Sisyphus at the Spring

Marja Jalava

Sisyphus at work: rolling an immense stone up a mountain slope only to come almost to the top and see the stone roll down again, and to begin the work anew – for ever. This is the myth with which Henry Wuorila-Stenberg describes his own work as an artist. He has never been satisfied with fossilizing as a living classic or with commodifying his art as a cut-and-dried brand. Rather, like Sisyphus he has returned again and again to the foot of his mountain. Instead of remaining at the top, this perennial returning has been motivated by a love for rolling the stone, for painting as an act whose intrinsic value lies in its apparent uselessness.

Owing to Henry Wuorila-Stenberg’s “Sisyphean” attitude, his exhibitions are always surprises. They can be approached as visual travel diaries of a kind, recording a terrain that is never repeated in similar fashion. The figurative elements have become more increasingly concrete and tangible; the former human heads have been given a body and placed in the landscape in groups in which the viewer can recognize the artist, members of his family, his colleagues, and even prominent figures in the Finnish economy. Wuorila-Stenberg’s ability to indulge in irony at his own expense is shown not only by his unflattering self-portraits but also by the various archetypal male figures expressing, each in its own way, the tragicomic features of Western masculinity. More important than details, however, seems to be a flow from one painting to another, in which private and communally shared symbols constitute an organic weave.

A black, almost compact, plane of colour has achieved an important role in Henry Wuorila-Stenberg’s new work. It can be sensed as space, a hole, or black matter within which light is hidden. For Wuorila-Stenberg, black symbolizes both transience and ignorance. For example in Guard, how far have we come into the night and Genesis blackness expresses uncertain expectation, in which the collapsing present around us makes room for something new. Comprehended in these terms, the “landscapes of the last days” are also a return to the mythical primal state of the Creation, where the darkness was still upon the face of the deep and the light was not divided from it. As a state of mind, they invite the viewer to transcend existing categories and systems of signification, to follow the artist to a free zone where different forms, colours, intensities and rhythms merge to become the totality of subjective experience.

Wuorila-Stenberg’s paintings can be regarded as romantic in the original sense of the term, as represented by German poets such as Friedrich Hölderlin at the close of the 18th century. This romanticism had nothing to do with sentimentality; it concerned the ethically obligatory, severe and even ruthless requirement of listening to one’s own inner voice. In Hölderlin’s terms, it is about remaining at the source from which both unity and plurality arise – while keeping it at a distance, since an individual with his limitations could not bear a total lack of boundaries without disintegrating. Unless the painter manages to give shape to this archaic chaos in this process of symbolization, it threatens to dissolve his own self and fundamentally question the meaningfulness of the world.

Henry Wuorila-Stenberg has the rare ability of continually drawing upon this pre-categorical state of openness, without disintegrating the inner world of his work, or – conversely – making their symbols fossilize into empty shells. Wuorila-Stenberg’s paintings do not represent internal experience – they are in themselves that experience. Their beauty entails something at once comforting and shocking. In them, deepness forces itself into us. His paintings entice us to listen to the primal source from where their strength wells.