Dance has inspired visual artists for millennia, from the painted vases of the ancient Greeks to the lyrical Dance paintings of Henri Matisse to the avant-garde sets for the Ballets Russes by the likes of Natalia Goncharova, Michel Larionov, and Picasso.
As an artist who favors the abstract, Finnish artist Santtu Mustonen looks to dance for a different kind of inspiration. Using a computer to animate his paintings, Mustonen makes art that moves—literally. Consider Metamorphosis, a 40-foot-long floating art installation whose dancing lights morph into vibrant shapes influenced by nature’s transformations. Or Assemblage, an animation with sound that turns a benign gathering of swirling black lines into an unsettling confrontation between order and chaos.
“With all the tools we have, I can make a work move almost like a dancer, I see a lot of connections to dance in my work.”Santtu Mustonen
The connections are about to intensify. This winter, New York City Ballet’s annual Art Series returns to the David H. Koch Theater for its fifth year with a show of animations, paintings, and photographs created for NYCB by Mustonen. Like his Art Series predecessors, who include the Brooklyn art consortium FAILE, photographer and street artist JR, painter and collagist Dustin Yellin, and multidisciplinary surrealist Marcel Dzama, Mustonen has set his sights on the David H. Koch Theater Promenade, a space he has admired since seeing it while attending a performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® during his first visit to New York in 2008.
Mindful of the Promenade’s towering height, generous dimensions, and multiple vantage points from the different rings, Mustonen’s plans call for an animated installation that plays with scale and alters the viewer’s perceptions in an Alice in Wonderland fashion. As he explains, “There’s no ending, there’s no start. It’s just ongoing, although of course I will be changing the emotion and spatial feeling of the space. It’s a piece where you can choose to get just a little glimpse or jump into the rabbit hole and experience it all.”
The experience began unfolding months ago in Mustonen’s airy white studio in Bushwick. Mustonen took a break from his work to talk about his art, his affinity for the dance, and life growing up in a tiny town in central Finland. Blanketing a large worktable were small paintings on paper bristling with abstract patterns and shapes in bright, limpid hues. Taped to the wall, a large acrylic rendering of an undulating wave in yellows and Egyptian blues exudes the sense of movement and energy that fascinates Mustonen and characterizes his work, whether animated or not.
“I like the action of making a mark,” he says, doodling to illustrate the point as the delicate music of harpist Mary Lattimore plays in the background. “What’s going on is the motion, and it’s beautiful. The mark is just proof of the beautiful action.” A proponent of monotonic movement and organic patterns, he likes to home in on subjects like water rippling or walking and recast them in the realm of the surreal in his paintings. Other influences are natural science and the idea of visualizing emotions like excitement, suspense, and distortion. Though his earliest work consisted of drawings, comics, and realistic imagery, Mustonen embraced abstract art because, as he explains, “I love to give the freedom to decide for yourself what it is. You can choose whether it looks scary or fascinating or whatever. And when you don’t build a story, you think of other things. Is it blurry? Is it sharp? How does it come together?”
Mustonen was drawn to the arts from an early age. “My brother was the son who played hockey, and I was the son who did figure skating,” he says with a laugh, adding that he studied dance, and ballet briefly, to improve his skating. But his interests in building things and painting prevailed, leading him to pursue industrial design at university, first in Helsinki then in Amsterdam. He eventually decided the profession was not for him. Armed with a grant from the Finnish Cultural Institute, he flew to New York in 2011 and immersed himself in the art world. His current CV includes gallery shows, a festive light installation on the facade of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and animations for the 2015 Academy Awards and MTV Video Music Awards.
“My brother was the son who played hockey, and I was the son who did figure skating”
In many ways, Mustonen has never strayed from his first loves of painting and building. Whether with acrylics or an airbrush, painting is the source of everything he creates. And while he admits his favorite style of painting is when it can be made to move, he is adamant that every animation grows from a painting. As for building, he views his painting style as a type of construction, whether it’s by assembling small airbrushed particles or bringing together larger images to create something new. (He also builds things in a literal sense, as evidenced by the sleek black bicycle in his studio that he designed and assembled.)
Mustonen is no stranger to the Koch Theater. He attended Art Series for the past two years and cites Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces as a favorite work. Asked about the opportunity to stage a solo show of his own in NYCB’s Lincoln Center home, he just smiles. “I was dreaming of doing this someday,” he says.