Text by Tuula Karjalainen
In his works Jarmo Mäkilä deals with his past, his home, relations with his father and growing into manhood –all the things which confused, frightened and perplexed him. His previous exhibition, The Men’s Room at the Helsinki City Art Museum, 2008, dealt with similar themes. Even the names of his series produced in recent years, The Men’s Room, The Lost Boys, The Grammar of Disintegration, indicate the nature of his works and their problematics. The paintings are serial and narrative, not in the sense that the story continues from one work to the next, but they appear to have been created from the same story. Mäkilä is also well known for his powerful strip cartoons. They are works of art in their own right, but can also be read in conjunction with the paintings. As texted narratives they provide references to the importance of his large paintings and installations – of the past and the present, of a man within whom a small boy lives on in many forms – like a Russian Babushka doll. In his strip cartoons a man looking like Mäkilä takes a taxi to van Gogh’s ear, telling the driver to take him to his past, “to see the shadows that I left behind”. Man is the sum of his experiences. Suppressed they destroy him, conjured up they hurt. The choice is yours. We like to think of childhood as the age of innocence. Life, experiences and the world in general sully people, so all that remains of the innocence is a beautiful memory. The happiness of childhood is an unquestionable taboo. In theory we have all had this miraculous, almost hallowed happy time. But nevertheless it’s a lie. Violence and bullying begins in the kindergarten. Violence among young men in this country is too widespread and woefully sanctified.
Jarmo Mäkilä’s large canvases are visually rich and quite romantically beautiful. Their narrative, however, is highly contradictory and creates a powerful tension – a life that arouses memories and questions in the viewer. Their background is the home, occupied or abandoned, half burned or burning. It can also be a tearful and frozen three-dimensional installation on a wall. The house is a typical veteran’s home of the kind built in their thousands after the war. The forest is often the scene of the boys’ secret rites. It can be night-time or terrifyingly black, partly illuminated by the flames of a bonfire. But sometimes it is its converse, a beautiful forest glade silvered in the thousand grey and olive-green hues of the Impressionists. But this, too, is a place of fear and evil. The public life of small boys is represented by the sombre shades and spherical lamps of the classroom with their time-worn interiors. In Mäkilä’s boy gangs there is always the one and same boy, just duplicated. This is not perhaps a question of the splintering of the ego but of its painful birth; of growing up, of changing.
Memory and forgetfulness, the border zone between being asleep and awake, are the elements in Mäkilä’s paintings of a journey to somewhere that was and is. The lads get up to all kinds of mischief and destruction – smashing cars, playing with fire, hanging cats and taunting deer, all aspects of their ordeal of initiation into manhood. The tortured animals pay highly for the youngsters’ sense of weakness and inferiority. In this world only the dogs are free. They fight, relax deliciously, pair off and copulate with abandon. In other words, all the things that little boys couldn’t even imagine doing. These lads, who uphold the bastion of patriarchy from one generation to the next, now seek their manhood and develop a thick hide against the world outside. Like grown-up men they have to prove to others their physical, sexual and spiritual abilities. In these rites of initiation risks are taken, aggressive behaviour is permitted, nay even desirable. Violence, above all the threat of violence, colours the world of these young boys. In this reality you either dominate or become dominated.
In the world of Mäkilä’s boys the mother is missing. Actually, there are no women at all. The father is a powerful presence, the relationship difficult. He belongs to the generation that went to war and which, in addition to its physical wounds, has often lost its ability for intimacy. His survival strategy is a collective shared silence. The suppression of feelings, and the denial of needs and desires, is an act of violence. It’s directed inwardly, but equally well at his immediate surroundings. Worst of all at children and perhaps most devastatingly at those for whom he should be the role model. Even if the father is normally present in Mäkilä’s works, he’s only a shadow, spiritually absent. He’s portrayed as a man behind a gauze veil or completely concealed behind a mask. There’s only a cold void between father and son. In one cartoon strip an owl says to the boy: ”We’re a bit too lonely, you and me.”