Alexander Irving and Anders Oinonen: The Inverted Portrait

For sufferers of pareidolia, the objects they look upon often look back. This psychological disorder, considered a branch of obsessive-compulsive disorder, causes individuals to recognize characteristics of the human face in anything from clouds to burnt toast. In The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan widens the scope of this behaviour to include all members of the human race. “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces…[t]hose infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony grin.”

Anders Oinonen, “Untitled.” 2008

Local artists Alexander Irving and Anders Oinonen have recently run with this idea, presenting work that tenderly criticizes this constant desire for familiarity and connection, a desire that prevails even when one is fully aware of the inanimate nature of the object in question. Inverting the traditional notions of portraiture, Irving and Oinonen inject human elements into landscapes and still-lifes in an affectionate, even comical manner.

While he dabbles in both more representational and more abstract artistic styles, Anders Oinonen’s most compelling paintings are his pseudo-portraits, in which basic elements of the face are assembled with wide brush-strokes and vivid colours. In People People, his current solo exhibition at Cooper Cole Gallery, faces are alternately combined and fragmented, all the while remaining instantly recognizable.

Asger Jorn’s “Lockung.” 1960

Oinonen clearly has a reverence for this often irrational aspect of human instinct, as his cheerful, child-like faces reflect Sagan’s “goony grin” right back at us. Indeed, his “Untitled” is practically the visual manifestation of Sagan’s idea: the child immediately locating a friendly face in the landscape. By choosing to approach the portrait in this manner, Oinonen still allows the viewer his sense of personal connection to the piece while also opening up entirely new possibilities for analysis.

So let’s dive into it: A tension apparent in People People is in defining the tenuous border between painting and subject. With his thick brushwork and garish colour choices, his pieces scream their identity as paintings rather than playing at representing reality. Ultimately, Oinonen appeals to the viewer’s natural tendency to search a painting  for inherent “humanity,” no matter how loosely it represents this idea. In paintings such as “Lockung,” Danish painter Asger Jorn (Oinonen’s precursor and admitted idol) employs a similar technique, but with a critical difference: where in Jorn the simplistic face is layered over the landscape, Oinonen fuses the two. In doing so, he has relocated the human element to the very center of the painting, with the piece’s meaning constructed through the viewer’s recognition, rather than by the imposition of the artist. Oinonen’s portraits are thus highly interactive, inviting us to empathise with their subjects, all the while gently mocking our desire to do so.

Alexander Irving “Flatmen 7”, 2008 – 2010

Moving away from Oinonen’s facial approach to portraiture, Alexander Irving’s Flatmen series presents vaguely figurative shapes composed of bends in a two-dimensional material (Irving reportedly takes his inspiration from the folded cardboard that gives men’s dress shirts their shape). Working with a muted colour palette, Irving is able to fully convince the viewer of both his subject’s spatial reality and its surprising amount of personality using only geometric shapes and delicate shadows .

Indeed, with his mild colours and realistic approach, Irving is a stylistic world away from Oinonen. His carefully composed figures call to mind the worlds of design or photography rather than any of his geometric abstractionist predecessors. Oinonen’s work is constantly shifting; our brain must continually choose between focusing on the facial elements and the whole of the canvas. Irving’s Flatmen, however, remain fixed upon first glance.

His work may be all restraint, but Irving still allows for a multiplicity of signifiers inside his figures. Like Oinonen, Irving puts the onus on the viewer to construct the “fullness” inside these flat men, a far greater challenge without an identifiable face to latch onto. It is therefore both satisfying and mildly unnerving when do recognize the “humanity” inside Irving’s cardboard subjects. The ability to recognize a face is one thing, but to be able to attribute personality is truly what defines our humanity. Irving’s work, quite surprisingly, ends up being the more personal of the two.

Magritte’s “The Empty Mask

Irving also takes Oinonen’s meta concerns about painting a step further. More than just a trick of trompe l’oeil, Irving’s treatment of perspective questions the function of painting a three-dimensional object under the constraint of a flat canvas. Though Irving would never be labelled a surrealist, I was reminded of Magritte’s more realistic conceptual paintings, such as “The Empty Mask.” Where Magritte relies on text to humourously reveal art’s inability to depict reality, Irving works only with shape. It is a more subtle approach, a visual pun. The works are realistically flat, and thus successful in depicting their cardboard inspiration. But as Irving’s chosen medium cannot separate itself from its flatness, it is only by taking the image and construcing a new reality for it in our minds that a subject achieves three-dimensional reality. Just as when viewing works by Oinonen, the viewer must reassess both the painting and his own thought process to avoid getting stuck in a circular mode of thinking.

By relying on our recognition of the human elements in their work, Anders Oinonen and Alexander Irving speak to the automatic quest for emotional depth inside a painting, as well as the desire to locate ourselves inside a work of art. Irving clearly labels his work as flat, and Oinonen never lets his viewer forget the faces he sees are built of paint. And yet these works still fulfill our desire to find the “human” element, to relate to something regardless of its capacity to relate to us. It is both a challenge of, and a concession to, our basic desires when we look at a painting. Yes it gets maddening, but it’s certainly hard not to respond back with a goony grin of one’s own.

Alexander Irving’s Flatmen runs January 28 – March 3 at General Hardware Contemporary

Anders Oinonen’s People People runs February 3rd – February 26 at Cooper Cole Gallery

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