Leaving the Nest

For six decades, Sinikka Kurkinen has created great works without caring about the demands of the art world.

Sinikka Kurkinen, Pilvi ja esikuva (Cloud and Example), oil on canvas, 146 × 215 cm, 1987. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

The day after having seen Sinikka Kurkinen’s paintings for the first time, I tried to revisit them in my mind. When I closed my eyes, it was all bright colours: vertical cascades of red, yellow, and blue that seemed like ocean waves wanting to travel upwards and onwards for as long as they could. Nature’s immeasurable energy rendered in garish and emphatic abstraction.

What I recalled was not from any of the roughly fifty works that I saw in the artists’s retrospective at Kohta, Cloud and Example. In fact, it wasn’t even a painting that Kurkinen, who has been active as an artist for more than six decades, has painted. Etched in my memory are not individual images, but visual elements that recur in basically every single painting in the exhibition. Unashamedly uncomplicated colours. Large, smooth surfaces without a hint of texture. Straightforward and resolute lines. Shapes saturated with intensity and resilience.

Sinikka Kurkinen, Aallokko kutsuu (The Waves Are Calling), oil on canvas, 36 × 55 cm, 1974. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

Kurkinen is an experienced and determined painter, yet, despite having had no less than six solo exhibitions at Imatra Art Museum, she has remained relatively unknown outside of her home town. A strong contributing factor is geographical: after studying art in Helsinki and brief sojourns in Paris and Ibiza, she returned to her ancestral small farm in south-eastern Finland in the early 1960s. It has been fifteen years since she last exhibited in the capital, and although she is represented in the collection of the national gallery Ateneum, the doors that lead to the upper echelons of the art world have never really swung open for her.

Yet, Kohta could inform me that by the time the exhibition opened to the public, Ateneum had already been there and added another of Kurkinen’s works to its collection; the Saastamoinen Foundation also had time to select a painting that will be placed at Esbo’s modern art museum EMMA. Despite the risk of the former acquisition disappearing into the national gallery vaults, it feels meaningful that the work they chose is the most symbolically weighted in the retrospective: In the Wind (1977). Of all the paintings in the exhibition, this one is easiest to interpret due to the psychoanalytically charged motif of a mysterious open drawer.  The painting is also one of the works that most strongly influenced my visual memory of Cloud and Example, as its title confirms that the distinctive colour panels indeed are in motion.

The mobility and agility of abstraction is a primary feature of Kurkinen’s oeuvre. Gradual colour transitions are another visual characteristic that, in works such as Different View I–III (1973), nearly reach O’Keeffe’s level. In the colour choices, Malevich often comes to mind; like him, Kurkinen has a talent for using black. The through lines in her work are easy to identify, and this is not due to repetition, but integrity. Her paintings are not created in some weirdo genius exile, but even during the 1980s when she allowed the objectively ugly visual trends of the time to infiltrate her paintings, she maintained her own style. External influences are visible, but Cloud and Example paints a picture of an exceptionally independent artist who has tirelessly created great works for decades, without much concern for the demands of the outside world.

Sinikka Kurkinen, Koreografia keltaisella (Choreography in Yellow, 1984.

Kohta’s Director Anders Kreuger points out in a newly written essay that Kurkinen neither can nor should be classified as a suddenly rediscovered outsider. It may come as a bit of a disappointment to those who read the opening sentence of the press release: “Sinikka Kurkinen is probably the most significant Finnish artist you haven’t yet heard of.” Personally, however, I am relieved that she can’t be squeezed into the kind of narrative that has come to haunt, for example, Hilma af Klint or Vivian Maier. Kurkinen isn’t an enigmatic creature or a solitary freak; she is a painter who is very much alive and completely human. The only remarkable thing is that Cloud and Example comprises paintings in the artist’s possession, and that a monograph to be published in September will present approximately sixty more works also belonging to Kurkinen. In a country like Finland, where paintings are basically the only art that sells, this is mind-boggling. An entire body of work that never moved away from home, but was tucked away in an attic. Until now.

Sinikka Kurkinen, Tuulessa (In the Wind, 1977), Muotoa etsivä (In Search of Form, 1974) and Eroava näkemys I–III (Different View I–III, 1973). Installation view from Kohta. Helsinki. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.
Sinikka Kurkinen, Yön näyttämöllä (On the Stage of the Night, 1997), Ikkunasta (From the Window, 1991), Laihan teltta (Telt for the Lean One, 1990), Muisto kesästä (Memory of Summer, 1975) and Laitimmainen kuumalla (Margin in Heat, 1991). Installation view from Kohta. Helsinki. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.
Sinikka Kurkinen, Sirpit pöydällä (Sickles on Table, 1970). Installation view from Kohta. Helsinki. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.