Okay... they aren't that bad. You get my drift.
The banner hanging at the Finnish Embassy depicts what Kaj Stenvall’s website labels as a “very familiar duck,” and is, indeed, a direct representation of Donald Duck. The duck is seen seated in a chair overlooking the water, a brown libation in his hand. The Finnish Embassy so often exhibits the work of Modern Architecture typical of Scandinavia, with an emphasis on wood and curved forms. Such exhibits are reminiscent of the giants Alvar Aalto or Eliel and Eero Saarinen (Eero’s work can be seen in the St. Louis Arch and Dulles International Airport). So, it’s not out of line to say that this duck, this iconic symbol of American kitsch since the mid 1930s, seemed out of place.
Birdhouse, the title of the exhibit, consists of over 30 small and medium sized oil paintings by Kaj Stenvall. Created over the course of the last ten years, these wonderfully drawn but thinly painted illustrations take the figure of Donald Duck into a series of anecdotes with reminiscent tones of Hopper, Magritte, or Whistler. They capture the duck bathing, swaddled in bed linens, and urinating from the passenger side of a classic automobile. The paintings touch on the surreal: his head stored in a bell jar or constructed from the petals of a flower. Then there are the witty strains of puns masquerading as irony: the duck as a Roman Catholic Cardinal, or the duck as a swan. All of these have a dose of allegory, but not in the Classical sense where Pagan mythological themes stand in line for Catholic virtues. Instead, their allegory is the rich history of previously painted subjects within art’s cannon: art about art.
This is, perhaps, what the catalogue alludes to when it suggests that the paintings are, "jumping off points… to draw the viewer deep inside." But, at best, this is a farce. Because, if it is art about art, then it would give us greater information on still life, or portraiture, or a reflection on contemporary culture. His best bet on the later is the mixed identity of the duck. It ages between youth and the elderly. It stands in for male and female figures. And, periodically, the duck has had its white down replaced with black. But, so what? If it is an effort to interpret human emotions, why not simply use humans?
The above applies to only some of the paintings. The rest are insipid replacements for sappy inspirational posters that middle management might hang in the office above the photocopier to encourage the lower staff to "go the distance." It is the only appropriate analogy to be made of a duck ballerina dancing on the beach at sunset. But, if all you need on an afternoon out is an opportunity to get away from all the color field stuff that is rampant throughout the District, this may be the place. The paintings do serve as a wonderful laugh even if they are, at best, one-liners.
Birdhouse runs through May 13th at the Embassy of Finland, 3301 Massachusetts Avenue, NW.