Petri Ala-Maunus

Born 1970  |  Lives and works in Helsinki 



The Self-Portrait Series


The self-portrait is one of the most common subjects in visual art – at once easy and approachable yet embarrassingly intimate and revealing. In our current selfie culture the best picture with the most advantageous perspective is the one that always gets chosen, but the actual person may be difficult to recognize. When we’re not hiding behind our poses, human beings may be identified by their wrinkles, double chins, messy hair and strange expression.


Over a year, I have drawn around three self-portraits every day in my sketch book, so now I have 1108. The pictures show life lived over the span of a year. There have been good days and bad days, busy, unforgettable and highly forgettable days, holidays, days off and working days. All these days have been important with regards to making me feel alive.


The new large self-portrait paintings in MAKASIINI CONTEMPORARY are like collages of the drawings from my sketch-book. One painting seems to have an endless number of different surfaces, just like the extracts from my life through the year in the sketch book. When there are a lot of emotional states, the appearance begins to blur and is replaced by the boiling inferno of different moods. It is good that there has been a year to deal with these feelings and they have not exploded in the eye as a single condensed moment in the painting. 




The Landscape Series 


Petri Ala-Maunus’ studio is in an industrial area of Helsinki, set amidst hardware stores, car-repair workshops, and small businesses that make or sell things that is hard to identify when looking from the outside. Their yards are filled with cars, and somewhere someone is using a drill.


Inside the studio another world opens up. Leaning against the walls are large-format landscape paintings in which we see no trace of the presence of human beings. They are bleak views into a world either before or after humankind, and astonishingly precisely executed. Are the paintings images of some lost paradise or premonitions of a post-human world where the Four Elements of Antiquity have broken free of the grip of humanity? There is at least one allusion to this in the title that Ala-Maunus has given his exhibition: The New Wild


The works are greatly indebted particularly to the school of Romantic landscape painting that emerged from the art academy in Düsseldorf, Germany, in the first half of the 19th century and spread everywhere with academy’s former students. The most prominent Finn to work in Düsseldorf was Werner Holmberg, whose art Ala-Maunus has evidently studied carefully. 


The Romantic artists favoured untouched and untamed nature, which they portrayed meticulously, dramatizing it. They frequently depicted nature as greater than the human individual, evoking both fear and admiration at the same time. Similar aspirations can also be detected in Ala-Maunus’ paintings.


Real-life mountains and waterfalls were not enough for the Romantics. Their paintings were assemblages constructed in the studio, the sketches for them coming from different places or even from different countries. They were types of collages, whose purpose was to engender feelings of awe and alarm.


The landscapes in Ala-Maunus’ paintings are also collages composed of dozens of parts and details. They are also landscape simulations in the sense intended by Jean Baudrillard, copies without an original. They are nameless places that seem to exist thousands of years from the present moment, but in which direction? The creation story and the end of the world shake hands.


Unlike the Romantics, Ala-Maunus does not wander about in nature seeking suitable subjects for his works. Photographs of forests and thickets are enough, added to which the internet provides art history and science-fiction fantasies aplenty.


One challenge for the Düsseldorfers was getting their assemblages to be coherent. One way of achieving this was to limit the palette to a few kindred tones in rather the same way as in black-and-white photographs. Ala-Maunus sometimes bases his paintings on just three or four colours. But, unlike his predecessors, he also reveals the fictive nature of his paintings by leaving in them features that that disrupt the illusion. They remind us that this is a painting, a two-dimensional surface covered with paint.


Lofty mountains, coolly bubbling cascades and meticulously drawn fir trees recur in Ala-Maunus’ paintings almost as if they were supernatural. He reminds us that, coming from the countryside, he not only has a living relationship with the landscape, but has also inherited from his home an appreciation of skilled handiwork. He paints subjects that he likes, and does so just as he wants, aiming for perfection. “If only I could do that even better,” he muses when looking at a freshly-completed painting. To my mind the work verges on perfection.