Robert Lucander

Among Europeans, Finnish culture stands for melancholy and despair, for the emotional awkwardness portrayed in the films of the Kaurismäki brothers. And for unrestrained drinking. In Robert Lucander’s paintings, by contrast, one encounters an urbane, cool Finland, both youth- and style-conscious. His works are situated at the fault line where pop culture’s shimmering surfaces dissolve into a peculiar emptiness as monochrome planes of color.

Lucander’s earlier series “Up and Down and Back Again,” 1994–95, was already concerned with the relationship between representation and the painting’s material substrate. At the time, Lucander applied his paint to standardized aluminum panels. The uniformity of the format pointed to the tension among the various motifs: finely painted checked patterns, the mark left by the bottom of a paint can, or a smeared footprint, for example. In this way the ground of the painting became visible as a limited but considerably variable space of the painter’s creativity.

In an apparent contrast, Lucander’s new works (“Knock on Wood,” 1999–2000) are marked by an interest in figuration. But he reduces it in two directions: On one hand, he shows small derails and extreme close-ups of bodies and faces; on the other, he often simply uses outlines to differentiate surfaces from an equally monochrome background. Thus it happens that only the area around the eyes and the fine lines of the mouth and lips appear on an otherwise untouched wood panel in a piece titled Nur die Wirklichkeit wirkt wirklicher (Only reality appears more real), 2000. Image becomes mere appearance, a phantasm of surface and reduction.

Lucander continues to work with standardized material in his new pieces. The wood comes from a single sawmill and is chosen according to its particular characteristics. One might say that Lucander proceeds in the manner of an old-fashioned stone sculptor: Observing the varied grain of the wood, he selects pieces whose specific texture suggests something to him. Just as, in the classical understanding of sculpture, the figure is already implicit in the stone, Lucander looks for irregularities in the wood that yield the contours of his drawings. Then he works out the shading—of wrinkles, curves, or fingertips, say—in pencil.

Of course, this clear, graphic representation of body details forms a tremendous contrast with the surrounding monochromatic planes. The gestures and postures of the figures portrayed are consistently interrupted by smooth surfaces in vivid colors: In Wonderfully Entertaining, 1999, a delicately drawn hand peeps out of a dark blue shirtsleeve as it rests on medium blue pants on a light blue background. The hand looks as though it were pasted onto the picture, and just for this reason emphasizes the material substrate. From one picture to the next, Lucander intensifies the tension between flatness and depth: The more opaque the surrounding colors, the more differentiated the emphasis of the body’s volumes.

This dialectical method fits the familiarity with fashion consciousness that pervades the paintings’ imagery. Prada-style blue jeans and peach-colored Capri pants underscore a proximity to the fashion world. For Lucander there lies a certain irony: The season’s colors are no different from the currently available palette of industrial paints. Nonetheless it would be wrong to reduce Lucander’s works to a critique of pop-cultural image production. Rather than parodying this material, he seeks a way to bring the glamorous but now hackneyed mass-media images of youth culture back into the fold of art. It is precisely the opposition between physical reality and surface that makes the contradiction between real life and the cult of brand names amply apparent.

Harald Fricke

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.