Text: Laura Elisabeth Konsand

Maarit Murka represents the new generation of hyperrealism. The themes in her art emerge from society, dealing with everyday life, collective history, political situations as well as the questions of what makes us human. Maarit Murka’s works, with their accurate commentary on contemporary global issues and paradoxes ranging from criticism of the consumer society and the current political situation to deep reflections on human psychology and the subconscious, speak to the audience with their direct, honest and poignant expressive style characteristic of hyperrealism. 

Journey to hyperrealism

Freelance curator and writer Triinu Soikmets has written: “It seems that Murka has captured something so universal that it is enough to reach catharsis by and through the realisations which come through this capturing.” Maarit Murka’s paintings are characterised by a sense of being taken along, offering the viewer the possibility to recognise themselves.

Maarit Murka graduated as a painter from the Estonian Academy of Arts Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA) is an Estonian higher education institution. in 2004 and proceeded to do her master’s degree in Helsinki, Finland. She developed a clear and recognisable artistic style during her years of study. In contrast to the colour scheme of the hyperrealist generation of the 1970s-1980s, Murka started to paint black-and-white large-scale photorealist works which looked like shots from films. The subjects came from television, mass culture and media and often depicted the artist herself. Art critic Kaarin Kivirähk has written that the atmosphere of Murka’s paintings from this period – the black-and-white series “Kill Your Darlings” (2006) and “New Beginning” (2006) – recalls American action films, depicting semi-naked women, angel wings and guns. 

The artist herself has commented that the black-and-white colour scheme allows her to be slightly otherworldly in our multi-coloured world. “I have created paintings in colour, but they have felt too fake and flashy, so in the end I always return to the black-and-white gamut,” said Murka in one of her earlier interviews. In the course of the last decades, the hyperrealist black-and-white paintings have become Murka’s signature style by which the arts audiences recognise her.

One of the central techniques of Murka’s works is positioning herself physically in a certain space or situation and depicting it on canvas. Art researcher Ants Juske has written: “Murka is a very self-centred artist, who exposes her own body, fears and the surroundings.” Yet Murka’s honest and self-centred works are not only dealing with herself; through the personal, they address political and collective levels of meaning. She has found the right way to approach social issues – namely, through herself.

In 2009, at the exhibition “0.43” in the Korjaamo Gallery in Helsinki, Murka carried through several physical experiments on herself. Manipulating her senses, the artist tested her capability of creating paintings in a situation in which one of her senses is damaged or repressed. The photorealist self-portraits were born, for example, in a state of drunkenness, whilst holding her breath, being in total silence and with her eyes closed. By testing her own limits as an artist and human being during the various experiments, Murka manifested herself as a contemporary and rational painter whose creative principles are not comparable to the outdated cliché of the artist as a bohemian.

Another personal and social experiment was Murka’s research trip to Afghanistan. Inspired by this experience, the artist completed exhibitions “Mission” (2013) at the Art Hall of the Estonian Parliament and “Contact” (2014) at the Tartu City in the west of Estonia (pop. 91,000). Arts Hall.

At ‘Mission’, Murka exhibited photos, paintings and installations that captured the daily experiences and life in the barracks of the soldiers on their mission the way that the artist experienced it. By drawing parallels between the missions of the artist and the soldier, Murka reached a sad realisation that, in a way, both contemporary art and contemporary warfare are wasters of resources in the eyes of society.

The exhibition ‘Contact’ dealt with the interpretation of contemporary political contacts which are realised through war. On the second floor of the Tartu City in the west of Estonia (pop. 91,000). Arts Hall, there was a direct row of black-and-white flags of NATO states. Tubs of paint were hanging from the ceiling, from which different colours were dripping out.

Art critic Indrek Grigor wrote back then that, even though the point of the exhibition was the artist’s personal resistance to the military regime which she experienced during her trip to Afghanistan, the nature of the exhibition only seemed to be political. Murka herself has admitted that she does not know social power games well enough to be able to join the discussion. Instead she remains true to her creativity and addresses the symbols of power primarily through herself, by mirroring her inner world.

Not just a painter, but a multi creative artist

In addition to painting, Murka’s creative works include installation, video and photography. By often exhibiting various media next to each other within an exhibition, she creates experimental spaces that try to capture all senses of the viewer. 

The artist has said that at the exhibitions she wishes ‘to create an environment that will have an impact on the audience through the backs of their heads’. One of the more recent exhibitions which deals dynamically with the environment and gets to people from behind their heads is “Escape Room no 1” (2019). At this exhibition, held at Vaal Gallery in the first half of this year, Murka offered the experience of an experiential room in a fake natural environment. On the lower floor of the gallery, live nature which had already been handled by human beings was on show. 37 (just like Murka’s age) dried-up Christmas trees, piled up firewood, artificial grass and snow-white rubber boots with cement in them. 

The second floor exhibited a large painting installation which, when viewed from one angle, depicted colour transfers and, when viewed from the other angle, was a black-and-white image of a forest. The ‘Escape Room no 1’ was immediately and slightly absurdly addressing topical social issues like the state’s forestry policy and the impact of human activity on nature.

Albeit throughout the years Maarit Murka has remained faithful to her hyperrealist style, the forms and themes in her works are characterised by a continuous search for something new, innovative and different. “I have always been interested in questions of form and exiting the dictatorship of one format,” the artist has said. 

Undoubtedly, such a continuous investigation of the form of one’s creations, requires boldness and willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone. Murka is not lacking in courage or ideas and this is reflected in her exhibitions, which always make a novel and sometimes an uncanny (in a good sense) impact, begging the question: is it really the same artist? Even in selecting her exhibition spaces, Murka has tended to swim against the current, presenting her works in various near cities like Helsinki, Riga, Vilnius, Minsk and Kiev instead of standard art meccas.

Maarit Murka’s latest personal exhibition “Illusions” took place in September at the ArtDepoo Gallery. It is remarkable that Murka decided to exhibit a photo series carrying the same name, which she created back in 2013. The series depicted ordinary people, young and old, whose bodies were partially covered in tanning spray. 

In addition to those large-scale photographs at the exhibition, there was a giant figure of a swan covered in hair, and here and there viewers came across their own images in mirrors which carried different slogans #STRONG#, #HAPPY# and so on. But the most shocking and raw impact came from the video ‘Surface’, showing a little girl in full makeup and wearing a spray-tan, which emphasised the absurdity and contradictory nature of beauty competitions organised for children. With this exhibition, Murka was pointing a finger at the societal pressure to look ever more beautiful, asking whether we are devaluating our true selves.

When asked about her future plans during the writing of this article, Murka says: “At the moment, I am interested in the artistic landscape and how it functions. The artist should be one of the key figures on this landscape, but it seems to me that this is no longer the case. Is there even a place and need for an artist as they used to be known?” asks Murka about the topic currently engaging her mind. She adds that she is simultaneously interested in some old ideas: “I’d like to create a pure exhibition of only paintings,” she says.

One thing is certain – Maarit Murka does not tend to just present her works in their known quality, but views each exhibition as a platform for new ideas and opportunities, thereby always reconfiguring the nature of hyperrealism. We can only wait and see what she will come out with next.

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

Edited for web by eesti.life.