The painter Erik Nieminen, who was born in Ottawa, Canada and lives and works in Montreal, talks about the central message of his artistic work during his interview.
Erik Nieminen, Primates, 2019, Oil on linen, 160 x 130 cm
Erik, please describe the core theme and the central message of your work.
My work does not come pre-planned with a central theme or message. The theme of the work, the message, insofar as it exists is to be found in its autonomous existence as a new reality. I’ve always said my paintings create an independent reality, and I have frequently used the word “unreal” to describe the resulting image. Though at times my work can veer into a pseudo-abstraction (I reject that there are core differences between “realism” and “abstraction”), it mostly locates itself in recognizable, mundane spaces that we all recognize. These can be urban spaces or extravagant yet commonplace things like a zoo. Visually they are very complex, a multi-layered presentation of elements coming into contact with each other. The contrast between circular organic forms and the relatively straight, minimalist lines of industrial or modernist architecture provides an incongruous confrontation, and it is then my job to find a way to solve the chaos that ensues from that By taking the experience of being in a place, which is likely loaded with poetic symbolism all on its own and reconfiguring it from scratch, a new universe is created in the painting that allows the viewer to claim their own meaning or message.
Erik Nieminen, Sketch for “Primates“
I have always looked to modernism as my guiding inspiration – to the energy created by the idea of progress, and even though that notion is somewhat of a myth, the modernist spirit is still one of the greatest achievements in cultural history. Aside from that, while a lot of maximalist artists excite me due to the detailed and rather “full” nature of my own work, I’ve actually been looking at relatively more minimal artists recently, such as Alex Katz, Caspar David Friedrich, and Tomma Abts. I’ve become quite interested in creating an ideal initial gesture in my work out of which everything else will flow, putting down just enough information to convey the idea. Perhaps it’s the difference between looking at a photo of a tree, and considering its “tree-ness”.
I am not looking to make a social or political point with this work… All good art is political. The act of making a painting, for instance – in a time of mass-reproduction, is a political act. It affirms the significance in the belief that art can change the world – not through immediate revelation, but through a slow process of understanding – like a vine crawling up the side of a building.
Introduce us to the work that, in your view, exemplifies or best embodies the message of your work.
I’d like to say a few words about my painting “Paradise Not Lost” (2020, Oil on Linen, 95 x 165cm). The imagery—trees, plants, and animals—finds its source in artificial natural spaces, such as the Montreal Biodôme near my home and other similar places. While the work doesn’t engage with the topic of climate change directly, I am also interested in the societal and cultural impact of such spaces and the conception that man can control nature as such.
Erik Nieminen, Paradise Not Lost, 2020, Oil on linen, 95 x 165 cm
The title of the work, “Paradise Not Lost” is a play on Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost which was written in 1667. It’s a story about the fall of man and expulsion from the garden of Eden. These spaces – these artificial paradises that we find in the middle of very busy urban spaces serve partly as conservation, but also a way to purify the spirit, to reclaim some form of connection or lost innocence.
Erik Nieminen, Sketch 1 for “Paradise Not Lost“
Formally, the application of the title to this particular painting derives from the fact that at one point in the process of painting it, a central tree actually fell into the form of what looked like angel wings, hanging down or falling into the space, wrapping it up and bringing it together. So we can see this space as both a connector and a disconnector – though ultimately I suppose the title is actually about the painting itself as an object.
Erik Nieminen, Sketch 2 for “Paradise Not Lost“
I consider painting a kind of imaginative and innovative paradisical activity allowing an aesthetic escape from the tribulations of the mundane. Spatially, the work shifts and moves in and out of deep and shallow space. It combines a number of perspectives – both calculated, reverse, and intuitive – in order to lead the eye around and create a sense of simultaneous disequilibrium and balance.
Erik Nieminen, Study for “Paradise Not Lost“
What is the aim of your art, your work, what is it supposed to achieve in the viewer?
My job as an artist is to create artworks, yes, but the core of that purpose is to open up possibilities for the viewers of the work. I do not deny that a form of messaging, a poetic, metaphorical or allegorical meaning exists in my paintings. I embrace values and ideas that are inherent in the subject matter. I aim to keep these concepts open, to straddle the line between optimism and pessimism (leaning towards optimism, always) so that someone who takes in the work can follow it in whichever direction they wish.
Erik Nieminen, Abstract Paradise, 2017, Oil on linen, 130 x 170 cm
Ultimately, the painting is in control of its own creation, and I am there to help it along. It creates its own narrative in the journey taken by the paint as it’s built up or scraped away and it creates another narrative in the juxtaposition of symbols and subjects. Finally, the viewer takes all this information in, putting it together in their mind by subconsciously reconstructing the material journey and taking ownership of the subject matter, making the content their own. The paintings are a bridge, a gateway for the viewer to enter into their world… to engage with it and return to our world with a renewed spirit.
THE DEED | DAS WERK is a complementary and separately presented part of THE INTERVIEW IN|DEEDS with Erik Nieminen.
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