Many of Melissa Finkenbiner’s oil paintings are about the touch of the profound to the mundane. Striving to bring out how ones identity can be gained or lost in a moment and wanting to make the subjects of her paintings universal, she realised that not only clothing, but even hair identified people as being from a particular time and place. Since then she has frequently painted people without hair. Two years ago she arrived in Yangon, where she realised that this concept had already been put into effect for many centuries.
She has explored more deeply in this direction while living in Yangon by letting the sights, ideas, mythology and visual language influence her work. Some works, like the monk in Sleeping and Dying, draw closely and clearly on her observations. In this work, the awkward position of the monk lying not far from a reclining Buddha makes the viewer unsure whether he is sleeping or dead. This leads the thoughts to the life of a monk, who has given up the possessions and family which loom so large in most lives. In fact, Melissa points out, when we die, all that remains are our acts and deeds. The monks are living that out now, but it is true for us all once we are dead. Other works are homages to works of old masters such as Parmigianino and Caravaggio. Her painting ‘The Chinthei and his Son’, for example, draws on Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’ but reading the mistaken killing of the chinthe by his son through the famous painting of the wrongful execution of St John. Ideas of transformation — from ignorance to knowledge, from working to creating, from rage to peace, from life to death — predominate in many of the paintings. Melissa Finkenbiner came to Pansodan Gallery on 21 January 2014 to talk about her work and her upcoming exhibition at Pansodan Scene.
What are your main artistic influences?
Artemisia Gentileschi, Tomasz Rut, Caravaggio, and Michael Buesking are the core ones I always come back to. My style reminds some people of mannerists, and the end of the Baroque period. Even though I love art from every movement, that’s a movement that I go back to because it has this art that is partly based on what you see in reality, but also on an ideal. For me, I don’t see the point of painting exactly what’s in a photograph. Why is seeing somebody sleeping in a monastery interesting? My art is about taking what you can’t see in a photograph and changing the balance, the colours, bringing out the ideas. It’s about making something mundane seem monumental, getting those thoughts across.
What impact do you hope this exhibition might have on the Burmese art community?
Melissa Finkenbiner: Sleeping and DyingI was a bit worried about that at first. [Founder of Nawaday Thalar Gallery] Pyay Way said he had never seen a monk painted sleeping, though is how you always see the monks. It is closer to reality than a painting of monks walking into the sunset. It is unique but still grounded in what is Myanmar. When people look at my pieces they can tell exactly where I painted them. These are Myanmar.
How does your interest in mythology shape your artistic ambitions?
Sometimes I think mythological stories tell more truth than other narratives. Mythology tells the stories of how people react to the situations they are in and reflect universal truths about human nature. However, mythological stories also contain characteristics and themes that are unique to the cultures from which they are derived. The myth of the Chinthe was a beautiful story and one that is very much a part of Myanmar. However, you could compare the myth of the Chinthe to Western mythology and find many of the same story elements. It is a beautiful thing.
Melissa Finkenbiner studied art at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, USA. She has been living in Yangon for two years. Her exhibition Last Compositions, can be seen 25 January – 2 February at Pansodan Scene, 144 Pansodan, Second Floor, Middle Block, Kyauktada, Yangon. Her website is http://www.fineartbymelissa.com
Interview by Nance Cunningham and Kirt Mausert
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