ASIAN ART NEWS - Featuring Maritta Nurmi, Jul/Aug 2011

Wonderfully Displaced by Bradford Edwards

Few foreign artists are as engaged with Vietnam as the Finnish painter Maritta Nurmi. The country not only inspires her art practice but also her spiritual philosophy, which is evident in the innumerable artworks that she has made over the past two decades.

Read more (large images in a gallery, zoom is at top-right):



Maritta Nurmi at Art Vietnam by Bradford Edwards

ExhibitionThis latest show by Maritta Nurmi, a longterm Finnish resident of Hanoi, is a faithful reflection of its title After the end of Art anything goes. The artist fills this multi-room space with a wide variety of pieces that range from mixed media on canvas to painted found objects to her own one-off fabric prints to fashion cum artwork. This exhibition shouts enthusiastically of willful liberation and unfettered exploration.

ExhibitionThe ground floor where one enters had relatively restrained pieces with two of her large circular, perforated metal tables painted with acrylic greeting one immediately (Rosa Roseus, Rosa Esrtiatus.) They had consistent patterns of pinkish roses and greenish triangular shapes, respectively, painted on the bare metal matte-silver surface producing a delicate optical effect with little discernable contrast. On the other wall were two large canvases (acrylic, fabric, aluminum leaf on canvas) that resembled whimsical fashion illustrations with casually written text—occupying a territory somewhere between magazine layout and dress-pattern making backed by a bright reflective metal-leaf ground.

ExhibitionIn the staircase leading up to the next room was a sweet and punchy piece, Rosa Et Circulus 1, a long horizontal. It had a distinctly layered and labored sense to it, with a grid of circles in slight relief covered by a sheet of aluminum leaf, and then a floral pattern laid down rhythmically punctuated by jet-black dots of various sizes. Its graphic elegance held one’s attention with immediacy and veracity as Nurmi balances all the right techniques perfectly in this one artwork.

ExhibitionPerhaps the best work in the exhibition could be found in the series of stool and tables that the artist had made her own through painting them and then subverting their original purpose by hanging them on the wall (instead of using them in a café.) The most extensive series of 19 small, simple wooden stools (24 x 14 x 10 cm) that jutted out from the wall was a joy to see as the wide variety of patterns collided and clashed with each other. She wisely decided to use the kitsch floral formica surfaces as the base for the quiver of images she painted on top in black and off-whites. With thought and consideration leavened by a dollop of giddiness, Nurmi laid down patterns of small, stylized Buddhas, curvy flower stencils, and complicated geometric patterns, such as various checkerboards and maze-like grids. The vivid colors of the cheesy formica surfaces were allowed to sing by wrapping and framing the wild patterns with a modest amount of acrylic paint — a weird and wonderful treatment of an everyday utilitarian object.

ExhibitionAnother striking series was a wall of nine small tables treated much like the stools except that they were more fleshed out by employing a wider palette of colors and much more of it. Also, by mounting them closely together on one common wall, with much arguing, they had a more cacophonous relationship to each other than the individually hung stool series. Then to break it up yet again, Nurmi let a few tables strut on the walls with their spindly wooden legs extended and they were heavily worked with a fair amount of impasto breaking up the flat plastic surfaces. Demanding your attention by their animation and implied kinetic nature, they expressed the spirit of her effort the most effectively.

ExhibitionWith any true and dedicated experimentation, there are the glorious failures and this show has a few as well. The large stainless tables that leaned against the wall were a valiant attempt but missed their intended mark — they were simply too simple and the table’s mirror-like surfaces overwhelmed the “art” of the work. The same might be said about the series of stainless steel circles, Little Ones, with the surface again, in actual effect, trumping the personalized treatment. Still, there were so much other well-executed concepts that the bumps in the road were easily absorbed.

Nurmi is an irrepressible colorful character, who has worked hard and long in developing her signature style. She adorns, decorates, customizes, invents, explores and, in the end, puts her mark on everything that she touches, making the everyday better for everyone.

Bradford Edwards


Hanoi 2007

by Helka Ketonen, Art Historian from Finland

Biologist turns into an artist and moves to Vietnam

Your exhibition “La Dolce Vita, The Grail, Memento Mori” has a philosophical body from the science alchemy. Your background is also in natural science, back in the 1980's when you studied biology in Finland. What happened in the 1990's, when you chose art and painting for your profession and lifestyle?

Life seems to be an ever-lasting expedition, there are always more questions than answers for me. I originally wanted to be a doctor in medicine, but kept fainting when seeing blood. Biology seemed to fit me better, so I chose it. As far as my career as a biologist emerged, my top position was a short research period at a gardening department in agricultural research. I love pulling up weed and the idea of gardening, but doing research in biology didn't make me happy in the end, yet it gave me the strength to make changes in my life.

Already in the 1980's I started to attend evening classes in an art school and soon realized that I spent all available time there. Finally I enrolled in the Turku Art Academy during Ismo Kajander's period. During my studies in the academy, I paid my first visit to Vietnam. This was year 1990.

