“Once I get the image in my mind, I have to get it out. I have to draw or paint it as quickly as I can,” Aaron Sirainen of Helsinki, Finland tells me over a Zoom call. The twenty-one year old artist and model explains that his paintings, which often initially begin as a self-portrait, are what got him through the pandemic. Not only emotionally but also as a financial boon during difficult times for the fashion industry. Over the past year, runway shows from Paris to Milan to New York have been sporadic during the rolling lockdowns across Europe and the United States.
“Why a self portrait?” I asked. It seemed natural to mention the cautionary tale of Narcissus who famously rejected everyone until he fell in love with his own reflection.
“It comes from a place of excitement when things are going well or during lulls when things are not. It’s very much a feeling of being on a rollercoaster…it’s about how I’m feeling in that moment.”
This idea is certainly present in the work. In one oil stick on paper work (below), Sirainen is depicted on the floor painting a work in which you, the viewer and subject, eventually realize is the work you’re staring at. His expression is both one of focus and suspence, as if the viewer should determine what comes next. The zigzagging lines and the bold outlines of the shirt in this work recall those of Matisse’s last oil paintings while the accentuated features of Sirainen’s figure take a more fauvist tone.
Some of his work seems to heavily reference futurism with its bold use of primary colors (especially yellow) while other works recall the harsh strokes and primitive lines of contemporary painters like Mark Grotjahn. Perhaps the most amusing aspect is watching Sirainen’s self-portrait mutate and shift across his body of work. Influenced by the full range of his emotions, there are moments of cold blue despair (which recall Picasso’s blue period), colorful agitation, chaos, and abject hopelessness. There is even a moment where the familiar self-portrait transforms into an otherworldly beast smoking a cigarette.
“A dragon,” Sirainen tells me. “One day, I thought if I had to be an animal, which animal would I want to be? It was simple. A dragon.” And so his self-portrait shifts slightly into the silhouette of a dragon and yet somehow you can still tell it’s Aaron.
“I have a friend group in Finland and pretty much everyone has their own superpower. There are a few rappers, photographers, designers, painters and all that good stuff”
When I asked about his artistic references he mentions a number of mid-century artists such as Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Lucian Freud. Sirainen hasn’t had any formal training. Rather, he has been drawing and doodling his entire life, but it was only a few years ago that he decided to paint on a larger scale. When he began posting his work on social media, a platform he had gained a following on through modeling, there was great interest.
“I can’t take any photos with the works you see on my Instagram, or even do a show like I want to,” he explained to me.
I asked him why, since it would be much more compelling for a feature to have images of him photographed with his work.
“Well, because they all sold,” he lamented.
The silver lining was that Sirainen had just returned to Helsinki from a three month stay in Tokyo for modeling where the coronavirus had been much more contained. There, following two romantic breakups, he had been inspired to do a series of works on paper with oil stick. It caused a great deal of commotion and speculation as many models residing in the same building Sirainen was living in came to watch him work.
“Those works we can take photos with. I had them shipped from Tokyo to Helsinki but then they got stuck on the ship in the Suez Canal,” he joked. Luckily, that ship was freed by way of the moon and we are able to share them here.
Back in Helsinki, I wonder if there are other collaborators or artists that Sirainen exchanges ideas with. Surely, being an artist all alone could get lonely.
“I have a friend group in Finland and pretty much everyone has their own superpower. There are a few rappers, photographers, designers, painters and all that good stuff,” he explains.
In a world where artists no longer rise as a part of collectives or movements, the internet has been a liberating tool where they can be discovered in their own right. In this way, Sirainen is curating a gallery of his own using Instagram – one where his face is seen through the lens of others and one where his emotions are expressed through his own hand. Though, it certainly makes you wonder about the meaning or significance of self-portrait paintings on an app that all but coined the word, selfie.
Photography by Roope Reinola