Home is where Berlin is, could possibly sum up how the Finnish artist Janne Räisänen feels about his city of choice. Indeed it looks like a good place to be for someone whose paintings burst with life, in all its contradictions and absurdity and beauty. Not one to underestimate the power of words to convey meaning, Räisänen’s works bear titles like “Wanker’s Headache”, “Thong Tango”, “Jesus Terrorists from Moscow Disco”; but hold on, just in case you get carried away, let me just say they’re not actually descriptive. Or are they?
The titles of your paintings are rather unorthodox, if I may use this word in an attempt to characterise them.
The thing about my titles is a long story. They are usually based on a narrative – even if this is not apparent, as I very well realise. When picking a title I actually try to add another level to a painting. But at the end of the day, there are no rules, each title is more of an inside joke. And a play with words; I love to play with words. That’s why my titles are not only in Finnish, but in English too; and for quite some time now, also in German. I am in Germany so I like to write in this language. But anyway, the titles are very important.
Does that mean that they do not in any way function as a kind of key in order to explore a painting?
Not a key, but rather a peeping hole through which one may discern something. They hint at something inside the work, but I leave it open. It doesn’t have to be something specific. Sometimes I will point at some small things, but in general I do not wish to underline things. In works of art it is important that you leave something open; in fact that you leave almost everything open. It’s the viewer’s work to figure out what’s happening there.
What kind of materials do you use?
It’s always been a lot of watercolour and oil. It’s been changing with time. At the time I have noticed that everything revolves around paper; I love pencil and colour pencils and ink. I start with them, in a very abstract way. Colour must at first be very sensitive. And then I turn everything into much thicker matter, with oil.
Do you also do sculpture?
I’ve done a few things a while back. I am interested in it. I’d like to explore it, yes. Actually I’ve been thinking about it, here in Berlin. But I haven’t really gone into it yet.
Are there certain themes that you are preoccupied with, that you tend to revisit again and again?
This is funny because I always think that I do not have any themes. I want to keep it very open, so that everything comes from painting itself. And then, as I go along, I might notice a theme coming up – I realise that this has to do with what goes on in my head at a given time, what I am interested in. Which might very well be connected to the art of history itself. It might even happen that one small detail from a Basquiat painting or a Georg Baselitz painting pops up and then I mix it up with my own personal expressive painting.
Which periods of the history of art do you catch yourself showing a more consistent interest in?
I have always been deeply interested in German painting. German history, too. Both have intrigued me.
What got you interested in German art? What was it about it that attracted you?
Actually I was not familiar with German painting until well into my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, in Helsinki. It was there that some teachers told me “you paint like that and that” and they mentioned names of German artists. I had no idea who those were. My teachers brought me catalogues to look at and I thought “what the hell is this? I love it”. It was really heavy loaded painting – actually the 1970s’ artists, like Georg Baselitz and Martin Kippenberger. But then I also discovered Americans like Basquiat, whose style I looked up to. I was really impressed by the strong images all of those painters produced, and I was very flattered that teachers were comparing me to them.
When did you move to Berlin?
In 2010. It had been my dream for a very long time. The first time I came to Berlin was in 1998. I was visiting because I was going to meet some German friends from my Frankfurt time – I had spent a semester in Frankfurt, at the Städelschule. Back then I was mainly eager to see all the great museums. And to explore the city’s techno scene which was big at the time. Like everyone else I knew I wanted to get into Berghain.
Did you go?
A few years later I was back in Berlin and I did. At the time I was teaching and was a sort of rector of an Art School in Helsinki. I wanted to do something special for my students, to offer them an opportunity to come to Berlin and visit the museums. So we came here, went to the museums and then I was showing them around at my favourite places in the city. Then one of the students said he wanted to explore the gay scene, which is also big in Berlin. So we went to some famous gay bars and I asked a German guy about a recommendation and he said, go to Berghain. So we all got into a taxi.
Did you manage to get past the doorman?
Yes, always! That time and every time ever since.
Would you say that it lived up to its reputation?
Oh, yes. It was really great. When we got there the music was so loud, that one would feel very tiny. Actually the student said to me “Janne it is the best day of my life”; it was very funny.
What prompted the move to Berlin in 2010?
In 2009-2010 my life changed. I split up with my then girlfriend. And she actually said to me “Janne, now is your chance to go to Berlin”. She was right. We are still close friends. My gallerist in Helsinki also thought that I should move to Berlin. Actually, everyone told me to do it.
Why do you think they said it?
Maybe they did not want to see me around anymore…No, no, I think I was talking about Berlin all the time. Plus, they probably saw that there was no point in remaining in Helsinki. After all I would not be alone, I already had friends here; lots of them are artist friends but there also was a Finnish circle of people here. And it’s expanding.
You mentioned that our favourite museums.
The Gemäldegalerie, definitely. I love to see the old paintings, again and again. Then, the Neue Nationalgalerie. The Hamburger Bahnhof; of course these are the classic places anyone interested in art goes to. And the whole Museum Island, it is amazing.
Not all contemporary artists care that much about museums.
I do. I buy this year card, and I go quite often to all of them.
What was the last exhibition you really liked?
I think it was the Hamburger Bahnhof. The most recent one was the retrospective of the Swedish Hilma af Klint. And if I am allowed to look a little further back in time, I’d say one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen was in Berlin and it was Wolfgang Tillmans retrospective, in 2008. I have always liked his work so much; the way he photographs but also the way he installs objects.
Which artists of an older generation would you count as your influences?
Actually there is this one artist, a Finnish artist, whose work I have always liked: Leena Luostarinen. She used to be my teacher in the teacher in the Academy. And I think she’s the one who has had the biggest influence on me. Leena Luostarinen started expressionism in Finnland, in the early 1980s.
