Olli Lyytikäinen, Untitled, 1970, mixed media on paper, 10 5⁄8 × 7 7⁄8".

Olli Lyytikäinen, Untitled, 1970, mixed media on paper, 10 5⁄8 × 7 7⁄8".

Olli Lyytikäinen

Olli Lyytikäinen (1949–1987) was a pioneer of late modern painting in Finland. He was self-taught, but came to figure on the international scene during his brief lifetime, showing in the 1982 exhibition “Sleeping Beauty—Art Now: Scandinavia Today” at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Forty-Second Venice Biennale in 1986, where he represented his native country. In this recent celebration of the artist’s life and work, Galerie Forsblom presented a selection of drawings and paintings on paper and canvas representative of Lyytikäinen’s eclectic style, which drew influences from the international movements of his time and the early-twentieth-century avant-garde as well as from psychoanalysis and myth.

The twenty-two works on display, mostly Untitled and spanning the years 1970 to 1984, were remarkable for their immediacy, each expressing subtle yet strong emotional states through an economy of mark-making befitting a master draftsman. For example, an ink drawing from 1971 depicted a wide-open pair of scissors. A triangular field of red-orange occupied the space between its blades, with a single flower at its center, together evoking a vulva. The piece derives from Surrealist depictions of banal objects signifying human desire, yet stands out for its cool concision, which no doubt owes something to Lyytikäinen’s employment as an advertising illustrator early in his career. A similarly laconic expressivity could again be seen in a 1960s crayon sketch depicting a winged female figure who stands with arms aloft in a heroic posture inside a birdcage while a ghostly hand outside obscures the lower part of her body and a bowl of fruit hides her face, conveying overall a kind of trapped or deferred paradise.

From an early age Lyytikäinen had an interest in birds, and it’s said that as a young boy living in rural Finland he made a point of protecting their nests. In any case, birds constitute a recurrent motif throughout the artist’s oeuvre. A colored-pencil sketch from 1970, for instance, featured the profile of a strikingly red-haired girl with a pigeon sitting on her shoulder. The girl appears to stick her spear-like red tongue into the fowl’s wide-open beak, as if reaching out to passionately kiss it. But the large beak is open so wide as to nearly form a triangular cutaway that threatens to decapitate the bird. Another colored-pencil-on-paper drawing from 1971 depicted three identical exotic birds basking in a sort of oasis situated on a field of horizontal black lines on a white background. The birds occupy what appears to be a kind of paradise of the imagination.

Other works on display ranged from nudes to portraits to comic illustrations, each conveying in shorthand a world of information relating to the human condition and psyche that retains its relevance today. One drawing from 1970 featured the profile of a man in a tie and collar. The tip of his nose and the point of his collar are filled out in dense blue ink so as to resemble the female pubis; meanwhile, his withering short-length tie may suggest a lack of manliness. As is the case for many great artists of the past, the rediscovery of Lyytikäinen sheds light on the present by reminding us of symbolic languages that long precede our own time. His trick—employing a broad range of styles, influenced as much by the graphic art of the modern period as by classicism—is to speak directly to the subconscious in a way that defies theorization.