Life without death.

Some artists are masters at composition. Others at color. Others at intricate detail and pattern. Perhaps at symbolism and social commentary. Or at reference and awareness to the old masters. The artist we have the honor to feature today excels in every area. This humble and incredibly prolific man should, in our opinion, be considered a national treasure.

Hello, Tapio. Please talk about your origins.
My name is Tapio Tuominen. I’m from Helsinki, and I’m 58 at the moment. I began in TV and theatre, painting scenography, really big paintings. After ten years of that -I was in my thirties- I went to art school at Nordic Art Academy in Kokkola for three years. Then I came back to Helsinki to study first fine arts and then art education, at the University of Art and Industrial Design (now called Aalto University). In those times -the 90s- there was a depression in Finland, and I was under the impression that I couldn’t possibly live off my art, so I turned to art education to try to make a living as a teacher. I got my Master’s Degree at the end of the millennium, and then went on for my PhD.

Art-wise, how did you begin?
I started with abstract paintings, constructivism. Then after a couple of years I felt at a dead end. I was not creating anything new. So I began with something close to pop-art, and this evolved more and more into something baroque. Then I found the art of Hieronymus Bosch, and began to explore those kinds of themes and compositions, in oils. My style became dark. And then, about like two years ago, I went back to my childhood, so to speak, with what I’m doing now: the “comic” style. It’s exciting, but technically complex as well, because I use mostly aquarelles, which run down a lot. I use dried paper to avoid that.

Compositionally, your works are very complex, full of minutiae, internal relationships, and symbolism. Do you sketch a lot before diving in?
No. I paint directly.

Huh? How do you do that?
If you observe, you’ll see everything in each work is pointing out to something, or acting in some way. I use methods from surrealism, where the idea is to start off with certain dominant elements and then leave free association guide me, to lead me on. So I don’t think too much at the beginning. It grows on its own, so to speak. Of course in many works I’m paraphrasing other masters (Raphael, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Arcimboldo) so there may be pre-existing elements. But after that it’s improvisation.

Your paintings exude a lot of darkness. Where does it come from, would you say?
Baroque paintings are dark, mostly. Think Rembrandt, Caravaggio… I like them, they are wonderful. Also from my theatre background. I was a light designer there, so I’m used to have everything in black and then shine lights on the subjects to compose.

I was referring more to emotional darkness.
Well… I grew up in post-war Finland. I was born in ’57 and the war had ended in ’45. At that time everybody was working very hard to re-build the country. People had few material possessions, they were very poor, just like my family.

You mentioned art not being a source of plenty for you.
I know many artists, and yes, it’s not easy. Some of them get stipends, others are writing their PhD theses, others have 9-to-5 jobs. I myself teach art at a couple of institutes and colleges.

Are students receptive to art nowadays, you think?
Well, my students are all adults and they come by themselves, they are paying for the courses and are invested. They want to paint landscapes, flowers. So I try to open their perception to deeper notions of art.

Do you teach art to children at school too?
Not anymore. I used to do it, but… I got problems because of the discipline. I am too kind to the kids, and after they see I’m harmless, they take over! (he laughs)

So are you selling?
Not a lot. My pieces are big in size, and people don’t want to put works such as these up their walls. And exhibitions in galleries don’t sell much either. I also don’t believe current art appraisers and theoretics think the style of what I’m doing is trendy at the moment. If the artist goes along with the current art theories, then it’s valid; but if it doesn’t… I really don’t know what’s going to happen with the new “comics” style, but my previous batch (the baroque) didn’t rise any local critics’ eyebrows. They said it was not the right time for it. But people liked it, though.

Maybe it’s not a good idea that you get rich. You will stop producing these amazing works. Yeah, better stay poor! (he laughs, then gets serious)
I don’t think I could embrace affluency so easily. I’m too old, and I have a family history behind. For example, my grandparents were both prisoners in a concentration camp in 1918, at the time of the war between the Reds and the Whites. They were supposed to die there, but thanks to pressure by France and England they were released out of the camps. So it’s… (he gets teary-eyed and his voice trembles) not easy to jump to the other side…

Does your family support your art?
My wife is an artist too, so we work together and help each other. My father is very old and not in good health, but he always stood by me. He never said “forget about this, look for something that will give you money”. Then I have two sisters, they live in Sweden. The younger one is somewhat interested in my work, the older one not so much. They have their own lives.

There’s a tremendous emphasis on detail and pattern in your work, observable at close range (see detail on the worms, for example). Do you get in an altered state when you engross yourself in such repetitive, painstaking work?
Yes, yes. It becomes a sort of meditation. Time disappears when I paint. I am… like in a dream. And there is an internal dialogue, like listening to a fairy tale. Something tells me the beginning of the tale, what’s happening next, and where will it go… And painting is such a slow activity, and thinking happens so fast, that this “story-mode” takes over. It’s like being high without taking drugs! Then you wake up and oh! seven hours have gone by…

The worms are present in several pieces. Are they good, evil, what do they represent?
They are moving, they are life. Life without death. If something has died, the worms come very soon and everything is full of life again.

And the soldier pigs? Are they nazis?
Yes. And military.

Freud is there often too.
He, he. He’s a favorite character of mine. He’s important as a father of surrealism, of course, but what I like about him is his physical appearance, his looks.

The father/god archetype?
Yes! And his “old scientist” thing.

There’s also a lot of sex in your work.
Yes. Erotism is important and powerful in human life.

Do you ever use live models?
No. When I was at the Academy in Kokkola I used to paint live models eight hours per day, for three years, so I feel confident about human anatomy.

If you could imagine yourself around 1000 years ago, when painters were still sponsored by powerful backers, what would your life be like?
Hmmm… I think I would be working in the fields, not painting. Perhaps I would not be exposed to art, so I would not “see” art. At church on Sundays, maybe.

But let’s say you already are an artist, you have been mentored, you are in the trade…
Ah. Then of course I would be an artist. I would be painting what the church commissioned, probably. And perhaps, like Bosch, I would be smuggling in elements of atheism in the works. There’s a strong irony in his paintings, like nuns and monks with pig faces, a strong criticism against hypocrisy there. People working for the church could not have avoided seeing that, unless they were fanatics.

Let’s talk more about the new “comics” artworks.
When I was twenty-five or so I was very interested in comics, so it’s a throwback to those times. Enki Bilal was meaningful to me. Also Benoît Sokal and his Inspector Canardo, this noir mix of Donald Duck and Humphrey Bogart, that kind of stuff. And about the content, I am very concerned about issues of extreme materialism, and individualism. Power running loose. Things which have done so much harm to the world. This new liberalist ideology that seeks more and more power, I see as some sort of cultural darwinism: those with power raise to the top, and the weaker ones are supposed to drop to the bottom and die. About a year ago the banker Björn Wahlroos said something like “the only good art is the art that makes money”. And the sad thing is many people think this way, which is absurd. I aim to challenge those forces with my art.

Tapio’s “Comics” exhibition can be seen until the 13th of September at Galleria Katariina, Kalevankatu 16. A page featuring some of his works can be seen at Taidelainaamo.