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Loving the Grid
Ola Kolehmainen’s Minimalist Photographs

His elements are repetition, architecture, and the camera: Ola Kolehmainen's photographs of structures, patterns, and grids adhere to the austere minimalism of a Donald Judd or Dan Flavin. Despite this, his brilliantly colorful images radiate something mysterious. Yet where does it come from? Alistair Hicks decided to investigate and visited the artist in his vacation home on an island in the Gulf of Finland.

Ola Kolehmainen in front of a poster
showing his work Super Composition
©Photo: Jouko Lehtola

"Space! Colour! Light! That’s how I choose the locations for my pictures," explains Ola Kolehmainen, a leading photographer of the Helsinki School. His choice of buildings betrays his deep love for Minimalism. He still has the note a workshop teacher, Christie Johnson, once slipped him advising him to look at three artists he’s still looking at: Donald Judd , James Turrell , and Dan Flavin. There is a strong sense of structure in his pictures, often a very obvious grid, yet invariably he subverts these clean, repetitive patterns. The same goes for his use of colour and light: the light sources are frequently a mystery, while the colours often undergo change.

Untitled (Panton Vol I), 2005,
Deutsche Bank Collection,
Courtesy Galerie Anhava

Deutsche Bank's ad for the Frieze Art Fair
featuring the work
"Untitled (Panton Vol. I)" by Ola Kolehmainen

Architecture supplies the subject matter for all his work, but when I interviewed Ola on the terrace of his wooden house on his island in the Gulf of Finland, there was no other building in sight. Indeed, the very occasional boat skimming between the archipelago was the only evidence of man’s intrusion. Despite the elegant, modernist lines, there is little indication that this is an artist’s vacation home. Stacks of neatly packed logs are Kolehmainen’s most evident contribution to island life, but rather than as intimations of Judd’s work, they could equally be read as a leftover trace of his military background – he is the son of a general. Ostensibly, he does most of his work in his new home in Berlin and during his travels, but the peaceful island does supply a perfect base for the conceptual thinking that underpins the Helsinki School.

See What You See, 2006,
Deutsche Bank Collection, Courtesy Galerie Anhava

Aalto, 2006,
Courtesy Galerie Anhava

As a child, Ola showed little indication of becoming an artist. He worked his way through various sports before he went to California on a school exchange at the age of eighteen. His best friend was a skateboarder who was starting to enter competitions. Ola was induced to take photographs of the budding champion, which featured large in Thrasher, the skateboard magazine. On his return to Finland, he studied journalism at the University of Helsinki; he was into new jazz at the time and started taking photographs for music magazines and festivals.

Portaikko - Trappan, 1996/99,
Courtesy Galerie Anhava

In 1992, Kolehmainen switched to the University of Art and Design to study photography. He found the image that set him on his present path in 1996: his photograph of a staircase in Tokyo contains strong horizontal and vertical lines gently challenged by curves. He further developed his concerns the following year in 1997 in his degree show Temple at the Gallery Kluuvi. The main work consisted of seven large photographs of a deserted Russian barracks in Paldiski in neighbouring Estonia. "Everything, including the window frames, had been stolen from the place, so all that was left were black gaping holes in a red brick wall," said Ola before explaining how he went about making the piece. "I was interested in continuing the space – to get a sense of the whole panorama. If I kept the position of the camera stationary, gaps would appear in the panorama, so I moved the camera to exactly the same distance and angle from another window further down the wall. I altered the space by going round the corner of the building to take a further couple of windows, and then I repeated one as I wanted a seventh image." Kolehmainen implements continuous repetition to build up the image. This is one of the main reasons why he likes to make his photographs large and inserts them in sheets of Plexiglas: to emphasize their existence as objects.

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