“Les Portes de Mazamet” is a series of watercolour studies of Mazametan doors.
Hand made with care and precision, most of these doors date to the beginning of the 20th century, when the pelt and textile mills provided a steady trickle of wealth into this town and the surrounding areas, making it possible for the local architecture to thrive in their shadow. Some doors are heavy, bordering on ostentatious, others more understating and elegant. Even a century on, it is clear each door is a portrait of the person who once commissioned it. This is the legacy of dozens of local craftsmen, whose aim was to create each one, from the most modest to straight out flamboyant, a unique statement.
With the industries long gone, and the town of Mazamet still waiting for its second renaissance, so many homes once filled with life are now derelict, falling on disrepair. Rejuvenation of the town is well on its way, but as it is the case with modernisation everywhere, by wishing to start anew, we risk losing all traces of those who were here before us. By choosing to paint a series of front doors of Mazamet, hidden on plain view, Lilja wishes to encourage interaction and appreciation of the old and the overlooked.
The year 2016 marks a shift in Lilja’s work towards pure pattern. Although she had been toying with the idea of devoting an entire canvas to what she had essentially viewed as a background, assigning her time in creating these time consuming and often back-breakingly complicated designs turned out to be a needed escape from running a small gallery she had set up with her husband upon moving to the South of France. Varying from fairly straightforward to intense, these pattern repeats are inspired by the architecture and decoration found in her adoptive hometown of Mazamet.
The small town of Mazamet, situated just on the foot of the Montagne Noire is an old industrial town fallen in trouble after the collapse of the local pelt- and wool industries in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The town is currently being rejuvenated, yet some ghosts from the past are yet to be banished – from the grand villas and lavishly built merchants houses resting empty and neglected to the behemoth carcasses of the abandoned factories scattered on the mountain side.
A year spent in Bretagne was a time of intense studio work for Lilja, who had relocated to France with her partner and was struggling to settle into her new surroundings. Although she was quickly adopted by a local art association, Lilja spent much of her time working in her home studio, on colourful, comfortable subjects that reminded her of Finland as well as the time spent in Scotland, selecting only a handful of French items that ever made it on canvas.
She developed her relationship with iconic brands further while beginning to introduce more colour and pattern, working on small scale, only once returning to her preferred 100x120cm format in “1958” – a portrait of a Finnish pack of Cigarettes dedicated to the artists father who had discovered the empty pack while renovating an attic of a late 1950’s apartment building.
These pieces created during Lilja’s fourth and final year in the Edinburgh College of Art make a good cross cut on her practice as a whole. We are seeing older themes, such as a number of playthings from the artists childhood making a comeback, but these paintings are near shadowed by her large scale works depicting mundane everyday goods, commanding to be looked at. Oftentimes the objects themselves are Finnish and painted plainly and realistically on otherwise plainly coloured canvas, without any additional shadows or illusion of depth. With foreign text illegible to most and the blatant working class connotations associated with these items hidden from those not intimately familiar with Finnish culture, these are pieces with a secret story to tell.
“North State”, a painting of a traditional working man’s pack of fags, in Finland viewed as a smoking pleasure for the rough and the raw, symbolises the artists deprived working class background being laid bare for an audience to gawk at – something that becomes socially acceptable only when shrouded in the pretext of culture, but remains distasteful if not outright vulgar in any other context. Elevating something mundane and under looked before a willing audience has always fascinated Lilja, and creating pieces where any deeper meaning is deliberately obscured has since become a corner stone of her painted work.
Having returned to the Edinburgh College of Art for her third year, Lilja was ready to continue her exploration of painting “things”: giant floating doll’s heads, things without a defined background and things that in essence were formed only by the background alone. The continuous thread of wishing to combine traditional painting with purely decorative elements and empty surfaces can be seen throughout the artist work, from the earlier examples up until today.
As fascinating as the creation of intricate patterning was to Lilja, she found herself being drawn closer and closer to replicating physical substances: rubber, plastic, fabric and hair being her many favourites. And this is where the sex toys enter the frame. At the time of the first of her large scale dildo-painting, Lilja was, believe it or not, working her way out of using provocative subject matter in her paintings as she felt it was diverting the viewers’ attention away from what she saw as her true craft of simply painting “things and what they were made of”. When the opportunity arose to get her hands on a box full of deliciously visual marital aids, glittery and girly with candy coloured transparent silicone, she simply could not resist the temptation, subsequently creating her most divisive series of works up to date.
“Gordon’s Gin” an oil painting dearest to the artist heart, not least as it was later bought by her future husband, arose directly from the desire of distancing her studio work from controversial subjects, becoming a fine example of her studies on glass, light and typography.
This period in Lilja’s oeuvre is characterised by intense self-exploration, in the form of violently unflattering auto-portraiture designed to expose and revel in the perceived imperfections of the artist, slowly giving way to more gentile reworking of the iconography of her childhood, concluding in pieces that are more resolved, if not minimalist in comparison.
A large part of this development in Lilja’s studio work can be attributed to the ongoing dialogue with the artist and her peers in the Edinburgh College of Art, guidance by the staff as well as the influence of other well established artists based in Scotland. Simultaneously, a shift is taking place regarding the subjects she is choosing to paint: The raw human forms convulsed by emotion are being pushed out of view and replaced by serene inanimate subjects, with a shared aesthetic of soft colours and large empty surfaces. Through spending longer on singular, carefully chosen subjects, Lilja’s style of painting is evolving, too. Fascinated by the idea of replicating different textures and makes, she is finding herself, again, turning towards more traditional oil painting.
Created during her first year in the Edinburgh College of Art, these paintings represent Lilja’s practice in flux. For any young artist, this is a time of experimentation, taking risks and learning lessons. Some of the themes and techniques first seen in this period continue to inspire the artist to this day, as others have long elapsed. Combining needlework with a painted surface is a good example of a long lived obsession with roots in Lilja’s first year studies, as is adopting 110x120cm format for her large scale works.