By DEREK CHENG

At first, abstract art was nothing more than senseless shapes and forms to Finnish artist Agneta Ekholm.

"There was no centre-point and I thought it looked like a mess," she says. "It took me some time before I actually found a language within that. Suddenly all those forms and shapes made sense, more powerful than figurative work."

Ekholm's latest paintings on canvas and perspex are showing at Whitespace Gallery. Set against solid colours, her works show depth and movement through layers of forms and shadows, lines and textures.

Ekholm has been living in Melbourne for 10 years, but is aware of her Scandinavian roots. The fusion of these cultures form her identity, which inspires her art - the colours of Australia and the elements of Scandinavian winter.

"If you are a visual artist, painting is a creative activity that drives what's deepest within you and clarifies who you are," she says. "Deepest within you are your roots, so my art is a cultural expression.

"When you are so far removed from [your roots], it becomes a longing. It's beautiful to long for something - I always have to paint to get that longing out of me."

The titles of her canvas works include Snow, Lick and White Heat; nature and the senses are clearly strong influences. Her perspex pieces are named after places - Bondi, Helsinki, Grey Lynn - which helps to explain how she uses colour.

"If I close my eyes and think of Bondi, all I see is this beautiful, cobalt blue, as sky and water melt into one. Red for me is always Australia - the warmth, but it's also very aggressive."

Ekholm thinks of white when she pictures New Zealand, because of the land's purity and snow.

Vivid childhood memories also inspire her art. "I remember objects underneath the ice but I couldn't touch them. I couldn't understand the concept of what ice was ... it was very mystifying." Trying to recreate that memory is what drove Ekholm to experiment with perspex.

While she says her perspex and canvas works differ in appearance, they are born of the same technique. She uses brushes to place paint on her chosen medium, then creates shapes with her own secret weapon - sponges. "I clean the edges and make the forms with about 25 different sponges."

She doesn't wish to reveal what types she uses, but giggles at how common they are.

The lines are so precise that people have accused her of using masking tape. But Ekholm insists all it takes is training and intense concentration. And a very steady hand.

"With the perspex, I use a cloth and gloves and get those straight lines with my hands."

Though she has been perfecting her technique since graduating from fine arts school in 1996, Ekholm feels she is just starting to master her medium. She says artists should always be learning and improving.

Her work is quite unlike anything else, she claims. While hoping viewers can understand her art, she concedes that individual reactions vary when it comes to the abstract.

"I don't think I can tell the viewer what they should see. I just hope my work evokes a vision, their own personal impression. The pure immediate reaction to the work - that's what I'm after.

"When they come back and say, 'I had to buy this painting because it has tranquillity in it, or it makes me feel in a certain way, or it reminds me of something' - that is extremely rewarding."

But creating the work is the most rewarding aspect, she says. "If I don't paint for a month, I get very edgy and I'm not very nice to be with, so I always feel I should do more. I love what I do, and that's important because that shines through in my work. It's such a passionate thing to paint and I would never give it up - never."

EXHIBITION

*What: New Work, by Agneta Ekholm

*Where and when: Whitespace Contemporary Art Gallery, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to Nov 12