Katarina Reuter

Altti Kuusamo
Translated by Silja Aronpuro

The Many Tiny Worlds of Katarina Reuter

From time to time, visual art needs nourishment from outside of itself in order to change. Similarly, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that philosophy can only “develop” by reaching outside of philosophy. Visual art also needs to return to precision now and then, but via different routes than before. This return to precision is an area in which Katarina Reuter has revealed to viewers new realms of experience, from Norwegian mountain vistas and weather phenomena to the world of microorganisms and fantastical details of the surrounding environment.

Katarina Reuter (born 1964) studied at the Turku Drawing School (1983–1984) and the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts (1984–1988). When Reuter graduated in 1988, the students of the Academy travelled to Finnmark in Northern Norway with their teacher Lauri Anttila. In the early 1990s, this barren and demanding northern landscape defined the object of Reuter’s art. Later, in 2004 she realised the exceptionally large painting Heileberget 20.10.2002–18.5.2004 in which the depiction of a mountain located in Southern Norway is divided across dozens of fragments, undulating softly in different light and at different times.

Ever since the 1990s, Reuter has been fascinated by the brilliantly coloured illustrations of Art Forms in Nature (Kunstformen der Natur) by the biologist Ernst Haeckel, filled with depictions of fantastic tiny life forms. Vierailuaika (Visiting Time, 2006) shows an exact matrix of strange single cell organisms and fossils, where the surface structure and the microscopic mimesis of the tiny bone monsters meet. The same applies to the fresh collage painting Jäljittäjä (Tracker, 2008) where the sharp lines of ball point pen contrast with the various shades of blue oil paint. Reuter’s main theme has long been nature and landscapes constructed on the basis of perception. Although nature is a continuous challenge to Reuter, the mimesis of nature conquers the reality with ever new methods that detach from mimesis. The mere observing gaze turns nature into culture. Perhaps this is inevitable, since mimesis cannot be handed to us as such. Maybe this is why Reuter has said: “For me, nature is also structure, colour, and models.” Even if the precepted landscape is a clear starting point, it will always be seen as the landscape in the painting. The largest retrospective of Reuter’s work thus far was exhibited by the Amos Anderson Art Museum in 2008-2009. The exhibition was a majestically hilly celebration of the northern landscape wall.

The problematics of time are engraved in Reuter’s paintings in many ways; as depictions of either chains of events or the protohistory of organisms. The paintings have temporal layers that also echo the temporal process of creating the painting. Thus Ajanrakentajat (The Builders of Time, 2011, oil and tempera on canvas) depicts the slowly flashing organisms of the deep, dark sea. Something bright shines from the depths only to disappear again – plankton and fossils.

The depiction of parts of the human figure appears in the works from the mid-1990s, but only briefly. From the late 1990s onwards, humans are absent from Katarina Reuter’s works, which have been referred to as romantic landscapes. However, the lack of humanity is precisely how they differ from the romanticism of the 1800s; the sublime is met without human interference. The human disappears into the Holocene. The objects – from mountains to microorganisms – depicted with naturalistic precision using a sharp brush or even a ball point pen show natura as an opportunity for the creative imagination under the oppressive pressure of the slowness of time. The micro and macro levels meet. Reuter depicts the outer surface of the internal life of organisms: in the painting Sydäntalvi (Midwinter, 2011), the fragile but hard red fossil is wrapped around itself in the middle of the glittering crystalline surface of the painting. Reuter’s means of expression reach for layers of meaning that are parallel to biological phenomena, but only up to a point. Lauri Anttila commented on Reuter’s multi-threaded images of nature and bones in 2009, saying: “The whole is almost abstract, but the details are full of things to look at and arouse curiosity in the same way as in many high-quality works of classical art from centuries ago; like altar pieces and still lifes. In these, along with the main plot, there may also be many subplots with their own little stories.”

The same structural principle is present in Reuter’s recent landscape paintings. One might say that culture subtly impacts on the changing views of the yard. In recent years, Reuter has concentrated on painting the marginal opportunities for life in the surroundings, with a degree of precision important to her.

