Tony Godfrey. Merike Estna's biography.
When one visits an artist's studio and looks at their work and talks to them one is partly concentrating on the words, partly taking things in, looking at what is on the wall - or floors. Where does the artist come from, what are they doing now? One chats: it is a conversation, not an interrogation. What music do you like? Did you know my friend Maria at College? Do you like living in London? Afterwards one walks away and lets one's impressions settle. Sometimes what one has seen or felt but not quite been able to articulate when you were in the studio is what is important. Much as the lingering after-taste of a good wine is the best bit or the sense of satisfaction after a good concert is what makes the evening, those after-the-visit feelings are what matter. Walking away from Merike Estna's studio my feeling was two-fold: pulsation and suffusion. Those two words seemed to sum up the effect of her paintings.
Pulsation being the effect of the rhythmic nature of her recent paintings with their endlessly repeated, but varied, curves or waves. The effect is more pulsation than vibration because there seems to consistently be an on/off feel to these works - or perhaps up/down or high/ low is more accurate - oscillating like waves, either of the sea or of radio/magnetic. They pulse just as our body does. Suffusion because the baby pinks and baby blues that she uses in recent works are colours that seem ambient, that seem like pale stains spreading or a dye slowly colouring water. They are in their light tonality suggestive of light itself.
Being a painter at Goldsmith's College is not easy: the activity is neither expected nor respected there, painters are questioned. "Why are you indulging in these outmoded practice?" they may be asked. Painters there have to justify themselves and prove they are not in Duchamp's sneer, as "stupid as a painter". As she said, " Goldsmiths is very hard for a painter, so I became obsessed with painting because it was a challenge".i (Before then collage had been a major part of her work.) So when we see Estna's work our initial response of "these are pretty, maybe too pretty, too sweet" is followed by the thought: "but surely a Goldsmith's student can't do these: they are just too decorative."
They are so pretty as to be embarrassing: baby pink! baby blue! These are the pale colours that are de rigueur at Mothercare and which we avoid wearing ever after. They are innocent colours - as gentle as leaves falling. But they are ones painters today avoid as, presumably, not gutsy enough. Innocence is too easily misread as sentimentality. But she says she is "happy now to have arrived at something light, nice and free."
Her early work was very different. She began at a college which was more a performance orientated commune, then she moved on to the Estonian Academy where she had a formal but broad education. Only after that did she move to London and Goldsmiths. Paintings of spooky or uncanny childhood scenes. Her early works played with both cartoon forms and a form of painting mid way between visual journalistic and socialist realism. Many of her paintings were characterised by a quirky sense of humour. Her voyeur series were sexually provocative: Girl's mooning or exposing giant breasts. But she came to think that she was holding back and that in fact she was more interested in the paint than the images. For a period she focussed on seascapes and landscapes painted with turbulent and heavy, swirling gestural paint. Then came Baby Pink and Baby Blue - along with the less known Baby Yellow.
It is difficult, as she notes, to make something serious with such colours. So she goes with the spirit of those colours and makes something else unexpected, fresh and subversive. If earlier performances, collages and paintings were an assertion of her own body, her own sexuality, her own quirky, sense of humour and the odd, these paintings, installations and videos are an assertion of her own freedom to play - and an invitation to us to join in.
In conversation she uses the word "play" frequently and I think we can see it working here in both senses of the word: play as in playful and play as in a play in a theatre. A small painting with a greenish wave is composed like a proscenium theatre - the sort of cardboard theatre a child might once have had. A blue arch has been set around the stage - and what is the action? paint moving in waves- as if a line of dancers had leapt across the stage in four colourful bounds. And indeed this device of the proscenium arch recurs in other paintings such as a very big light blue painting or a very big very light painting. In one earlier painting she cut away the canvas save for this arch shape, as if to present the crossbars of the stretcher as the play itself. Moreover in her studio and then in gallery installations she sets up paintings as actors or dancers on a stage. They move around the stage with freedom, wit and joie de vivre as if they were directed an informal choreographer - certainly post Merce Cunningham.
...and of course the paintings wobble and dance for the video camera. Partly this is jokey, like an image on a children's TV programme where objects come to life; but it is also partly about emphasising the physical fact of the painting: it is an object and it is made with stuff. It is making the same point as works such as A little but bigger pile of paint.
And it is also to keep things moving and open to discussion. The mobility of the works, and their openness are in effect metaphors for what they may mean. The paintings are still kept, as it were, in a state of process. Indeed, quite literally in the case of those that are shredded and placed before the fan (A ventilating painting) or those that fluffed up on the floor fill with air and shift around unpredictably. More important is to realise that in the more "normal" paintings this is continuing shifting, pulsing, suffusing is happening too - the rhythm both of colour and of brush marks is active constantly.
Pulsating and suffusing: the one a rhythmic process, the other slow, almost imperceptible. There is a curious paradox at play here.
She remarks, that she is "no longer in love with Cecily Brown's work": it seems too obvious. No need at this time to make sexually explicit or implicit things. Estna's new work is provocative in a more discreet (and more subversive) way. Her admiration for Katherina Grosse is understandable: Grosse began making beautiful, pale washed paintings and then got crazier - one suspects that as Estna carries on, piling up paint, suffusing and cutting the canvases - cutting she always claims lovingly, not violently - she too may get crazier - more free.
Her partiality for the work of Franz West is even more revealing: attitude is important. West is the scruffiest most casual artists of our time but also one of the most calculating. He has a view of the world and that is what we can start to see in Estna, we see it in the complex relationship between old and new work, in the unexpected complexity of the new work. It was not for nothing that as far back as 2006 in an interview with John Smith (actually Estonian artistsMarko Mäetamm and Kaido Ole)she said, "It matters to me what I say in my pictures, but visual enjoyment, which can also be a shrewd trap, is also important."
And her somewhat self-depreciating titles tell us something important and apparently contradictory: the paintings are about colour. But more than colour, about freedom - the freedom to play. And the freedom to be serious without making a big deal about it. There are little clues as to how much lies beneath: this proscenium arch framing may seem Victorian but when we see her so often compound it into an entire frame one realises that "OK it looks then like the view from an aeroplane", but more significantly it echoes the problem cubists had with the corners. She is returning to some of those old issues of a hundred years ago about the effect of colour on mind and soul. These baby/pink/blue/yellow paintings can seems insubstantial with their light cotton-wool colours. The sculptures (if we can call the piles that) with their lumps of congealed paint can seeme mindlessly dumb, But once we start to recognise the complexity of each painting and the complexity and paradoxicality of the whole project (shred trap and all) we begin to think, "this is interesting, there is something new here, we are going unexpected places."
©Tony Godfrey 2012