CRITICISM - Anders Härm, Alice from Wonderland, or a sketch of fundamental fantasy. – Estonian Art, 2004, no. 1
Outside the open window was no sunlight, no cops, no kids - nothing. Nothing but a grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if inchoate life. They could see nothing of the city through it, not because it was too dense but because it was - empty. No sound came out of it; no movement showed in it.
Robert Heinlein, The Unpleasent Profession of Jonathan Hoag
Alice Kask When we take a look at the recent charts of paintings (yes, it appears that such things are compiled), we will see that Alice Kask is the point de capiton of Estonian art. We are witnessing a rather rare manifestation of social climate - the absolute solidarity of the art world and the wider public in an art-related question, as both greatly appreciate Kask's paintings. However, nobody has come forward with any adequate interpretations of Alice's paintings, which is the more surprising considering she has produced quite a few works during the last four-five years, despite being a slow and thorough - rather than a productive - artist. The existing threads of thought have been twisted into such a Gordian knot that they can far outwit formalist criticism. But this is not the main thing - of more interest is the question why Alice's pictures matter to people. I don't think their easily accessible meaning is a sufficient argument. Or rather - the question lies in what causes this general understanding in the first place?
Theoretical first aid is offered by Jaques Lacan's art philosophical bathos that relies on the notion of 'desire' and where the religious rhetoric is replaced by that of psychoanalysis. Looking spellbound at a picture, we do not want to 'capture' the picture (both in the direct and indirect sense), instead we want to reach out to the artist who 'knows' and masters the secret that lies behind the Symbolic and the Imaginary and that is terrifying and desirable at the same time. We want the he or she who is, or so it seems, on good terms with the unknown, and thus has direct contact with the Real.
Living dead and black blotch
At a distance, Mouth is a huge white painting with a big black blotch in the left lower corner. When you step closer, a male body in slightly greyer shades, muscular but in an agonisingly twisted posture, emerges, eyes opened wide (from death). The black blotch is his mouth opened for a scream. The cry is naturally voiceless, as the dead and paintings do not on the whole make a loud noise. This pictureis titled Mouth, although there is a black hole instead of a mouth, an emptily yawning Real.
This is but one picture of Kask's series of paintings without a title. The series of nine large-format oil paintings, completed over the last two years, depicts nothing but nude males. Kask's male bodies are as muscular as Greek sculptures, but instead of the heroic loftiness of classical sculptures her figures, mostly painted in variations of grey, are 'tatty'. They rot and disintegrate, they are worn out or have almost entirely lost their corporeality and their facial features, and turned into mere shadows, a grey mass. They are the 'living dead', with only the slowly pulsating unsymbolised nucleus of Life remaining - Lacan's Real. Slavoj ëiìek calls the phenomenon of 'the living dead' 'a fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture', the fantasy of a person who does not wish to remain dead but is constantly returning as a threat to the living. However, they are not usually portrayed as personifications of 'pure evil', whose sole urge is to kill or take revenge. The archetype of a living dead is the figure of a sufferer who pursues his victims with peculiar persistence, accompanied by strange and consistent sadness. The living dead mark an aberration in the symbolising rite, the dead return in order to claim their unpaid symbolic debt. Kask has naturally no aspirations to be a part of mass culture; these paintings in fact flee from Word and Culture. It is rather a subconsciously shared common part with a social nightmare.
Behind Kask's paintings stands the entire tradition of expressionist painting, starting from Van Gogh, through Schiele, Kokoschka, even through surrealism to the Neue Wilden, but how does Kask filtrate this tradition? It seems to me that she sees it through the spectacles of media and video. Big pure images, (white) neutral background, concentrated shots, everything excessive cast aside - all this vividly resembles the pinnacle of Estonian video art. Videos of Jaan Toomik or Ene-Liis Semper are the first-stage reference surface to Alice's paintings. I am convinced that by way of painting, Alice largely solves the same problems as they do in video. In the critics' opinion, psychoanalytical method as theoretical foundation for analysing, is widely used in her case as well as in theirs.
The unbearable imperfection of being
At the same time, Alice's pictures contain disturbingly realistically painted body parts - legs, hands, eyes, mouth, that have retained the brownish hue of a 'healthy' skin. These are largely the parts of the body that in a psychoanalytic parlance are the so-called privileged zones. According to ëiìek, they are not erogenous for any anatomical reason but for the manner in which the body is captured into a symbolic network. The painting Man with a Face depicts a figure floating in the air, resisting all gravitation rules; only eyes, mouth and nose are recognisable in his face. These are dumb negative determinants of a petit objet a, its remnants. Lacan's subject is imperfect, a split subject who has been forever separated from the primary object, the Thing. The divided subject can, however, place the signifier from the place of the Other (symbolic) to that of the missing Thing. All these signifiers that the subject produces from the place of the Other are always substitutes for the lost object, but never the object itself. This relation of replacement is always the relation of desire, directed at the lost object and the Other. According to him, desire is always the relation of being with what is missing. It is not a matter of one or another missing thing, it is the general insufficiency of being through which the being exists. The insufficiency of being is caused by the split subject, and this object relation is offering a momentarily perfect illusion of pleasure, is trying to compensate for it. But what in this system is petit objet a and the abject parts of body that signify its lack - all those that in Alice's paintings are 'whole'. They represent the Thing as being aloof, the lack of perfection, simply and precisely, they are the outline of the lost object, an image, loss and its hallucinatory compensation - all at the same time. This imperfection, however, can not only be a shortage, but also excess. On the painting Man with the Head, for example, the protagonist helplessly twists his other head in his hands like a basketball not really knowing what he should do with it. According to Lacan, a glance always joins the unconscious, there is an allurement between eye and glance. Relying on that logic, the allurement of Alice's paintings acquires a rather different look. Isn't that so? A glance is forever hungry and the excitement and imprisonment of a picture is based on satisfying this kind of hunger. In Lacan's words, the 'glory' of art is therefore often unbearable - the 'universal' opens up its revolting secondary meaning.
P.S. There is an allurement relationship between Lacan and Kask as well. One namely allures to analyse the other. Nevertheless, one always dodges the other's final triumph. After all, Lacan himself says that art is always ahead of the analyst as far as the matter is concerned, and it is pointless to play a psychologist in a field that an artist has already ploughed.