These surprising subplots have transformed in Reuter’s recent paintings. While the type and size of the phenomena changes, even if the perspective of the landscape stays the same, everything nonetheless settles into the same picture in an apparently calm manner. However, when we look closely, we can see the mischievous presence of fantasy that takes the reality of the scene to a new level – accompanied by the filigree like phenomena – and makes it understandable in a whole new way: unbalances details and tiny discomfort zones emerge from homeliness. The most interesting aspects of her most recent paintings are hidden in ‘such ordinary’ views from a window.

Close By, but In Between

Maalauksia huoneesta nro. 1 (Paintings from a Room No. 1, 2020) introduces a view from a window in a surprising way. The window is covered by a flimsy, torn curtain, which, from a distance, might be mistaken for merely a coloured surface in the painting, in a fading modernist style. However, the illusory hints of depth come into play here: there are moths of different species on the lace curtain and, through the tears in the curtain, we can finally peer at the thick dark weave of the forest so typical of Reuter. We see the landscape in spite of the curtain and the curtain in spite of the moths. These three levels are revealed when we look closely at the painting. When we take a closer look, we can see far ahead. This many layered and porous depiction is Reuter’s absolute gift to contemporary painting. While the curtain both hides and reveals views, it can also be seen as a painted surface.

The series Maalauksia huoneesta (Paintings from a Room) presents a set of yard landscapes with little Dadaist notes. In many of the paintings, the surface of a curtain, depicted in different ways, functions as a mediating factor or as the first layer of reality. Maalauksia huoneesta nro 3 (Paintings from a Room No. 3, 2020) demonstrates the terms of the partly illusory view: the windowsill framing the landscape is depicted both below the view from the window and as the illusory lower part of the painting. It is the first steppingstone into the view, as if we were looking at the landscape from the threshold of the window. This is the so-called Mantegna effect: the painting is a window. The row of stones on the windowsill has its shadowy counterpart in the pile of stones depicted in the yard. In this way, the stones are present in two levels of reality. Finally, the gaze reaches the crow on the old telephone line and the thick branched forest edge fading in the background. We encounter the tiny surrealities of everyday life. Fading Magritte. The work’s internal frame really is a steppingstone into the painting and reminds us of the myth of Wu Tao-tzu, who clapped his hands and stepped into a painting.

Reuter’s expression is precise but has many levels, and its final meaning cannot be defined. This is her intention: the references to meaning open in many directions. There is life on the inner sides of the painting Toisessa elämässä (In Another Life, 2021) as well: an immense grasshopper and a weasel that stares directly at the viewer are on the ‘wrong side’, in front of the curtain covering the window.

In Kuiskaaja (The Whisperer, 2020), the lace of the curtains, the sharp web of the dark, thick forest and its reflection resonating in the surface of the lake, and the murky rhizomes that spread towards the space of the viewer give the whole painting a tone that is dreamlike, thready, and hard to define. The filigreelike precision of depiction leads to an impression of deliberate murkiness. Reuter creates a new mode of laciness in which the potential resurrection of the detail may, however, be extinguished.

The series Maalauksia huoneesta is fascinating in many ways: the surprising details make the homely views wobble, everything seems to be ‘alright’ until a tiny unheimlich – a feeling of surrealness catches the viewer. Homely, and yet softly uncomfortable. A little bit of unheimlich is good for beauty. The tickling objects create a discontinuous, even humorous atmosphere. The detail causing the discomfort is nestled in the middle of the ordinary, and surreal is tempered against real. Reality appears as an escape into another reality, not different but the same. Reuter invites the viewer to join her in the world of little observations. The life in the dark yard turns out to be a world of the unruly in between.

The mimesis, or accurate imitation, is not in any way straightforward or univocal in Reuter’s paintings, although their precision often surprises the viewer. Most importantly, we encounter a rich and deep colour scheme. Reuter is definitely a ‘point of view painter’. The finetuned processing of the surface gives the paintings a multifaceted psychological depth. The viewer is invited to observe these hints. The associative impacts of the stage that Reuter’s paintings have opened will last long in the viewer’s network of mental images.

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