. It is born and then sheds its skin repeatedly in the painting. The individual that I depict has forgotten how this body is formed or how it functions in a conventional manner. It is only a being in the form of a human being. The face reflects awareness of nature and its laws and of pure existence prior to knowledge. In the image, man is petrified in the last moment in which he experiences everything for the first time.



There is great incongruity between the decomposing body and the mind that seeks permanence. A certain kind of numbness to existence makes us look for something else behind the visible when mere existence and reality are no longer enough and the incongruity becomes too great. Throughout the body's lifespan the mind keeps yearning, learning, holding things dear and fighting. It keeps fighting against boredom, oblivion and loss. The hard facts of life are poetry and the struggle towards eternity is like a beautiful choreography.

I do not paint this dance from observation or a visual reference. Instead, all the images are ultimately based on memory. All the people, spaces, senses, touches and whispers are mixed in the pictures. Ultimately, our worldview is formed by a mental image based on the past. It is highly valuable and of great weight, yet paper-thin. It is my reference image and I rely on its being distorted, coloured and mixed. When the labels of the memory compartments are swept away and though nothing is lost, and nothing exists any more, there will remain unnamed images of all of us mixed through being superimposed. It is liberating to have everyone and no one as the model of a painting.

I paint people as I see them, or I see people as I have grown to paint them. I don’t know which came first. I see the human being as the same as other forms growing out of the ground. Although my works could be called figurative, I consider them to be abstract, like the reality beyond the painting. It is of course important for things to have their names, but I want to see either so broadly that everything is uniform, anonymous, or so closely as to look beneath the surface, into a space where meanings do not yet, or no longer exist. Ultimately I want to learn to see more rigorously. Painting is good practice for that. It is also an attempt to capture fleeing images, to slow down time, and above all to see the reality bare.


Amorphous Earth

Existence as such is valuable and nature is supernatural. Life tries to survive and evolve, and nature does not represent anything. Nothing has ultimately any meaning deriving from outside itself, and nothing real is separate from nature or unnatural. It is exciting to admit one’s own ignorance and to see things as they are, without names or direction. In between our common origin and destination, amorphous earth, we are intermediaries producing images. There remains an open opportunity for consciousness to attach concepts and ideas to the images that we produce and the reality that they reflect, or it has the possibility to see them in an arrested state prior to thought.

For me, a painting is a space where we can be simultaneously alive and dead. It is a moment that does not yet have, or no longer has, meanings, concepts, words or habits. I regard this void to be the fundamental layer underlying everything.  I want to dig it out with my images and direct attention to the intrinsic value of existence, to be found at all times beneath everything, underlying words and the meanings of life.

Where photography arrests movement and records the transient, painting is movement and losing that which is permanent. In painting there is often a back-and-forth or circling movement continuing until the image disappears. It often happens that one cannot stop what one would like to, and it is necessary to desist and dig deeper. Painting is testing and seeking. It must be ready to live, move and shed its skin. Light provides form in a photograph, but a painting is based on the shadows that it tries to make visible, like imagination stirring in the dark. The mind is a light in the shadows revealing and releasing hidden and suppressed images.


Reima Nevalainen
Porvoo, January 2016