CRITIQUE - Andreas Trossek. Notes on Ontogeny. KUNST.EE 2012, 2, 63-65

Andreas Trossek on the solo exhibition "Big painting and small painting" by London-based artist Merike Estna. 

Merike Estna’s creative genesis is definitely an intriguing topical subject. As of 2012, this painter has produced an impressive volume of work, which could, at first glance, be attributed to at least three different artists, if not more, or categorised within a similar number of separate periods. There is sixties-style Pop Art, small paper-collages and paintings, Neo-Expressionist brushstrokes, large canvases and painterly abstractions. Obviously, the painter, having reached her 30s and studied in Tallinn and London, takes making art as a personal challenge and is in a far broader dialogue with traditions and trends than the Tartu–Tallinn bus route, so familiar to the average Estonian painter, could ever allow. While studying at the Estonian Academy of Arts at the beginning of the 2000s, she quickly found her signature style—realism-based infantile (neo) pop, which was favourably accepted by the local art scene; however, recent years have seen Estna become less faithful to the gravity of "the brand logic". Thus, at this point, there remain no signs of any technical or thematic mannerisms in her paintings that a critic could address as "typical of Estna".

With her solo show "Big painting and small painting" Estna seems to have completely abandoned her earlier realist-based style. In hindsight, her previous exhibition "Voyeur" at Hobusepea Gallery in 2011, which surprised a lot of critics, could be seen as an intermediate stage, a compromise between the abstract and realist language of painting. In that exhibition, a few of Estna’s frequent motifs of human figures in provocative poses (often pornographic) still existed, though hidden and smothered in painterly abstraction. Now they are completely absent. What we saw was "big paintings and small paintings"—the artist’s search for the essence of painting, painting as a process, painting technique as an incentive for covering the canvas with colour, and so on. "Where is our little pop princess?" the fans of Estna are initially startled, but Merike only smiles sweetly, as princesses know how, and explains patiently. In an interview with Annika Toots in Sirp (4 May) she says that right now in London there is much discussion of painting-centred questions, and that in her opinion the painters in Estonia are concerned with conceptually quite different problems to the artists in London, where for example, photorealism is not practiced, and in her own recent work she mainly treats painting as a language, thus completely abolishing any plot or theme.

In recent years, Estna appears to be motivated by the question of the role of painting in general in the world today. As a euphemism, this question actually disguises a simple identity problem. Who is Merike Estna? Or as the question has been formulated in the title of one of her paintings: "Just another silly painter?" (2010). On the one hand, every artist starting in the medium of painting in the 21st century will be constantly accompanied by a silently given post-"end-of-history" state of mind, which is enriched with all kinds of historical facts, making any attempt at purely formal innovation impossible. On the other hand, the training of hundreds and hundreds of painters in academies of art all over Europe still continues, and the global market for contemporary art functions mostly with the support of their activity, and thus the "narrative hands" of local art histories in the form of additions to the new private collections and State Museums keep silently "ticking" in each country. How to synchronise the universal neo-liberal capitalism with the nation-state-centred art scenes with their own "special needs", is in turn a question that on discussion reveals those in power, who will chair the museums, galleries, art universities, professional associations and the like. Discussions on the role of painting are thus still important rhetorical weapons in the struggle for power in the art world, but what does our contemporary painting ultimately dictate? What are the paintings of the 21st century saying about the state of painting: what is their narrative? The end? To be continued...?

On the other hand, there is something strangely familiar, one might even say typical or inevitable about the chameleon games Estna has played in recent years. Although a more silent theory-hostile artistic position than Estna’s is unlikely to be found among the younger generation of Estonian painters, her recent movement from a (more) realistic to a (more) abstract language seems almost like a textbook example of an understanding that was being cultivated by the influential theorists of modern painting led by Clement Greenberg in the first half of the 20th century. The evolutionary culmination of American Abstract Expressionism with Post-Painterly Abstractions, including Pour Painting, were figuratively speaking like leaves on branches attached to the trunk formed by the sequence of "isms" in the history of modern art. What did this tree-diagram tell us?

From impressionism, which was contemporary with the global spread of photography, began the emancipation of painting from depicting the plot, and the further along the timeline we go, the less reason the viewer had to ask, what is the painting "talking about", because Abstract Expressionism, for instance, was not talking about anything anymore. Estna’s colourful geometric pattern paintings no longer speak of any- thing either, although in the exhibition’s press release there is an attempt to link the paintings to the social sphere with references to raves and the narcotic atmosphere of 1990s club culture. Starting out with a rather realistic painting style, Estna has come to the conclusion that painting is a language, a thing in itself, and she wants to take it as such. Ontogenesis copies phylogeny.

What else is there to say? From the position of an Estonian art historian it would be fun to finally generate a metaphorical comparison that sees the Merike Estna of the first decade of the new millennium compared to Malle Leis at the end of the 60s, and on the basis of her last solo show parallels can be drawn with Aili Vint in the late 60s. But who wants to hear those dumb jokes, anyway? Shut up and dance.

Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE