Erik Nieminen: Deconstructing reality

Primates, 2016, 160×130 cm Oil on Linen

Through his paintings, Erik Nieminen deconstructs the reality “that we inhabit in order to remake reality according the logic inherent in the act of creating a painting”. He doesn’t “necessarily accept the distinctions between abstraction and figuration on much more than a rather superficial level” and therefore does not want to be labeled into a specific movement. And indeed his artwork is unique and make us realize how reality is the sum of abstract shapes and how reflections can create a whole new sort of reality.


Sharing his time between Berlin and Montreal, Erik is inspired by the world around us, the reflections in the cityscape and how light impacts what we look at. His most recent piece “Primates” explore nature into the city which to me is interesting because it’s also another form of fake reality… Thanks Erik for sharing your universe!

Where do you live and what is your background?

I currently live in Montreal, Canada. I originate from Ottawa, Canada and spent most of my years there until the age of 22. I moved to Montreal to complete a MFA at Concordia University and subsequently moved to Berlin for a little over 4 years. This gave me the opportunity to travel around Europe, and in some regards establish a base while there. I returned to Montreal in the first quarter of 2016. 

Pillars II, 2015, 110×150 cm, Oil on Canvas

What was your artistic path? Who are your main influencers?

Taking a quick look at my work, one might accidentally think I am a realist painter, a figurative artist working within the tradition of 20th Century Realism and Photo (or Hyper)-Realism. The truth of the matter is that while the link to those styles of painting is obvious, the larger fact that often goes unnoticed is that my works actually owe a greater debt to less explicitly figurative movements such as cubism and futurism. My earliest artistic influences were artists like Cézanne, Balla, Boccioni, Braques, and even Picasso. Much more recently I’ve looked at artists such as Tomma Abts, Kristin Baker, Albert Oehlen, and Frank Stella as artists that deal with surface, shape, and form in ways that connect to our physical world but don’t seek to represent it. This isn’t to say that I don’t look at figurative art – I do, a lot – but I don’t necessarily accept the distinctions between abstraction and figuration on much more than a rather superficial level.

Evening Migration, 2015, 110×160 cm Oil on Linen

Many years ago (before doing a BFA) I started out making works that located themselves as being heavily influenced by some of the movements I mentioned (futurism, cubism). This was fun, but also dissatisfying, as it’s a known modality, and what passes for creativity is in some ways just laziness. Art shouldn’t consciously function at the outset within an established set of parameters (or a “movement”) because it’s not a genuine way of finding original and interesting solutions to visual problems. Thus dissatisfied, and as a way to break free, I looked to what the opposite of these movements might be and landed on photorealism. My interest in the questions posed by those earlier movements didn’t go away, but I wanted to come at the problems through a different, unconventional and opposing path. I produced perhaps 2 or 3 works that could be photorealist. It was never my intention to become a realist or a photorealist (which, like futurism and cubism, would be redundant), but to work through a different painted language as a way to direct myself back to my original interests.

What I seek is to deconstruct the reality that we inhabit in order to remake reality according the logic inherent in the act of creating a painting.

Ricochet, 2014, 160×210 cm, Oil on Linen

With that in mind my works cannot be identified as Realist, Photorealist, or Representational, just as they cannot be identified as Abstract, or Non-Objective. I am predominantly interested in the dissolution of space, perspective, light, and time through varying degrees of figuration and abstraction. Form is created through a responsive and adaptive process over a length of time, reworking the colours and shapes until an ideal solution is found. In this way the progression itself mirrors the way time works – gradually shifting reality until what is familiar evolves into something renewed.

It’s interesting to discover your studies and details posted on you website. Can you describe your process?

Most of the time a painting starts life from a location that I’ve experienced. I will have photographed at least a hundred times it and recorded possibly an hour of video on the spot. From these moments captured mechanically I will begin to sketch out a coherent space, first working on an abstract level of large shapes colliding with each other, and then slowly having some of those shapes turn into familiar sights (a tree, a figure, etc). Sometimes, depending on the need of the painting (determined intuitively for the most part) the image will extend in a less figurative way, sometimes it will become exceedingly recognizable, though not “realistic”. For the most part the overall composition of a painting is determined in the drawing phase, and once it gets to the actual canvas, the changes that happen are on a smaller scale. It’s important to me to keep the surface of the painting fairly loose (though nobody would be mistaking this for gestural painting!), in order to try and give as much information with as few brushstrokes as possible. The surface should be active, straddling the line between image and surface. The veracity of the image is subjective.

I’ve included some of the studies and details on my website so that people can see that the paintings look less photographic up close, and do not originate from a single photographic source and are in fact the result of an organic drawing process.

 The Other Side, drawings and final painting (2015, 140 x 200 cm, Oil on Linen)

What do you like most in your work?

I enjoy the process most. I’m not trying to make specific social or political statements (though the act of painting is political in a sense) so the subject matter, while interesting and possibly loaded with connotations, really only becomes thrilling to me when I realize how I can reform it according to my own visions. The most exciting moment is that moment when a single blob of paint reveals itself to be way more than just an inert piece of pigment.

Also the moment at the very genesis of an idea, when I come across a location or subject that has potential use. That’s tremendously exciting because nothing has happened yet, so there’s infinite possibility. I don’t know if a finished work ever really comes close to being as thrilling as what I might have imagined in my mind before I started the process, so the best work is always in my mind. That’s where the ideal, perfect painting resides.

What do you want to achieve with your art?

There’s nothing defined that tells anyone which direction to go and there’s no commentary about social issues or political concerns, in other words there’s no illustration of outside theories. The painting is about itself and the viewer then brings their own set of experiences and references to work with the possibilities presented in the painting. There’s no clear goal other than the hope that maybe people will find a connection with the work, and that through that connection it helps them to consider other experiences in their lives in renewed ways.

Do you have an anecdote that you’d like to share?

I spend most of my day alone in a room, moving coloured dirt around on pieces of cloth… this is thrilling for me and has produced innumerable anecdotes, but sadly few of them would be interesting to anyone except myself!

What is the question you’re asked the most?

When I first started working very figuratively from photographs the most common question was “Why paint it when you can just take a photo?”. That seems to be a common question asked to photorealists, though it stems from the misunderstanding that the world looks like a photograph. Lately it’s usually something to do with “how long did it take to make?”. Of course, it depends on the audience.

What is the question you’d like to be asked?

I enjoy the larger questions about the role of painting in a world so dominated by visual media of all kinds except painting. Sometimes a question like “How does your painting fit into the contemporary world?” can lead to a stimulating conversation.

What are your projects for the coming months / year?

In 2016 I had a solo show in London, and then moved back to Montreal. This resulted in a period of time where I didn’t immediately have a studio to work in, and so I had an enforced break of sorts when I could only work on small paintings. I had lots of time to consider where I was going next, and consequently landed on a new subject matter and a new body of work. Tentatively titled “Paradise Not Lost” this new body of work uses the jungle setting (or rather, the Biodome in Montreal) as the launch point. I’ve always used nature both as a narrative component and as a source of inspiration to create form in my paintings. Working with nature much more literally (though still referring to urban intervention) has opened up many new possibilities for creation, as the subject matter itself is the very source of creation. I want to really develop the new works before showing them, but hope to do so within the next year or so.  

Janus, 2014, 160×180 cm, Oil on Canvas

To know more and follow Erik

Gallery in Berlin

Twitter: @eriknieminen  

Instagram: @eriknart

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