REVIEW | JASS KASELAAN: Still Life
JASS KASELAAN: Still Life
In the press release for the exhibition, Jass Kaselaan commented: “The material that inspired me while making Still Life was soil.” I ponder this as I enter an open room with large windows facing the street and metal grated, see-through stairs leading to the basement, and a single painting of a man and woman hangs on one of the bright white walls. There is no title, no description, no signifier that this painting is anything more than a found family portrait; I walk past with only a moment’s pause to see what is below. The start feels quite convoluted, obtuse even, for a genuine contemplation of life (or its lack thereof), or perhaps its unsatisfying still reflection.
In the lower level, there are three oversized tables burdened with waxy brown artifacts. I’m curious about the objects in triplet, obviously cast with halved seams still intact. There are regal, large horse heads with bulging eyes, thick mechanical gears and pipes, bulbous vegetation samples, and large animal haunches amid the assortment of artificial relics so methodically catalogued. I am less curious when I discover that all three tables are identical, each containing the same items in matching order the length of the room. Halfway through the second table, I find myself consulting the press release a second time to confirm if there is other work I have missed somewhere between here and the street. Regrettably, I did not.
I read again as Kaselaan elaborated further, “…When talking about soil, one cannot escape the topics of life and death. Soil connects the living and the dead, families and country, tells about the biological inevitability of being a human.” – an exhausted interpretation that I find utterly worn out. If the conceptual idea here is to convey the importance of soil: as a food resource, forest manager, and organic circulator, among others – using objects from the post-industrial society intermingled with referentially ancient civilization animal faces and unidentifiable chards doesn’t make it more apparent. Or interesting. If the approach was to capture life in particular moments and times to illustrate a lack of genuine growth and understanding amid such a valuable resource; well, Kaselaan’s stagnant and redundant presentation is disappointingly and predictably dull, muffling any interest (albeit small) in his message I might have had.
In the larger contemporary sculpture conversation here in Estonia, Kaselaan is considered, “without doubt, as one of the most acknowledged young sculptors in Estonia;”  and I can see why. He is working rather traditionally (in scale and in process) and that is incredibly appealing from a maker’s perspective; and he is making work that is recognizable (code for immediately relatable) in terms of size and material and form. For the same reasons, however, I find his work to be less absorbing in its totality than it is so boisterously characterized, or within the large constructs of sculpture. I struggle to be convinced that there is enough substance behind the larger-than-life pieces or superfluous multiples than simply exaggerating the fundamental elements of art and/or principles of design. Scale and volume and material simply aren’t enough, at least not in this exhibition, to “reactivate the tradition of sculpture and the symbolism in it, translating it into contemporary context.”  I can’t help but think, traditional sculptures, the works of Rodin or Brancusi, need little activation – they are still ripe with meaning and substance. The same could be said for contemporary sculptors, such as Richard Serra or Donald Judd or Tara Donovan; each succeeding where Kaselaan does not – avoiding the superfluous and non-three-dimensional to so poetically proffer their notions of space and place, memory and history. As I walk past the portrait of the unknown couple again, this time on my left, I don’t even look to know that I have already forgotten their faces.
JASS KASELAAN: Still Life was exhibited at Hobusepea gallerii October 12 – 31, 2016. Exhibition supported by the Cultural Endowment of Estonia. For more, visit: www.eaa.ee/hobusepea/english/enindex.html
Image captions: Jass Kaselaan, Still Life, detail, Photo: Erinn M. Cox; Still Life, Photo: Sirja-Liisa Eelma, Still Life, Photo: Sirja-Liisa Eelma, Still Life, detail, Photo: Erinn M. Cox
Footnotes:  Anders Härm, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Estonia (EKKM) and the chair of the Köler Prize jury; Kaselaan was the recipient in 2014; Härm