Transporting the gaze

What do we see when we look? Why do we see what we see?

These questions have played a prominent role in the theory of art, and people have sought to answer them for centuries. It was around these questions that some of the key works in the theory of art were written by such artists as Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Josef Albers (1888–1976). We know in great detail how the human eye perceives shapes and colours in relation to each other. Countless artists have used and continue to use those fundamental principles in their work, because they offer an almost endless space of variation.

So we know the answers to the questions of seeing in theory. Fortunately, however, reality is much more multifaceted and diverse. Theories explain the basic processes of visual perception, but the way our mind experiences those perceptions is determined by all our previous experiences, by everything in our past and present life. Our gaze is intimately bound up with our personal experiences of life and culture.

Pekka Vesterinen’s work provides a superb opportunity to explore the way we see. It is easy to immerse oneself in the light, colours and spaces in his paintings. Although his art resides in an intermediate zone between the figurative and the practically abstract idiom, there is always enough in it for the eye to fixate upon. Vesterinen’s own gaze has been transported by the expansive vistas of Lapland with their limpid water as well as the urban environment. His early work in particular is linked to the art trends of its day; no artist lives in hermetic isolation. There are elements in his canvases that lead the eye, elements that have affected his decisions during the painting process or may even reveal themselves when they meet the spectators.

The expressionist idiom, for a long time sidelined in international art, began regaining a foothold in the 1980s. Pekka Vesterinen’s works from the late 1980s, created soon after he finished art school, can be seen as part of this resurgence. Yet they already contain features that are characteristic to his entire career. The clearest of them are the intense spatiality of the canvases and the way he renders natural lighting conditions. The palette of the pictures is startlingly dark. It is a darkness that would soon be replaced with a brightness of tones and clarity of space.

In his next period, Vesterinen’s palette becomes more limpid. Alongside motifs taken from nature, many of his works from the 1990s contain urban elements whose light and colours are harsh, man-made. These paintings contain the first clear indications of the colour gradations that would come to define much of Vesterinen’s work. The gradations at times appear as a violent struggle between waves of colour that compete over dominance of the painted surface. In other works, such tonal colour movements create a spatial impression – almost of a vast void – an effect reinforced by the large dimensions of many of the paintings. The fundamental elements of Vesterinen’s personal style had now emerged.

At the turn of the millennium, Vesterinen cuts the viewer loose from terrestrial nature. The very titles of the works, such as Aeration Suite or Halo, indicate the new direction of his gaze. It is as if the artist had only needed to give a hint to the large canvases for them to start painting themselves, an idea supported by the extreme sensitivity of the pictures. The slowly advancing movement within the space of the canvas is not interrupted even by the intense blues or reds, and the motion seems to be continuing under the viewer’s very eyes, changing all the time. The eye searches in vain for a fixed point. The painting has no horizon. The only thing the gaze can do is to let itself be transported by the light. The colour in these paintings is not a substance; it is simply pure light in motion. As a corollary, the painting loses its objecthood. The unobstructed light and the loss of material objecthood liberate the interpretation of our gaze, if only we let them. These paintings are corporeal and soulful experiences, not objects of the gaze.

The Tide series, created between 2008 and 2013, is in many ways linked to the work of Vesterinen’s previous period. Withdrawing from the horizonless and nonmaterial space, the painter returns to recognisable nature. Water in these later paintings is a vehicle for light – and the gaze. Carried by the water, a grey light washes ashore onto grey sands.

An absolutely crucial factor for Vesterinen’s work in the past few years was his residency period at the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York in summer 2012. It triggered a process of artistic liberation and signalled the appearance of completely new motifs in his canvases. The welcome changes were consistent and, from the perspective of his earlier work, credible. The stay in New York also provides the foundation for the themes of his work in 2014 through 2017.

In these works, Vesterinen begins to paint, perhaps for the first time in his career, concrete subjects: buildings, bridges, scaffoldings, curtains and drapes – yet without eschewing abstract motifs of colour and light. The paintings in the Shimmer series are like studies of blinds in front of tall windows, seen in different light. Their painterly thematic recalls Claude Monet’s (1840–1926) series on the Rouen cathedral and haystacks.

Alongside the New York paintings, Vesterinen exhibited works from the series True Light and Double Films, both based on intense colours and often harsh, revealing light. They too contain hints of a gauze-like space to which an often oblique, static and hard light lends a sense of vertical motion. In these paintings, pillars of colour are transformed into matter that the light treats either gently or with a sharp provocation. The visual fascination of the True Light and Double Films series easily turns into an artistic challenge. It is a challenge that Vesterinen has seized in his most recent works. These paintings transport the gaze through his entire production, all the way to the very first works created in the late 1980s. We find ourselves once more in an open space or void that is typical of Vesterinen’s art, a space where events are at times depicted with an expressive power. The artistic circle has not come to a close, however; instead a new, inspiring vision has been opened up.

The Open series from 2007–2011 occupies a distinct place in Vesterinen’s work. The small paintings in the series are like pages of a diary that tell of a fearless will to experiment, to create variations. Their freshness and diversity, and also their links to his other works, are refreshing to see.

A good piece of art never has just one ’correct’ interpretation. The artist may have produced the work by utilising the theoretical conventions relating to seeing and experiencing, but when he is honest he allows his own personal experience to seep into the work. The artist and the work of art become one. At best the artist is a catalyst who triggers the work’s intrinsic processes of emergence and impact. The work becomes an independent subject with its own identity, of which the artist only knows one part. A good work of art has the effect of leading every viewer’s gaze, in part universally and in part by making itself vulnerable to the viewer’s gaze as it is moulded by the viewer’s life. The viewer believes herself to be directing her gaze inside and around the work, yet it is the gaze, filtered through the unconscious, that leads the viewer – given that the viewer has the temerity to let this to happen!