Boys, boys, boys

Jarmo Mäkilä makes a comeback at Pori Art Museum and one question dominates the show: what does it mean to be a little boy?

Jarmo Mäkilä, {iTALIC}Juhannustulet, oil on canvas, 2011. Photo: Jouko Vatanen.

At 60, Jarmo Mäkilä is still an artist to be discovered. Although he has exhibited for four decades and was certainly a local hit in the 1980s and the 1990s, he is not very well known internationally, having had the bad luck of being born in Cold War Finland where the art market was underdeveloped.

In the beginning of the 1980s he commented on commercial comics in a traditional pop fashion, but the end of the decade brought a change that could be described as both skillfully graphic and playfully iconographical. Mäkilä repainted classical scenes, by Rubens for example, setting some of them on distant planets, and stylizing the works a bit in the fashion of today’s Tokyo pop and Russian photorealism. In the beginning of the 1990s, porn star Sarah Young posed for Mäkilä and ended up facing Lenin and his revolutionaries.

Jarmo Mäkilä, Poika nimeltä Päivi, oil on canvas, 2012. Photo: Jouko Vatanen.

At the turn of the millennium Mäkilä’s energetic playfulness was lost and his work became somewhat cold, leaving the audience with a feeling of soulless virtuosity. But after a long period of working with comic books and other projects that did not really reach the contemporary art audience, Mäkilä has lately been mounting a comeback. Now his work is all about boys – and he is painting again.

Walking around in Pori Art Museum, you might feel like you’re watching a painted male version of Lucile Hadžihalilović’s film Innocence (2004), where young girls play around in an uncanny school and its grounds, performing mystical rituals in a haunted world.

In Mäkilä’s case we have a world without girls or women, one that recollects atmospheres from school gyms and other male childhood motifs, and analyzes essential male childhood anxieties. This is a community, a community of lonely boys where adults only provide an institutional frame for action. When (male) adults enter the scene, they have no faces, just masks, or boy’s heads too small for their bodies.

It is a world with hidden rules, with a sexuality that is still only bubbling under the surface, and which can by no means be understood or coped with. There is a slight surreal touch to the project, but the new way that Mäkilä paints owes even more to expressionism, which here and there, in gloomy colors, or bursts of paint, gives character to the otherwise formally clean style. For some there might still be too much of a graphical painting style, but it works. Mäkilä has again found his spirit. His pictures are alive.

Jarmo Mäkilä, Skogstur, oil on canvas, 2011. Photo: Jouko Vatanen.

It is hard to see Mäkilä as a Nordic painter, though one dreamlike painter who the new Mäkilä has a strong formal connection to is the Swedish artist John E. Franzén, although in Franzén’s paintings it is mostly grown up males with their motorcycles who create chaos, and the atmosphere of the scenarios is less neurotic. Mäkilä has always commented on the neighboring Soviet Realism, and later on developed side by side with the Russian wave of neo-figurative painting.

Today we find in his paintings precisely the mystery of boyhood itself, the process through which one becomes initiated into a community of boys, which at the same time is a painful track to manhood, a dangerous role play that can already be seen in the sometimes violent games the boys of the paintings play. They fart, burn bonfires, and hang animals.

Most of the works bring out what it means to be a boy of the crowd, running with others, playing with others, and just being one in a group of many. All boys look the same. The individual is on the rise, but in this world identity is gained only through friends and schoolmates.

Jarmo Mäkilä, Boy’s Games, 2012. Photo: Erkki Valli-Jaakola.

The exhibition Boys’s Games features installation material in addition to the paintings. There are miniatures of a house and a trailer. On the floor we find small, clay statues of boys standing close to the paintings like a terracotta army. This part of the exhibition is less fresh, recalling the way small puppets, dolls, and sculpted child figures were hectically produced by contemporary artists like Ron Mueck and Patricia Piccinini in the beginning of the millennium.

In the miniature trailer we find a grown male puppet playing electric guitar. Otherwise it is only the boys, who in the paintings play the tin drum, echoing Günter Grass’ 1959 novel, a book where the dominant theme is not growing. Naturally, the audience is invited to think that all the boys are Mäkilä himself, and one path of interpretation is to think about boyhood in 1960s Finland, but there is much more to it than that, something universal that should not be overlooked.

Jarmo Mäkilä, Boys’ Games, installation view, 2012. Photo: Erkki Valli-Jaakola.