Generation Gesichtsbuch – on the work of Sami Lukkarinen

Antti, 2016, Öl auf Leinwand / oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm

Antti, 2016, Öl auf Leinwand,, 100 x 80 cm

Christian Gögger

Some of the portraits of Antonello da Messina 1, originating in the second half of the 15th century, display a presence and intimacy that is dedicated exclusively to the person depicted in the painting. The innovative use of a nearly monochrome background unfetters the figures while renouncing religious symbolism and insignia that reveal the sitter as being a benefactor or holy person. In small formats that are ordained for the private sphere, he depicts individuals and characters that display none of the conventional iconographic designations and therefore provoke the beholder to enter into direct dialogue. Though it is the portrait par excellence, Gioconda, which Leonardo da Vinci painted only a few years later, is more ambiguous since it is an explicit reference to the Virgin Mary. The advent of an identifiable individual, a recognizable personality and face, revoked the religious narrative canon that had been generally binding. The face was no longer a prototype or projection screen; instead, it authentically portrayed a human being.

Less than half a millennium later, Andy Warhol 2 – using opulent, distinctive colors – skillfully outlined the faces and poses of film and rock stars and other idols. He developed a standardized production apparatus in his New York Factory that allowed anyone who could afford it to pose for a portrait as he or she wished.

Albrecht Dürer, 2017, Öl auf Leinwand, 125 x 125 cm

Albrecht Dürer, 2017, Öl auf Leinwand, 125 x 125 cm

Since the general pervasiveness of the camera, portraits of oneself are no longer anything special. Everyone has ample documentation of one’s own individuality. With the copious dissemination of pictures and an exponentially growing culture of medial consumption, it is the transformation of portraits that is at the center of our attention. Warhol offers a method that is lucrative for both parties. He transforms the faces of his subjects to contemporary icons, reduced to the most striking features. In the 1960s, recognizability was no longer bound to the experience of a few beholders as it was in the Renaissance.
The mass reproduction of images in newspapers and magazines guarantees publicity and recognizability by an enormous public. In order to get the sustainable attention of the masses, the image must be stylized, an art form that Warhol indeed masters. He translates personal expression – which in his day and environment was not conceivable without proper exaltation – into stylistic features. This he successfully did in various portraits and self-portraits, which display him more as a product than a person.

When the first giant portraits of Thomas Ruff 3 were exhibited at the end of the 1980s, they were received as panel paintings. The era of omnipresent and, to some extent, large format painting was followed by an unprecedented triumph of photography, void of its chronicling, documentary character. The large prints that assumed the museum formats of painted art were stunning as well as perplexing. Thomas Ruff depicts a frontal and larger-than-life portrait as a cross between a passport photo and a mug shot. In the exaggerated format, the face appears as seen through a magnifying glass. Pores, beard and complexion impurities are exposed with repulsive clarity. The hyperrealistic skin color is clearly a reference to the genre of painting or is a kind of mimesis or attempt to imitate painting. Thomas Ruff is not interested in self-portraits; his wish is to have his photographs received as if they were paintings.

For many years, Sami Lukkarinen4 has worked intensively on the portrayal of faces. The viral proliferation of selfie-mania roused his interes. This popular form of self-photography has led to a radically new culture of portraits, in which the photographer, subject and distributor are one and the same person. This is where Sami Lukkarinen finds his inspiration: in the postage stamp-size portraits that Facebook users post on their profiles or the coded version thereof. Due to the protection of personal rights, it is not allowed to upload and enlarge these little self-portraits. As soon as a larger image is selected, the photograph is pixelated and the face becomes an unrecognizable kaleidoscope of colors.

Personal pictures experience a fundamental transformation in the age of global, unfiltered social networks. The image is still authentic proof of the identity of the depicted person; however, the inflationary multiplication and unlimited dissemination of a self-portrait liquidates all privacy, rendering it a vulnerable set of data that is endangered by its general availability and third party accessibility. The pixilation serves to ensure at least a minimal amount of privacy.

Mark Zuckerberg, 2016, Öl auf Leinwand, 100 x 80 cm

Mark Zuckerberg, 2016, Öl auf Leinwand, 100 x 80 cm

Sami Lukkarinen‘s artwork transposes the digital vagueness of pixelated portraits into large and medium-size paintings. Using a palette knife, he places color patch after color patch, thereby creating a grid and enlarging the pixels in the same shade as the original picture. The vagueness results from the extreme augmentation of the thumbnail portrait, but is compensated when the viewer steps back from the large format of the painted version. In this way, the faces and poses of his motifs are again discernible. The digital distortion is rectified in the painted picture. The catalogue pictures do not convey the different possibilities of viewing the paintings: (a) from close proximity the viewer beholds an abstract painting composed of color patches and pastose flanges; (b) from a distance the viewer can discern a somewhat blurred yet recognizable face and © through the smartphone the viewer sees a perfect portrait! An intimate dialogue ensues between painting and portrait, as was the case in the Renaissance; the viewer participates in the painter’s reflections towards his motif and its etiologic dressing – the pixel portrait – to a certain extent. Sami Lukkarinen skillfully transfers faces to the canvas, without getting carried away with the virtuosity of handling the material itself. His pictures demean themselves analytically not only toward their motif, but also toward its use in social networks. His more recent works support this thesis due to the fact that Sami Lukkarinen no longer chooses friends or anonymous protagonists for his portrait series, but rather very specific prominent people, such as Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Marilyn Monroe,the Hollywood cult actress of the 1960s, or Albrecht Dürer5 with his famous self-portraits.

1 Antonello da Messina, born Antonio di Giovanni de Antonio
(*in 1430 in Messina; †1479 ebenda), was an Italian painter;
his self-portrait from the year 1476 is particularly ostensive
2 Andy Warhol (*August 6, 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania;
†1987 in Manhattan, New York City) was an American artist
3 Thomas Ruff (*1958 in Zell am Harmersbach) is a German
art photographer from Düsseldorf
4 Sami Lukkarinen (*1976 in Jyväskylä, Finland) is a Finnish
painter, the work of whom is the principal topic of this text
5 Albrecht Dürer (*1471 in Nürnberg; †1528 ebenda) was a
German painter, graphic artist and art theorist