Camilla Vuorenmaa: Roses, Black Birds and Witches at Helsinki Contemporary

By Mike Watson

Camilla Vuorenmaa, Blue eye, 2018, painting and carving on wood, 115 × 119 cm. Phot0: Jussi Tiainen. Courtesy the artist

In light of recent online witch hunts, we could argue that new communications technologies have, for all their enjoyable benefits, not led to a more civilised society. Such a claim would be supported by the paintings of Camilla Vuorenmaa, which depict the persistence of mythic thinking and folklore in contemporary life. Roses, Black Birds and Witches presents 13 paintings on wood, gouged into with chisels, produced by the Finnish artist during a yearlong stay in the Govanhill district of Glasgow: the roughhewn effect and traditionalist approach, though, only thinly veils a pictorial sensitivity that alludes to current media trends and horror films as well as myth and witchcraft.

Vuorenmaa’s triumvirate of witches (Witch 1, Witch 2 and Witch 3, all works 2018) appear as ghoulish, awkward and imposing figures, occupying their wooden grounds – each measuring 160 x 60 cm – as if hunched in prison cells, clothed in white with blue decorative patterns taken from details that the artist says she found while walking in Scottish cemeteries during her stay in Glasgow. As stated in the press release, the series is intended both as a self-portrait and a representation of the ‘three wise monkeys’ motif, and in addition to considering the artist’s ‘relationship with morals or double standards’, the Witch sequence might also be interpreted as a reflection on (the perceived absence of) wisdom in the age of the meme. In a further exploration of the predilection for fantastical thinking and irrationality in twenty-first-century society, Zombie draws on the legend of the ‘Gorbals vampire’, an iron-toothed monster that in 1954 terrorised the schoolchildren of Glasgow. The painting features a childlike figure with arms outstretched, its body composed of deeply chiselled hatched marks, outlined in a dayglo pink. As with many of Vuorenmaa’s figures, the subject’s eyes stand out, coallike and rendered from just a few marks, evoking the late style of Old Master s such as Rembrandt in their offhand eloquence. In the background the artist depicts a repeated pattern of symbols found, while out walking, on the walls of the Connal building – a historic warehouse in Glasgow – including a ship, a pig’s head and an insect.

The melancholy of the paintings is complemented by the aggression of the artist’s rough scoring into the wood and her sensitively applied brushstrokes. In Blue Eye she depicts a woman wearing a white blouse featuring a dense network of images drawn in black , including stars and a blackbird. The title derives from the Finnish expression sinisilmäinen, which literally means blue-eyed but also signifies someone who is overly credulous, and was inspired by Maggie Smith’s performance in the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a rebellious schoolteacher in Edinburgh whose naive ideals are at odds with society. Brodie is in a sense the everywoman who is persecuted for acting with the best of intentions. The figure in the painting, with a cherry-red mouth and a tear running down her grey face, appears both sinister and kindly and is intended, the artist told me, to evoke the plight of witches; the phrase ‘witch hunt’, of course, is now applied to the mob ‘justice’ and personal attacks meted out on social media. This work, like Vuorenmaa’s oeuvre as a whole, is so densely packed with cuts and strokes as to be dizzying and claustrophobic, yet somehow never overbearing. 

Camilla Vuorenmaa: Roses, Black Birds and Witches at Helsinki Contemporary, 11 January – 3 February

From the March 2019 issue of ArtReview