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A T K N P
EESTI KEELES IN ENGLISH
 

RETURN OF THE WIZARD

Thanks to a coincidence the present article came into being in a coffee-shop of the Apollo bookstore, Tallinn.  The circumstances were as follows:

a) August Künnapu participated in a youth exhibition in Norway. He sent me an e-mail with Jasper Zoova and considered it necessary to point out that "Everything was as good as in Norway".

b) The same day Jüri Kaarma from the literary and art magazine Vikerkaar (Rainbow) called and reminded me that I had promised to write about August Künnapu. Just for the case they would need an article to fill a gap. And this opportunity came.

c) Soon there was less than 24 h left of the week that I was given to write this article. I headed for the gallery of the Bank of Estonia to see the Künnapu's latest exhibition.

d) At the door they told me point-blankly: "Mr Karmo, who is in charge of those exhibitions is on vacation and will not be back before a week". I anticipated problems. The time was running out.

e) You could go to a designer boutique selling furniture to see paintings by Elken or Ole. The paintings by August Künnapu are on the show in the Apollo bookstore café.

I wrote down some titles of his works exhibited on the walls of the bookstore. They speak for themselves pointing at themes that are organized like an old photo-album or a top list of life from a Nick Hornby's book:

"Swinging. Homage á N. Jaroschenko"

"Competition of Model Planes. Homage á Samuil Adlivankin"

"Water Gymnast no 1"

"A Frozen Water Gymnast"

Even the most stupid train of thought ­ a kitten in a slop of blood or some squash-player from New Zealand – is formed not only as an imaginary phantasy, but also as a scene from everyday life. It seems that everything that the painter's eyes select is something ordinary and obvious for him. He is not interested in news, but in the way of life, beauty, sport, fashion, architecture, medicine, food, books, music and possibilities to spend a vacation. He is interested in "how things in the world are" and how they would look convincing in a picture. He is not ashamed of flirting with sentimentality that lets the images of popular culture hijack the personal life of just about anybody. The next thing he does is getting rid of this sentimentality by applying a bold range of colours. He searches for motives like a hamster, who looks around with his beady black eyes like "The Strawberry-Eater" by Paul Kondas, an Estonian representative of primitive art. He is a pretty weird person as everything that he touches with a painter's brush turns inevitably into his self-portrait. Just imagine that a book-shelf could be a self-portrait of a writer Rein Raud or a box of vinyls could be a self-portrait of Kiwa.

"Swinging. Homage á N. Jaroschenko". On the powerful lilac-bluish background of the painting with a feeling of self-determination of abstract expressionism and arrogance of unfinished colours, one can see a couple lost in time, space and in the matrix of representation: a Cossack with a lamb-skin hat, red face and green moustache pointing proudly towards the sky holding a frightened young lady swinging on an enormous machine. This piece of art is a symbiosis of the 1990ies British pop -bad painting or neurotic naivism-, a belief in healing pictures and a collector's sincere and aimless interest towards the motives discovered on postcards. Of course, my job would be to write something about someone called N. Jaroschenko, but it seems that the painting works without that knowledge. Instead we should wonder what it was that brought us to see this picture, to experience something which unavoidably represents someone else's experience.

Paul Auster, one of Künnapu's favourite authors, has created a character of an aged rich blind man called Effing in his novel "Moon Palace". The main character of the book worked as Effing's secretary and companion. His task was to describe Effing the visible world that he had been cut away from and to revive it in words. The following dialogue introduces us the most thrilling paragraph that  our contemporary literature has ever devoted to painting:

"Blakelock," Effing whispered, as though struggling to hold his feelings in check. "Ralph Albert Blakelock."

"I don't think I've ever heard of him."

"Don't you know anything about painting?  I thought you were supposed to be educated . What the hell did they teach you in that fancy college of yours, Mr. Smart Ass?"

"Not much. Nothing about Blakelock in any case."

"It won't do. I can't go on talking to you if you don't know anything."

We can only wonder how Auster sends his protagonist to the Brooklyn Museum to see the Blakelock's "Moonlight" and carries the reader through the six successive pages in the imaginary moonlit landscape that we would otherwise hardly notice in the picture. We may ask how he does this and let Künnapu's paintings answer. Auster's intrigue is that the blind man Effing teaches us to see the pictures as we would see them for the last time. This rite goes back to the times when every painting was an unique piece of art that we couldn't carry home as a postcard. Walter Benjamin paid attention to it, Paul Auster was able to write about it more sensitively than anyone else could. The question is how we should approach paintings by a young artist when today even in museums we tend to look for pictures that we have seen before as reproductions. While Auster attracts the attention of the audience with his textual games, Künnapu tries to do the same thing with his narrative schemes.

Yet what is there about Künnapu's paintings that attracts our attention? What differentiates his works from the others' and makes them distinctive? The most important in my opinion is the following:

a) the self-awareness that he applies to the basic components (which are undoubtedly photos and screenshots) of his paintings, treating them with energetic carelessness and paying particular attention to the use of paint and the creation of feelings and sensation. The fact that it doesn't even occur to him that he should pay tribute to photography as the dominant medium makes him an unprecedented phenomenon in the contemporary Estonian art.

b) the ability to confabulate; the way how he catches our eye with the use of narrative elements.

c) the media realism; the way how he singles out a screenshot or a motive, to represent an infinite number of similar images conveying the same message with an almost magic conviction.

d) and finally, something that makes me still wonder, the fact that he has an  unbelievably sincere faith in the healing quality of good paintings.

by Hanno Soans

First published in the Estonian literary magazine "Vikerkaar" ("Rainbow") 3 / 2003