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Just Ducky

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Kaj Stenvall's Paintings Turn Finnish Embassy Into'Birdhouse'

The red convertible stands along the side of a dirt country road, parked along a tidy row of trees that overlook charming pastoral scenery. Although the opened passenger door covers the subject’s midsection, it is clear from the spraying stream of yellow liquid what he’s up to.

What’s intriguing about the painting—titled “Freely Breathing”—is the fact that the urinating driver is not a man. He’s a duck. More precisely, he’s part duck, part human.

Such is the tone of the Kaj Stenvall show at the Embassy of Finland, where the oil canvases on display are humorous, quirky and just plain fun.

Stenvall began using the duck character, a likeness of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, in 1989. The pop culture icon became a staple for the artist and a favorite among Finnish art lovers, who still enjoyed the paintings even as the artist’s portrayal of the subject evolved over the years.

The 36 canvases on display at the embassy were mostly created in recent years, with several of them completed earlier in 2007 specifically for the exhibit. Together, they turn the embassy into a birdhouse—also the name of the exhibition—an especially fitting effect for the modern, industrial structure that seems to float among the trees along Massachusetts Avenue.

Stenvall’s duck, in the artist’s words, was chosen as a subject to project humanity without being fully human. He described the character as versatile, with the ability to switch gender, age, skin color and appearance to fit the theme of each individual painting.

Although there is a touch of humor in each piece, the sentiments conveyed by the canvases range from funny to ironic to sad to disturbing.

In “World of Blues,” the duck’s upper body appears above the rim of a bathtub in which the bird is resting with its head down. Perhaps because the artist encircled the bird in soft shades of blue, he actually conveys a sense of sadness in the subject’s expression—no small feat for a fictitious duck.

In another painting, the duck’s neck and head are attached to a four-legged white table that stands in as its body. Underneath the table are two golden eggs, which the duck presumably laid.

In many paintings, the duck takes center stage in bucolic settings or portraitures. In others, he is a peripheral character peering out from objects such as coffee mugs and budding flowers. Some verge on the religious and dark sides of mass culture and history, with a Virgin Mary duck in one and what appears to be a gas chamber in another. In one image, the bird is engraved in a wooden cutting board that has been worn from use in the bird’s crotch.

The artist garners inspiration from a wide array of sources and art movements, and the appeal of his latest exhibit is its playful mishmash of influences. The duck brings together modern and traditional; landscapes and pop art; still life and surrealism.

In the one painting that does not include the Donald Duck-like character, a beautiful swan swims under a moonlit sky. The title of the painting is “Lately I Haven’t Been Quite Myself.”

Birdhouse: An Exhibition by Kaj Stenvall through May 13 Embassy of Finland 3301 Massachusetts Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 298-5800 or visit www.finland.org.

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999