A portrait of a young man as an artist

  • 2005-01-19
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - Marko Maetamm was born in 1965 and graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts in 1993. While his early paintings betrayed the influences of Picasso, Matisse, Magritte and Cezanne, he soon developed his own style, which he called "subjective formalism." "It was a synthesis of pop art with something very Estonian," he says. "Everything was a little bit twisted."

Today, Maetamm is hailed as Estonia's most important young artist. His work has a cartoonish quality about it, its fantastical narratives often crammed with explanatory texts.

His apparently naive line drawings are not, however, quite what they seem. Although his pictures may end up as laser-printed prints, or on Web sites or CD-ROMs, they begin life as traditional oils on canvas. "I like to paint," Maetamm says. "It gives me the feeling that I'm a human being."

Three years ago, in collaboration with his studio-mate Kaido Ole, Maetamm launched a collection of paintings about the experiences of an anonymous everyman called John Smith, a German art-teacher of Polish descent who meets Maetamm and Ole building a spaceship in their backyard.

The show has toured Estonia, and in 2003 featured as the Estonian contribution to the International Exhibition of Visual Arts in Venice.

"It's a schizophrenic project," Maetamm admits. "In collaborative projects we can use ideas which are too silly or risky for solo work. You can share the responsibility. If someone says it's shit, you can say it's not mine 's it's a collaboration."

Maetamm's other major works include "Me Supernatural" (2000), a series of texts and images which recount a conversation between God, the Devil and the artist on various subjects, including the pleasures of temptation, the miracles of Jesus, and the intelligence and attractiveness of Marko Maetamm.

At one point in this sequence, Maetamm offers an explanation for the miracle of transubstantiation: while the priest distracts his audience, his accomplice swaps the bread and wine for the Messiah's flesh and blood.

The "swindles" of religion offer Maetamm a theme to which his work repeatedly returns. In another major sequence, "The Chemistry of Being" (1999), he dubs the myth of heaven and hell as "a fiction," while his version of the Annunciation involves a graphic depiction of the insemination of Mary by the Holy Ghost.

"I'm not trying to destroy Christianity," Maetamm insists "I'm interested in what happens if we take it apart and put it back together again like Lego."

His work displays a sense of humor reminiscent of Monty Python in its darkest, most deconstructive moments. The artist, however, denies any comic intent.

"When I work, it's totally serious," he says. "It's not meant to be funny 's but it turns things upside-down, maybe because I'm overforcing details and making it grotesque and absurd.

"If it were deeply serious, I'd be a psycho. But if you take it as a joke, it's not taken seriously. I'm not a scientist but an artist 's which is why my work ends up as something hysterical, like a child opening up a teddy bear to see what's inside."

Maetamm argues that his relentless and uncompromising experiments are esthetically inevitable.

"Art is trying to find the way out of a dead end 's trying to find new reasons to exist," he says. "I constantly try to find something that's fresh. When it becomes ordinary and automatic, I move on."