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Go Inside the Cartoonishly Surreal Mind of Painter Anja Salonen

Salonen's paintings often have red, swollen noses, which occasionally detach from the face like Mr. Potato Head.

by DJ Pangburn
Apr 8 2017, 11:50am

Images courtesy of the artist

Los Angeles-based artist Anja Salonen stretches, bends, elongates, deforms and warps her figures in ways that are comically deadpan and simply strange. Her works are like proto-surrealist Giorgio di Chirico run through digital media. Salonen explores the body through identity politics, race, gender, and sexuality. The work is not overly political, but more personal—at least a personal view of the world that values symmetry and predictability.

Salonen, who grew up in Santa Monica and London, became serious about oil painting around the age of 14. After high school, she studied painting at a small art school where the class toured the old master works of Italy. The school also gave students studio space on Paros, one of the Cycladic islands of Greece, where Salonen applied what she learned about the art and history of oil painting, including techniques, pigments, smells, and alchemical processes. After briefly attending Rhode Island School of Design, Salonen is currently finishing her BFA at California Institute of the Arts.

Faces figure so prominently in Salonen's work because she interested in their uncanny qualities. She is drawn to the fact that humans recognize faces biologically, see them where they don't exist, and read all sorts of emotions and facts from them. Which is why the figures in Salonen's paintings often have red, swollen noses, which occasionally detach from the face like Mr. Potato Head.

"A certain tinge of green in a face can indicate an unknowable illness," says Salonen. "Two eyes angled slightly differently from one another suggest some sort of deformity, an elongated mouth, a red nose, a floppy tongue—often minor alterations of accepted standards of facial features causes some kind of cognitive disconnect. As in, you know it's a face, you know what a face is made up of, but the subtleties of it don't fit that knowledge."

"But, there is nothing special about an inaccurately drawn face," she adds. "I guess the dissonance comes when a face or body is rendered realistically, and that warping is rendered with the same treatment. It just becomes a different world, where that's what 'people' look like. I think that's what ties my work together—that my figures live in that same world."

Salonen's flat but colorful style comes from comics. After occasionally using comics as source imagery, she realized the medium's visual language spoke to her in much the same way uncanny faces do.

"There is a democracy to comic book language—they are narrative, easily-readable images that we are familiar with," says Salonen. "Using that visual language in a way that subverts its readability seemed interesting to me, creating seemingly narrative, bright, colorful images that upon further inspection revealed absurdity and discomfort."

Salonen paints as if she is sculpting. The form eventually reveals itself through gradations in a color's lightness or darkness, to which she acts or reacts. Often, she feels that the painting already knows what it wants to be, and her task is to figure it out.

"When I paint, a stream of questions like these runs through my mind," she adds. "What color underneath her eye will make her a little bit tired? What highlight will make her tongue feel gooey? What shadow will push her nose forward? I have a complex and often contradictory relationship to my own body, one of both care and disgust, a sense of expansion and uncontainability as well as one of entrapment and claustrophobia."

Currently, Salonen is working on a series of paintings that further develop this idea of subtle distortion, this time using her own face and body. Salonen wants to see how far she can go with the distortion and still remain recognizable. 

Though Salonen explores identity politics, race, gender, and sexuality in her work, she is not after a single truth or experience in her work. Salonen is more interested in her own relationship to her body, both viscerally and metaphysically."I'm attracted to the way that paint can mimic the subtleties of flesh," Salonen notes. "At times a single brush stroke with the right speed and direction can describe an entire weight of a body."

Click here to see more of Anja Salonen's work.

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