Alice Kask

Few young artists have recently managed to arrive in Estonian artistic life as quickly and as convincingly as Alice Kask. With only a few solo exhibitions in the last couple of years she has occupied and redefined a certain discourse, the role of which had almost completely withdrawn in Estonian art during the cataclysmic 1990s, and all hope of resurrecting it was questionable. At the end of the last decade and beginning of the current one, Alice Kask was one of the first among very few artists where individuality, talent, sensitivity and image-creating skill were discussed as qualities––even at a time when it was generally difficult to find any wider support and framework for these qualities. Naturally, her work also speaks about the body, history (and the dialogue with art history), symbolism and reality, and even the influence of media images. But, despite this none of the vocabularies used have seemed quite convincing or appropriate. Rather, it seems that in addition to these models of interpretation, Kask's pictures have also posed the challenge of creating completely different approaches to art––approaches and phrasing that would still undoubtedly be dated to the 2000s––as with her own work.Institutional recognition and attention (the first purchase for the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia in 2000, winner of the Konrad Mägi Award in 2003, as well as her inclusion among the artists introduced in this book) has always seemed to be a kind of ‘payment in advance’ for artists of such youth. Yet, Kask's work has gained a certain trust through its obvious sovereignty, absorption and seriousness. She does not match the image of young art, or the fragile role of a young artist. With Kask's pictures something entered the Estonian art world that people could not have really expected––something that had no clear ‘commission’ (yet there probably was a need) and that proved unexpectedly important even before it could be put into words.

Furthermore, the works of Alice Kask have undoubtedly relieved the recent identity problems in the field of painting. In fact, they have expressly demonstrated how the ‘life or death problem’ of the entire world of painting is constructed. In her case, it is utterly irrelevant and even inappropriate to ask the question of whether, how and why to paint (or draw), and whether the spirit of the era can give certain means of expression a substantial head start in the ‘international contest between media’. The power of her work consists in its inseparableness from the physical object, its encounter with the image and its basis, or its emergence from that basis. Every single nuance on the painting surface is important, and none of the principal meanings are created as a decision somewhere on the outside––they are born of the material itself as it has taken form. This sort of integral quality has not totally vanished in recent Estonian art, but in any case it is a rare and remarkable phenomenon. This is why the works of Alice Kask, completed in the last seven or eight years, seem exceptional and independent.

The works can be sorted in a number of ways (or left completely unsorted), but so far it seems most appropriate to view them according to the artist's solo exhibitions, held every couple of years. Every time something changes, and while none of the changes are radical, they nevertheless appear slowly out of what existed before. While it might be premature to establish a broader pattern and make clearer classifications, moving on step by step we could highlight a certain line of development and produce one possible version of the creation of her pictures. Kask’s larger works inevitably differ from her drawings––they serve as milestones and stages, while her drawings establish a continuity and seem to be moving like an uninterrupted chain in front of, between and behind her large-scale works.

Initially, Kask had dark shabby irregular-shaped boards of plywood, crumbly surfaces and some crudely constructed metallic details (Two Plywoods, 1998); most of these works were shown in her solo exhibition at Haapsalu City Gallery, 2001). The barely visible figures on these supports seem sexless, or if anything feminine. They are self-absorbed and sometimes look as if they are squeezed within the borders of the picture. Their poses follow the shape of the plywood boards; they accommodate themselves on them, and on the other hand, turn the supports into an imaginary cocoon, shaped precisely to fit the body. Although the picture surface seems almost brutally processed, even assaulted (burnt or perforated), the boards of plywood have developed this look over time, as they have been stored and used for different purposes. The images are the newest and most fragile layers on these surfaces––treating them more violently might make the contours disperse and the bodies vanish. Old rough plywood boards carrying the marks of time, and tender poetic figures in mutual dependence upon each other. Changing one of them would mean that the other could not remain the same either––every move counts.