Apart from visual artists, are there any film directors or writers that you count among those you draw inspiration from or that you may catch yourself thinking about while drawing?
Do they somehow find their way into your work?
Yes, they do. I really like the Tony Soprano character, for instance, and I have been drawing him, again and again. I’m interested in this dark humour that is lurking behind it all. And I am somebody who enjoys a mix of drama and comedy. I do black humour, a lot. In my work, too, it’s subconscious, but still it’s there. Actually sometimes I don’t even know what it is meant to be…If I underline it then it is not working anymore. It functions a lot like in a comedy series. One must find the right rhythm. And I’ll feel it when it all clicks. But If I know too much about it myself, then I find it is not working.
What is the feedback that you get?
People sometimes come to tell me what they see happening there in a painting and what is so funny about it – and I didn’t even mean that. But this is perfect.
How much of the intended final image do you know before you start working a painting?
It depends. Mostly I know next to nothing beforehand. Sometimes I might have a vague image of how it is going or what is going to be the next step, but everything is really up to the material; whether it is paper or canvas…My image is always abstract, at first. But then I am starting to move toward the figurative; always. It is always going that way. Even while I am very interested in abstract painting, I suddenly begin to discern some recognizable things – it could be cars, or eyes, or figures. And then the story is slowly coning into being. There can be many layers to one painting, or it can be one certain image.
How long do you usually work on the same painting?
It could take one day to finish a painting or it could take a year. It depends. The thing is I never want to destroy a painting. Sometimes a painting comes very fast. But you have to think about it: is it enough? And then if I start working on a painting all over again, then it can be much harder to finish. And I have to do some fighting with it…Actually I like fighting with a painting.
How do you define fighting with a painting?
It’s like wrestling with the figures, kind of beat them. Not as if it were an enemy; imagine it more like there is somebody there trying to help you make a better painting. But I have to figure out what this better painting is! And who I am fighting with. The painting is like a mirror. And it’s like you have to beat yourself in a way.
How did you decide to take up art?
I didn’t grow up around artists. I received my first oil paints when I was 17 years old, as a present from my uncle, and I started painting. Then a teacher in high school told me that I should take some art classes – special art classes that were being offered in school. So I did. And one day the art tutor took us all to an exhibition of works by Kalervo Palsa, who had died recently. I was mesmerized by what I saw. I was maybe a little disgusted too looking at some of the paintings, but I was basically mesmerized. In fact I was raving about it. “I can do the same! I want to start to do painting.” I was 18 years old at the time. That’s when I started to seriously consider becoming a painter. It was also some sort of destiny, I think. Because I was also applying to some other universities, but they would turn me down; all of them. While I was getting acceptance letters from all the art schools. So I was thinking that, hey, there must be something.
You earlier said that the painting looks like a mirror – do you also feel that you can recognise the different stages you went through, by looking at your work?
I think that I somehow can do that, yes. There are some changes in my painting that I can recognise and place in a specific time in my life. And I can recall what was going on at the time I was doing a specific painting.
You have said that your hobbies are interlinked and that you see many similarities between painting and cooking, or DJ’ing.” Are you still DJ’ing, by the way?
Not anymore. It takes up too much money and time. I now leave it to other people… But I always love cooking.
In what way is painting like cooking?
In cooking you have your recipes. As in painting, too, you have your techniques – they are like your recipes. And then you have your tools and your skills, and you know how to put the spices… In painting you do more or less the same; both are about experimenting.
Are you as successful in cooking experimentation as in painting?
No, I am not…And I try to do it on my own.
You prefer to cook for yourself, only?
That’s right. Funny, eh? It’s because I am more nervous when I am cooking than when I am painting.
Do you define yourself as s Finnish artist?
No, not at all. My style has always been very global. There are similarities with the work of artists that come from all over the place and from different eras. from everywhere. Only a small part of the influence on my work is actually Finnish – maybe the colours. But the whole thing is very global. Of course people can see me as a Finnish artist. I am a Finn, after all, it’s understandable. But that’s not how I would describe myself.
You have said that you don’t like the idea of Finnishness. Why? And that you have “often felt that I’m in the wrong place.”
Because you are in Berlin?
Yes. Of course here I can be as Finn as possible…
Why was Helsinki not the right place for you?
I felt I did not belong, in more ways than one. First, it is such a small place, nobody’s visiting Helsinki to see art, so how would one’s work be seen? Then, I was not doing anything but being in my studio all the time. When I had some free time and thought to myself that “OK, what should I do with my time”, I would end up going back to my studio! There was nothing else to do. And then I have never been much of a fan of Finnish cinema or literature.
You earlier said that you don’t like to throw away your paintings. So there is no chance that you will decide that a painting simply doesn’t work?
I will maybe give the painting a break. But I feel it’s there, even if I put it away for maybe half a year. And I do that. But in a way I deny failure or the concept of mistakes. Actually there are no mistakes, there can be no mistakes; not in contemporary art. Because if there are mistakes, you can always use them. You can always learn from them. When you paint you can see what is wrong and you can and use it. By going backwards, you also go forwards. Actually the biggest mistake is to keep staying where you are, to not learn from yourself and from others.
When you want to look at something comforting or good for you, where do you in Berlin?
When I have a bad day, I go to the Spree. I love the river. I have never been very comfortable with water, but when I go to the river bank it is very comforting and relaxing, suddenly all the worries are gone.
If a friend who was visiting you in Berlin asked you to recommend one book or a film about the city, which would that be?
Christopher Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories”. To me this has been a very inspiring read. And also “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, the novel as well as the film. It doesn’t matter that they are not contemporary. You get a feeling for the city.
You can see Janne’s work at the exhibition “Hunger nach Bildern”, until 07.03.14 at the Nordic Embassies, in Berlin.