Merike Estna (1980) is an artist working in the expanded field of painting, often departing from the limits of canvas, encompassing environments, objects as well as bodies. In her paintings, Estna uses repetitive elements and patterns, increasingly focusing on mythological themes and performative aspects. Referring to traditional craft techniques, Estna questions the opposition between the femininity of craft and the masculinity of painting.
Estna has been exhibiting since the early 2000s, when she presented her photorealist and Pop-like paintings and collages. In her earlier works over-sexualised female nudes, forceful men and naive children tell stories of a neoliberal consumer society. During her Master’s studies at Goldsmiths College in London, Estna’s style begun to change and by 2012 she arrived at an approach focused on a recreating of meaning in painting.
A significant aspect of Estna’s practice is bringing painting and everyday life together. She explores how to reflect change through the fixed and definitive medium of painting. In her work, Estna searches for the touching points of painting and everyday life – her work includes set design, seats, tiled floors, curtains, everyday objects, garments, food, drink, etc. These works are created for a tactile experience: for being touched by hand, to be worn or tasted. Estna’s solo exhibition “Blue lagoon” (2014) at Kumu Art Museum showcased her work with painting in an extended field.
Estna’s paintings often take the form of a “performative presence”, as the artist describes it. There, the artist becomes something of a host, setting the stage for participants to socialise. These ideas are present in the repeatedly staged performance “Red Herring”, first shown in 2017 at Rupert Residency in Vilnius. Later, the work developed into “picnic on painting”, presented at the Performa Festival in New York (2017), at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki and Kim? Contemporary Art Center, Riga (2018).
Since 2016 Estna has grown increasingly interested in traditional craft techniques. In her various projects Estna has begun including traditional ceramics and tapestry to expand the medium of painting (“Cleaners gloves, painters memoir”, 2017; exhibition “The seed can be initialized randomly”, 2017) and used ceramics, textile and tapestry as canvas evoke the historical opposition between craft and painting. While craft has historically been considered feminine, painting has traditionally been a men’s domain. This opposition leads to value judgments: painting is perceived as superior and craft as secondary. Through questions of form and material Estna comes to a broader social critique, highlighting the value of women’s work, the decline of craft practices, time spent on creating artworks as well as the strict division between painting and craft.
Estna’s vocabulary of form includes repetitive elements that often help navigate her themes and concepts: signs of sign language and emoticons denote technology’s impact on human interaction and mops and gloves illustrate gendered hierarchy in domestic work as well as in the art world (“Mop up” and “Black gloves”, 2017). Since 2018 Estna also works with mythological themes. For the 13th Baltic Triennial Estna created a work titled “an egg, a larva, a nymph” (2018), which included depictions of snakes and insects to refer to a local tradition of associating ancestors’ souls with animals. Burning beeswax sculptures and lilies in piles of dirt expanded the field of painting to include the sense of smell and juxtaposed the worlds of the living and the dead with their specific rituals (“Disposable Gloves Guide” Kim? Contemporary Art Center, Riga, 2018).
In her solo exhibition “Mother of Pearls” at the Karen Huber Gallery in Mexico (2019) and Haapsalu City Gallery (“Pärlite ema”, 2020) Estna brought together autobiographical, mythological, social and political themes. She used mother of pearl as a symbol or metaphor to extend her research in painting. These previously mentioned themes also inspired her first solo show in Scandinavia, “Ghost of the future, filled with memories of past” (curated by Andreas Nilsson, 2019‒2020) at Moderna Museet Malmö. In 2020 Estna created together with the artist Jaime Alonso Lobato Cardoso the artistic persona The Lovers of Hansalu, whose name refers to the pair of human remains found in Iran in 1972.
Merike Estna graduated from the painting department at the Estonian Academy of Arts (BA, 2005) and from Goldsmiths, University of London (MFA, 2009). She has received several Estonian art awards, among them the Hansapank stipend (2004), the Eduard Wiiralt Prize (2005) and Konrad Mägi Prize (2014). Her works belong to the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia and Tartu Art Museum as well as Loviisa City Collection, Finland. Estna has participated in international exhibitions in Europe, USA and Latin America, for example at the Karen Huber Gallery in Mexico, Kunstraum London, Galerie Georg Kargl in Vienna, Contemporary Art Centre Vilnius and Kim? Contemporary Art Center, Riga. Estna is among the recipients of the national artists’ salary between 2020 and 2022.