In parallel with these mute and subordinate figures in defensive positions depicted on plywood, there is a much more mobile and bold approach to the figure developing in Kask’s pictures. Perhaps this is best expressed in her series of drawings, but it also occupies ever-larger formats. The solo exhibition of 2001, Would–Wouldn’t at Vaal Gallery gave cause, among other things, for talk of a dialogue with the images of René Magritte.(1) Body parts (ears, mouths, fingers) cut away from the whole, shifted and multiplied, became meaningful and metaphorical, and at the same time gained independence. The inevitable bond with the surface and the material started to recede, at least in some of her works. In that particular exhibition, Kask also showed just a few works without any trace of human presence. In a similar way to the fingers and mouths, certain details of the room or building were detached from the whole and brought into focus (Blower, Door – both from 2001). Multiple layers of paint, moving texture and intentional imperfection (‘vitality’) gave these pieces a sort of breath, and turned the lifeless structure into something similar to a human body. In Vertical Horizontal (2001) we can see both the entire figure and the ‘bearer’, a support made of wooden planks, significant in itself, and reminiscent of a wall. What turns out to be interesting and complicated in this work are its spatial relations (just as in Door, which is set floating in a strange deserted landscape), the figure and the floor are both vertical, the shadow of the body is horizontal. The figure is painted with considerable volume, but the room around it does not really exist; the smooth surface has pushed the figure forward and out of the picture. The shadow is a black angular hole in the wall; it does not depend on the movement of the figure or on the lighting.

Although at first sight the works of Alice Kask seem to concentrate solely on the figure and the human body, the concept of space and the environment is always indirectly present, namely through shadows, black holes and images that rise up from the emptiness, as well as the contrast of flatness with space. The sense of space is always latently present in the body parts that are fading away here and brought into focus there, and also in figures without any environment. The work in her solo show at the Tallinn Art Hall gallery (2003), where every single painting depicted strong and proportional (although sometimes ‘injured’) male nudes, the problem of space also took on a new dimension. The male figures that are so brightly highlighted, the image of a perfect body behind dark shadows, turned these nudes into metaphors for greater and superhuman structures. There is no individuality in these figures, one single model applies to everyone, and yet they are different––each one has its own obscure (and disturbing) zones and highlighted details (hands in Two Seated Men; legs in Two Standing Figures; Knees, Mouth – all from 2003). The plywood pieces shown in the same exhibition––Men Sitting On Each Other’s Shoulders (2002) and Man With a Head (2002), depicting a man holding somebody’s severed head on his lap––further amplify and modulate the parallel between the body and social hierarchies or power relationships. Perhaps along with this panoramic way of seeing, the power of Kask’s work is predominantly in its personal, more vulnerable aspect––a balance of beauty and the promise of perfection, fear and chaos. The appeal of her pictures has also been interpreted in the key of psychoanalysis, giving the artist the role of a keeper of secrets (a secret that is desirable and frightful at the same time), a direct contact with the 'real'.(2) There is a recognisable, understandable and virtuously rendered image before the viewer, and at the same time, the annulment of that image––meticulously painted body parts attached to dark shadows that seem like black lumps. It appears that the artist has deliberately disturbed her own work of art, vandalised the harmony, pushed the perfection off the road and consciously overlooked some part of the whole. This kind of disturbed essence may seem startling and strange, but it is enchanting in its own way. The large format further intensifies the contradiction. On the one hand, the bodies are vigorous and strong––superhuman––on the other hand, they are clumsy and almost helpless.

