Raija Malka’s work belongs to a lineage that could be described as painting-painting. The repetition of the word seeks precisely to highlight the importance of the act of painting in her work. This act is the alpha and the omega of this exhibition. Rather than resorting to complex narratives, citations and appropriations of the landscape or the portrait in order to communicate, Malka undertakes a pure and absolute kind of painting involving colour, perspective, and a half dozen or so forms that are almost always geometric.
At the very start, even before we enter the museum gallery, the artist places a sculpture in the hall, an enormous light-green ball that is literally jammed between the ceiling and the floor, with no breathing space left either above or below. This initial theatrical or at least scenic gesture places us as visitors on a sort of stage, the actors in a play for which we have the scenery but no dramaturgy or staging, not even a text.
In the past, Raija Malka created stage sets, so this scenic scale that she has brought to the museum should come as no surprise. The paintings are also a sort of stage. Consider the titles: Tie Break, Drop Shot, Chamber Play, Dumbbells, Skill playing ball. They all refer to movement, play, physical exercise and sport, as does the title of the exhibition, ‘Gymnasion’. However, this apparent theme draws attention to the fact that there are no human bodies or representations of human body parts in these paintings. The forms that inhabit these works – balls, boxes – appear as bodies by also acquiring the format of three-dimensional sculptures that punctuate the space, causing the entire room to become an enormous painting by Malka for us to inhabit, enjoy, circumvent and hear.
This brings us back once again to painting-painting, or painting as a pure mental and physical act undertaken by the artist, which is not to say that this act contains no sign of any knowledge of the remarkable history of painting. But the history of art or the artists whom Malka adopts as her references – the 1866 work L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) by Gustave Courbet, or Arnold Böcklin’s Die Toteninsel (The Island of the Dead), 1880-1886 – function more as a sort of mental state or induced mode of thought or conceptual framework than as concrete or figurative influences on the works painted by the artist.
Consider the way in which the reference to Böcklin’s The Island of the Dead is materialised in the exhibition through the inclusion of the work of another artist, Fernando Calhau (Lisbon, 1948-2002) and his version of The Island of the Dead, one of the few figurative pieces in Calhau’s predominantly abstract and minimalist body of work.
The Island of the Dead functions in the exhibition as the first stage and also the last one, the last entry on stage of the human being that is death. But before we reach this last stage, we have Gymnasion: lots of exercise, lots of steps, lots of running, lots of balls struck, lots of ground to cover as the subtle installation highlights and materialises through the black box (or could it be a coffin?) and the sound recording of a tennis match.
The space and concept of the gymnasium were invented by the ancient Greeks, for whom the gymnasium was a place to exercise not only the body but also the mind (philosophy classes were held between bouts of physical exercise). In the same way, this Malka exhibition is about more than just exercise; it involves a specific reflection on life and death, on the body and its finitude, invoking a range of mental states.
Another reference that I might risk mentioning is Edvard Munch (1863-1944), the Norwegian creator of the iconic The Scream (1893) who stated that his aim was to paint the soul. The body and the soul, we would now say of Malka’s painting, which, although less figurative, contains something bittersweet in the palette and in the gestural quality of the empty spaces of these paintings-boxes, which allude to the melancholy of the Norwegian painter and create stages for the soul and the body.
So let us play a little in this gymnasium, which is also a space of history and fiction: let us suppose that Munch has moved to the south of Europe and is living in a studio on the top floor of a road in Lisbon from where he can see a white but very colourful city. If we also suppose that he has changed his nationality and the year of his birth, then he now lives in the twenty-first century and is a Finnish woman, and the painting remains magisterial.
The director of CAM,
Centro de Arte Moderna – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian