Dreaming in Asphalt: Finnish Artist Soile Yli-Mäyry

Written By Grace Hong

8th Dec 2016

Category: Feature

If you think Soile Yli-Mäyry’s paintings are unlike anything you have seen before, you would not be alone. Back in Singapore to host her eighth solo exhibition here, the Finnish artist is internationally acclaimed for her distinct style over the last three decades.

Dream Bridge, 2015, 54 x 65 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

The artist in her studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Born in 1950, Soile Yli-Mäyry has had about 300 solo exhibitions in 30 countries, ranging from private gallery shows to exhibitions at the Beijing Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art in Saitama, Japan, and Museum of Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, among other institutions.

Though the palette of Yli-Mäyry’s works are bright and cheerful, its effect is anything but. Instead, the bright blues, reds, and yellows among other colours, form jarring contrasts against each other, with a few specific colours marking the focal points of each painting. The childlike colour choices are dynamic, and perhaps abrasive and provoking to an extent—one would not look at Yli-Mäyry’s paintings and feel at peace, but be inspired to respond or take action.

“Tension between colours is the most important thing for me… I create my own symphony with colours. Every tone has its meaning inseparable to the entire theme of the painting… Every colour has its own personality,” shares the artist, who engages with her colours.

“Sometimes I tell ‘Yellow… It’s you… you don’t go to the canvas’. They are like human beings. I communicate with the colours. Even if I am not communicating with people while at work, I fight with colours.”   

The texture of her paintings are unusual as well. Instead of a paintbrush, Yli-Mäyry makes her paintings with a palette knife—a tool she has favoured exclusively since the early 1980s. The palette knife enables her to make quick slash marks on the canvas, a feature she likes, for the slashes stay where they are drawn through the paint unlike brush strokes that can be painted over and covered many times.

Her paintings are an extensively physical process, with the knife sometimes breaking in two whilst in the middle of her work. Though the marks are permanent, Yli-Mäyry never creates drafts before she starts. However, when it comes to her human subjects, she draws outlines of people with one finger—genderless persons—for she considers gender a concept in the eye of the beholder. The human figures often come accompanied with triangles, which signify for the artist a turning point and an opportunity for growth, and also pays homage to her home country’s tradition of mythic and symbolist painting.

Asphaltlight, 2016, 54 x 65 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

Asphalt Heart, 2014, 40 x 20 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

Asphalt Dream, 2015, 46 x 30 cm, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

Art writer Edward Lucie remarks that her paintings reminds one of Spanish painter Joan Miró and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, Yli-Mäyry’s paintings sharing a key characteristic of Surrealism. Surrealism, Lucie writes, tried to marry sophisticated analysis of human character and human emotions with a will surrender of the rational, with this surrender releasing genuine creativity. Similarly, Yli-Mäyry’s free expressive style reveals a sense of universal alienation from nature in the face of increasing urbanisation.

The gestural nature and physicality of her paintings seem to draw from Yli-Mäyry’s family background. Born to parents who are deaf-mutes, she naturally learnt to sign before other languages. The language of sign—signs made by one’s own hands and those of others—has perhaps found its way in Yli-Mäyry’s paintings, an almost universal language received by people around the world. In fact, Yli-Mäyry recounts a personal experience in her book where unkind remarks from others prompted her study of the human condition.

“Everyone on the train thought we were dim-witted deaf-mutes about whom they could say whatever they pleased. They spoke loud, quite uninhibited. Our mere existence was enough to inspire their jibes. I sat and listened, though I tried not to hear. I wanted to get off the train as possible. With my hands, I explained to Father that I wanted to wait outside the compartment. I hated those people around us because they had made fun of both of us and treated my father as a retard. Upon leaving the compartment, I turned around, stared at the people and said ‘Thank you.’ The shocked look on their faces became ingrained in my mind. Do I still have to explain why I became a portrait painter?”

Her upbringing of growing up in a family chronically short on cash and having to care for a younger sister who was born without legs and with only one handless arm allowed Yli-Mäyry to develop an extraordinary sense of independence. At school, she rejected the conventionality of her earliest art teachers and invented her own themes. As a young adult, she was unwilling to wait for intermediaries to bring her art to the public and ventured on her own to launch exhibitions. Maybe this is why even at the age of 66 years old, Yli-Mäyry continues to travel around the world to hold solo exhibitions of her works.

“Art can help human beings know and feel where they are coming from and where they are going. Art is an elemental power that crosses all borders. There are streams of energy that are so overwhelming that they override conventional concepts of what people should and should not like. Significant art touches people,” writes Soile Yli-Mäyry.

ASPHALTDREAM by Soile Yli-Mäyry is presented by Matzo Art Gallery at at BºNU Space (333 Kreta Ayer) till 13 December 2016. Admission is free. More information on opening hours may be found here.


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