While the large-scale paintings by Kask, already due to their dimensions and technique, seem static and complete (although completeness here does not mean elaborate, but an inevitable incompleteness), it is perhaps her small-scale drawings that reflect her thinking process in the liveliest manner. To be more precise, apparently, the drawing itself is the artist’s thinking process, where the idea does not go before the movement of the hand on the paper, and afterwards it becomes impossible to separate aspiration from result. In her drawings too, the focus is on the human figure and its parts, but transitions and mutations occur there fast and flexibly. It is precisely these works that manifest how Kask’s approach to the body differs from the vision of a nightmarish and troublesome body that often characterises Estonian art of recent decades. The distortions of figures, of eyes, mouths and fingers, may sometimes seem violent in these pictures, but there is even more fantasy here, a semi-automatist flight of thought that produces astonishing relationships. It feels like the movement of thought and the changefulness of the world are both translated into a certain new bodily language, where every single detail in the picture stands for a certain alphabetic character––the figures break into two, people stand upside down, a big hand grasps a similar small one with its fingers, there are two faces side by side sharing a single mouth, or a pair of eyes for two faces and a giant head grows out from a tiny body. Looking at this series as a whole, there are certain repeated motifs and ideas we can remember: a small figure confronted with an enlarged image of some part of the body (Toes, Tumble – both from 2004), or its encounter with an everyday object of enormous dimensions (Ballpoint Pen, 2004); mutual dependence or a special connection between head and body, or between head and stomach (Head in Stomach, 2001; The Man Was Smoking, 2004), but also running (Run, 2001) and talking (the mouth that turns the body into a talking body; Talking Man, 2004). In addition to the pictures that only play with the line, Kask has also made pieces using a small format, using different materials and mixed media. She has given relief to the drawing, and moves from a surface approach to treating it as an object (part of the series Would–Wouldn’t, 2000–2001).

Her drawings, shown at Hobusepea Gallery, Tallinn (2005), displayed a rather remarkable change compared with her earlier pictures. For the first time, the human figures in her pictures, which had been looking out of time and space until then, naked or wearing neutral sketched garments, were dressed in clothes that were much more recognisable and expressive––suits. This time too, men in uniforms were as cleared of any individuality as her earlier nude figures. Yet we can see completely new manifestations in their poses and gestures. They no longer reflect timeless depression and anguish, but repeat the gestures and poses typical of the model of a contemporary successful man (the dashing walk, one hand in pocket and a man leaning back with his hands crossed on his chest). These figures are accompanied by shadows, reflections and dislocations similar to those that accompanied her earlier nudes. At the same time, the allusions to modern society in her works do not reflect a superficial social quality, which would speak of the cult of success at a particular instant and place, or something similar. The artist has used none of the images to offer a simple and comprehensible code to the audience to understand her pictures. Rather, she chooses an image on the principle of chance, repetitiveness or a certain inevitability (such as the body parts all of us have some sort of relationship with). Still, the meaning and effectiveness of the motif spot lit like this, always grows larger than the thing that only has to do with the viewer’s personal and everyday experience.

In 2003, Kask was obtained the most votes from the public in the Chart project in the annual exhibition of the Estonian Painters’ Association, and thus proved to be the most favoured Estonian painter in the public's eyes. At the same time, she was awarded the most honourable painting prize in Estonia, the Konrad Mägi Prize. As we know, such consensus among the audience and professional jury is rare in Estonia. Kask’s works are open to all sorts of interpretations, sometimes even dangerously so––it is easy to violate them, to switch on “the text machine that works on auto pilot, splashing blocks of psychoanalysis, feminist, history-of-painting texts and readymade reception matrices”(3). For this reason it is probably most appropriate to give her works some time and space even now, and wait for what is going to happen next in as well as around her pictures.

Anu Allas


*This essay is an excerpt from a collection “Artists of Estonia 3” (Tallinn: Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia, 2007)

(1) Eha Komissarov, press text for the exhibition Would. Wouldn’t in Vaal Gallery, 15. V – 2. VI 2001.
(2) Anders Härm, Alice imedemaalt ehk visand fundamentaalsele fantaasiale. The text for the exhibition held in the gallery of Tallinn Art Hall 15. VIII – 31. VIII 2003.
(3) Hanno Soans, Konrad Mäe medallist. – Sirp, 31. X 2003.