An essay from an exhibition catalogue of Kain Tapper's, Chicago 1995

A Universal Finn
By Peter Schjeldahl

There are three spatial orders of aesthetic contemplation: background, middleground, and foreground. The background is our environment. It is the order of architecture. The foreground, within arm's reach, is the order of objects. The middleground, at which our powers of sight function with maximum efficiency, is the order of presences. Anything in the middleground that it not otherwise explicable might be deemed "art."

We "look at" things in the middleground. We "see" things in the background. Our eyesight for things in the foreground is indistinct, partly giving over to touch and perhaps smell.

Kain Tapper's sculptures physically inhabit the middleground, but their most telling effects, Tapper's gifts to experience, belong to the orders of background and foreground.

American viewers may have trouble with Tapper.

If there is an American Habit of perception, as I believe there is, it is relentlessly middlegrounding. We like having things, and also people, where we can look at them. For this purpose, we pull backgrounds forward (as quickly readable images in our architecture) and push foregrounds away (favoring spectacle over tactile qualities in our object design). Minimalist sculpture, an American invention, merges architecture and object in effects of sheer presence.

Tapper's sculptures recede from and approach the eye, simultaneously.

In Finland, the middleground feels relatively unimportant. Finns seem not to do much "looking at." I find them to be reticent people, sensitive to the aggressive power of gazes. They do not like feeling caught in the middleground of your gaze, and they politely avoid making you feel caught in theirs.

(I am aware of violating that politeness by rhetorically middelgrounding "Finland" and "the Finns." I beg indulgence for my rude way of loving Finland, offered as food for thought.)

Finns "see" comprehensively, and they touch. Theirs is a visual culture pre-eminently of architecture and of objects. They seem to me unique among Western peoples in the degree of their genius for backgrounds and foregrounds. (Not for nothing are they often compared with the Japanese.)

Tapper's sculptures are not, as they might at first appear to American eyes, failed presences. They are successful escapes from presence. This is a difficult matter for an American. When I first grasped the character of Tapper, I felt dizzy, mentally stumbling. Later I learned to take pleasure in this very disorientation, as a vacation from "looking at."

The shapes and metaphors, and at times the size, of Tapper's works are "remote", evoking things contemplated from a distance. Even when small, his pieces loom like menhirs, their massiveness imposing an inhuman scale.

Metaphorically, the distance embodied in a Tapper entails time: that of living wood in the immemorial forest. By extension, the wood is living flesh in the land of the dead. Tapper's sense of death, his constant theme, is frank but not frightening, akin to never quenched Eros of the Etruscan tombs that have lately inspired him.

American eyes (which are not the monopoly of the Americans) may mistake Tapper's effect of distance for mere vagueness, but those backgrounding phenomena come into proper focus when their opposite, foreground terms are registered.

Tapper's surface details and qualities pertain to touch and smell, senses that rebel against the dominance of sight. To study his works close-up is not just to augment one's knowledge of them. It is to enter upon a zone of intimate pleasure that express a complete world. Within arm's reach, the ambit of embraces, the work breathes and sighs from its secrecy to yours.

If there is a vestigial middleground term to Tapper's sculpture, it is a luxuriant warmth of subtle color that elides near and far.

Tapper's sculpture will be "art" if you like and not-art (simply architectural ornament) if you don't. It will not stand forth narcissistically as a precious presence. It wants to be away from you to meditate upon timelessness. It wants to be as near to you as a lover, whispering to your touch.

Few other artists invest content so primitive in form so considerate of common sensibilities. Tapper is a good companion of humanity. His work dreams along with us, wherever we are going on our mysteriously shared way.

© 1995 Peter Schjeldahl