2023 exhibition: Riku Riippa


Riku Riippa is an art historian’s ideal artist. His work is heavy with references to historical periods and styles so that you cannot but feel joy in discovering yet another connection with an existing phenomenon. His art seems to carry on its shoulders key components of the humanist heritage of Western culture, from Stone Age fertility figures to modernist experiments. But best of all, under all the temporal layers, one encounters a highly original artist with a vision of his own and a personal way of telling stories about sculpture, life and the human condition.

Riku Riippa was born in 1974 in Kokkola, in Central Ostrobothnia, into a family of artists. He studied painting in the 1990s at the Nordic Art School in his home town. In 1998 he was admitted to the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, where he decided to give sculpture a chance, and he stayed with the department until his graduation in 2003. When he talks about his teachers, Riippa mentions two names: Radoslaw Gryta, the professor of sculpture from whom he learned the many techniques and styles of the discipline, and Kain Tapper, from whom he adopted the importance of having a vision of one’s own, the courage to think independently and the medium of wood sculpture.

Those lessons have borne fruit: Riku Riippa is now a sculptor through and through. Technically versatile, he works with equal facility in clay as in wood, plaster or bronze. In speaking of his craft, he stresses the importance of manual work and the creative process. Clay is the primordial foundation of sculpture, with nothing intervening between the hands and the material. The work comes into being almost organically, emerging from the material under the guidance of hands, the artist’s tools. Riippa works slowly and without any haste. Perhaps that is why the finished pieces seem so meditative.

Similarly, Riippa handles wood with reverence, steadily removing small pieces and chips. He takes time and care to work the surface with subtle variations – now roughening, now smoothing. The uppermost texture is like rich brushwork on a painting. Although the artist may have an image of the finished piece in his head, the process itself can lead to a new and surprising results. Coincidence too has meaning and charm of its own for both the artist and the viewer.

Riku Riippa’s work is pregnant with the history of art. One is reminded of Etruscan sculpture, of archaic, starkly reduced art accentuated by strong frontality and symmetry. But classicism also rears its head in the form of torsos with missing limbs, or it echoes ancient Roman portraits, perhaps even Egyptian art. A key format in portraiture is the bust, which is common in Riippa’s work. References to traditional Finnish wood carving, especially to human-shaped poor boxes common in Riippa’s native region of Ostrobothnia, are noticeable in one of his wood sculptures. The list of similarities could go on forever.

Instead of reflecting on influences from the past, it is rewarding to consider the subject of Riippa’s artworks: the human being – the origin and measure of everything. The human figure is inexhaustible: its essence, movement, postures and gestures and all their variations. And no wonder: one of Riippa’s greatest influences is the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, who, having found his ultimate idiom, tirelessly depicted the same, elongated human figure. Yet, the result was always highly nuanced and unique. Spiritual, even.

The same thing happens in Riippa’s work, although his figures are much more varied than those of Giacometti’s. By reducing and simplifying, Riippa approaches the essence and perhaps even the soul of humanity. His way of representing things is intrinsically linked to portraiture, but his figures are unknown, at times practically faceless. One feels like one is looking at statues of unknown people, dead for millennia, found in some archaeological excavation.Intrigued, we find ourselves asking who the people behind these portraits are.

Riippa’s figures hover between anonymous, universal depiction and the private, identifiable portrait. They reveal but also conceal, and raise questions rather than provide answers. They possess a similar poetic and enigmatic quality as the delicate art of his other favourite artist, the late 19th century Italian early modern sculptor Medardo Rosso. Riippa’s figures often seem withdrawn into themselves. In no hurry to be anywhere, they seem timeless. And the sense communicated by Riku Riippa’s art? That too is timeless. His work seems beyond the reach of trends and contemporary fashion. It is anchored in time and adds something essential to the here and now, yet it is not tied to the present moment. That’s usually a sign of good art.

Riku Riippa’s exhibition is on show at Söderlångvik Museum from 2.5.–30.9.2023. It consists of 15 sculptures in wood, ceramic, plaster or bronze created from 2013–2023.