After graduating from art school I had the opportunity to go back to Vietnam and take a course in lacquer technique at the Hanoi Fine Art University for a 6-month period. That was a wonderful experience for me to try something completely new in art. My third visit has now lasted for 13 years.

Living in cultural diversity

Artists - and scientists - have always been curious about “the other and the unknown”. Many artists choose to have workspaces in different countries and environments. Some artists live like nomads, traveling around to various countries and spaces, collecting particles and ideas from different cultures to integrate into their work. Which kind of cultural diversities do you carry in your personal “back pack”?

A song written by Sting fills my mind: 'the Englishman in NY', with words as: 'I am an alien ... I am an Englishman in NY'.

In Finland I often experience a contradictory sensation: nothing unexpected ever happens ... and yet I feel alien. In Vietnam the reality responds with another perception: you maintain the status of an alien, for sure, but almost nothing around you is or will be what you expect. I like this concept very much. There is so much magic in it.

Initially I kept trying to analyze what really happens around me. Later, with a constant frustration from seeing my results turned around, I gave up. I still compare living in Finland to living in Vietnam as living on the earth as opposed to living on the moon.

In my art the most visible thing which has happened while living in VN was the gradual shift from a rich noisy palette of colors to the quiet reflective metal. Still though, I always begin a new work with bright and strong acrylic colors. Colors make the foundation and sometimes a heavy texture, which then will be overlaid by metal.

Early on, I thought the reflection of metal in my paintings gave a good allegory for the possibility of a dialogue between these two cultures: it's like looking into a mirror without getting anything returned. The interaction between me and VN remains a continuous learning experience in accepting the unambiguous differences. The
contact surface fortunately has grown smoother in time.

Artist finds alchemist in herself

You have written: “My interest lies deeper in the philosophical side of alchemy, the transformation expressed in words ‘to grow, to become, to change oneself”. How deep do you go with this philosophical apparatus – and where does the artist take over?

These words 'to grow, to become, to change oneself' express the deepest fascination in me, because they express a promise of change and progress in life and in oneself.

For this exhibition the challenge of making good paintings was not satisfactory for me anymore. I wanted to do more than just hang a row of paintings in the gallery. I wanted to challenge the space by letting the environment and my paintings interact through me.

Does this mean that in this exhibition a new circle is opening up for you?

I hope so. In the end, it felt very natural to engage my background as a scientist into this mission - everything comes together in a very alchemical way. In making good art and in practicing scientific research, intuition is essential and plays a very important role in both.

I have a vague idea about my era in VN being a period of developing a trusting relationship with my intuition. One could also call it a training session for working together with the 'higher beings' in me (as Sigmar Polke calls them). I am very excited about this wider field of combining art and science. Through alchemy I can introduce
a variety of different disciplines. By using the alchemical life-death-life –circle, I also have a natural interaction with my new homeland and its culture.

So, in this way have you come closer to Buddhism?

Yes, this idea of a life circle is important in Asian philosophy. It gives me satisfaction to find the same elements in different worlds, which I can combine and use playfully in my work.

Inventive techniques with a touch of luck.


Over the years you have created very personal techniques for your paintings. You allow the extreme weather conditions in Hanoi to interact and play an important role in the oxidation process of metal on the surface of a canvas. On the other hand you still keep the final power in your own hands. I see this as a good example of
the two cultures in you: Asian randomness with a stroke of good fortune combined with scientific control and individuality. Can you please tell me more about your techniques and natural oxidation processes?

I almost never do preliminary drawings, but there is a lot of preparation work for me. My painting starts with several layers of acrylic paint, and in between these layers I mount paper. This way the painting gets the needed texture. On top of these layers I fasten metal leaf. Then I leave the painting for oxidation, which may take a period of 8 to 10 months.

The achieved change in color is a result of surrounding atmosphere: temperature, humidity and circulation of air. My contribution for this process is for example changing the location of the painting in the room or perhaps turning the painting up-side-down.

I should mention that my studio is in a typical Hanoian house: this room has only window shades, no glass windows and no air-conditioning so the outside weather has a big impact. This way the oxidation is a natural and random process, indeed. Within a certain amount of time these paintings start to look like the walls of
Hanoi. I can never get tired of admiring that natural patina when going around the streets of Hanoi.

My role in this transformation is more of an eye-keeper while the oxidation process is going on. At some point I will take the painting and resume my own artistic work. The state of oxidization will give me directions for next step.

The work as its best comes in a way you would not expect; it's more like a catapult, an instrument of the non-intentional.

Sometimes I buy some funky objects on the streets and continue the work of my fellow Hanoians, with the same mode. In this exhibition you can see 'breakfast in bed' - trays and circular aluminum trays for sticky rice as examples of this. I buy these ready-made-objects because they delight me, or I find esthetic values in them. These contemporary excavations may be left piled and untouched somewhere in my studio for a long time - until one day the association is there.