Consumption, blood and history
Stella Pelše, Art Historian
Peeter Allik. I saw that
02.08.–04.09.2011. Bastejs Gallery
The first solo exhibition by Estonian artist Peeter Allik (born 1966) in Latvia showcased his works created during the time period from 1991 to 2010. In 1963 the artist received a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from Tartu University and not only works in graphic art but also in the fields of painting, installation and performance. Allik is a member of the Kursi School (Kursi Koolkond) group of Estonian artists; it emerged in 1988 and unites artists of every sort and kind “whose creative programme is best characterised as an opposite way of doing things, spiced with the right amount of humour. The group’s creative roots can be found in neo-pop, which characteristically parodies fashion and style of the 1960s”(1). Named after a small village in central Estonia, the group aspires to glorify the province and set themselves apart from the art scenes in the big cities, Tallinn and Tartu; however, “by now a lot of water has streamed into the sea and biennale artists, laureates of state art prizes, chairmen, heads, [and] superintendents of Estonian art institutions have sprouted from the Kursi School”(2). The closest kindred spirit to Allik in Latvian art most probably is Ivars Poikāns with his comments on political and social reality, invariably described in terms of grotesque and irony. Allik, too, claims that “today’s situations – this is my eternal beauty” (from the annotation to the exhibition). Unlike Poikāns’ painterly language, Allik makes use of linocut, a technique that, since times immemorial, has served the purpose of voicing socially relevant or otherwise “loud” and topical messages. The easily manipul-ated medium, which allows expressive, laconic visual effects to be achieved, in Allik’s hands has been transformed into compositions of finely crafted ornamentation, linear intertwining and spatial volumes of a mostly illusory nature. Some works, nevertheless, are dominated by spontaneous explosions of lines reminiscent of neo-expressionism (Two Heads, Adam, 2007), inadvertently associating with the headlike shapes depicted by the homegrown so-called supergraphic artists (Andris Breže, Vilnis Putrāms) of the late 1980s. Foreign authors in turn have noticed an even broader network of analogies: “His use of swelling black lines references both 17th century French engraver Claude Mellan and 21st century woodcuts by German artist Christine Baumgartner.”(3)
Peeter Allik. Born in the USSR. Linocut. 50.5x76 cm. 2002
At the beginning of the exhibition the artist himself produces, like a rabbit out of the hat, “welfare society” (Self-portrait, 2006) – the long-awaited dream of post-Soviet countries which for a fleeting moment may seem to have been almost captured, but, since the work was created, has only grown more distant, now making Western countries themselves question its sustainability. Money and consumption as the hub of existence is an important recurring theme in Allik’s works on Estonia’s path from post-Socialist territory to the exclusive club of Nordic countries; in 2006, when the introduction of the euro was still quite distant, he created a work featuring an Estonian euro coin inscribed with “You must buy everything!”. In this series, entitled How to become rich and beautiful, one comes across, for instance, firearms bearing instructions “You must respect nobody” or sausage sandwiches with a banner bearing the slogan “You must eat enough to leave others hungry”. A contemporary rendition of the story of Laokoont, a hero of antique mythology, is present in the work Snakes (2006), in which reptiles identified by various appellations – improvisation, hedonism, desire and luxury – strangle and devour their helpless victims, filling the space of the graphic artwork with countless coils and whorls. Clearly, cues like that lead straight to the insight that a world carried away by the cult of materialism and power is heading in totally the wrong direction. The absence of comprehensive alternatives or their unattractiveness can leave the viewer in a rather gloomy mood; however the artist, of course, has every right to stimulate the choice of each individual. At the same time, reflections on “do I really need it?” are good so long as no attempt is made to set limits on consumption at the official level, imposing – through “correct” ideologies – somebody’s ideas as compulsory for all others.

Some of the artist’s latest works are peculiar still lifes: Meat and Sausage (2010), in which the texture of these foodstuffs has been de-picted in close-up with meticulous swirls of lines, beautiful and strangely grotesque at the same time. Allik’s works also feature some quite gory scenes, for example Artist and a Chicken, almost a performance, where the chicken is allowed to peck at the fingertips of a suit-clad individual, reminding one of the more extreme manifestations of body art. In addition to the linocuts, there is a huge painting with the title Nature (2000): a tiger with its prey – a maiden, all painted in hyperrealistic manner. It hits you unerringly with the realisation that nature is cruel and any ambitions on the part of the self-appointed “crown” of all creation, or city dwellers’ romantic visions of a nice day relaxing out in the open air mean nothing at all. Almost like in the programme I’m Alive on the Animal Planet channel, where we hear about the experiences of those for whom a picnic/boating/hunting or similar pastime had ended up in the teeth and claws of tigers, crocodiles, sharks, grizzly bears or other creatures.
Peeter Allik. NATO. Linocut. 50.5x76 cm. 1998
The linocuts are also populated with images which seem to have been borrowed from ancient etchings and mediaeval woodcuts (a dragon, Pegasus, figures in ancient costumes) and resemble peculiar palimpsests with the effect of a time machine (Mystical Nature of Nature, 1999, 2002; Useless Nuances, 1999). Allik’s rather naturalistic nudes, on the other hand, are unattractively worn out: undulating lines accentuate wrinkles and cellulite bumps (Sex, 1998; Queue, 2004; On a Chilly Morning, 2010). This tendency particularly stands out in the work with a historical theme, Born in the USSR (2002), where the Estonian interwar president, Konstantin Paets, is portrayed as a political prisoner and patient in a psychiatric ward, a tired and unattractive old man whose hopeless stare is reflected at us from the mirror. The deconstruction of a leader’s glory and reputation accentuates the unpredictable ups and downs of human destiny directed by foreign powers. A specific technique using the line has led to the creation of a distinctive concept of space. The people in it do not stand out against the background, but blend in with the surroundings to form odd wavy matter reminiscent of astrophysicists’ hypotheses on space as a curved substance, or gigantic fingerprints. One can also notice in Allik’s works a contrast between the title of the work and its visual contents: for example, little human figures running chaotically in all directions, under the title Our Concept is Future (1999), underline that “the concept” is pure fiction and everybody seeks to save their skin as well as they can. From what? The work doesn’t elaborate, but it is clear that nothing good can be expected from this future. The motif of the tangle of little figures re-emerges almost a decade later, in the context of a never-ending struggle, or almost a fight, in the piece A National Romantic Movie (2008). Now and then one hears that Estonian cinema has dealt with complex historical topics much more successfully than the Latvians, but this piece more likely leads the viewer to reflect on the vicious circle of violence that a slave, having shaken off his yoke, is unable to break, and as a result, everybody is at war with everybody else.

Peeter Allik’s solo exhibition was proof of the adaptability of traditional graphic technique to contemporary themes, and served as an introduction to one of the representatives of a form of artistic expression traditionally among the strongest in Estonian art. In the knowledge that information on our very nearest neighbours still remains inad-equate, a leaflet/inexpensive brochure on Allik and his art in the context of Estonia and a broader perspective would have been useful.

/Translator into English: Sarmīte Lietuviete/

1 Helme, Sirje. Estonian Art from 1987 to the Present. In: Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression under the Soviets, 1945–1991. Ed. by Alla Rosenfeld and Norton T. Dodge. Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and Rutgers University Press, 2002, p. 162.
2 Juske, Ants. Kursi is far, Tallinn is even further.
3 Bonifacio, Kris Anne. Chicago Printmakers Hosts First Competition.
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