The Enigmatic Heads of Johan Wahlstrom

Johan Wahlstrom, Brainstorming, 2018. Urethane mixed with color pigments on canvas, 60 by 60 inches. © Johan Wahlstrom. Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.

Johan Wahlstrom “Collisions”

Georges Bergès Gallery

June 13—30, 2019 

By RAPHY SARKISSIAN, September 2019 

Phantasmagoric, mask-like faces executed through exceedingly expressionistic brushstrokes repetitively appear in a series of recent paintings by Johan Wahlstrom. While intertwined and diaphanous visages with enigmatic expressions dominate the composition in a number of works, Wahlstrom has rendered the motif of the mask barely visible in another set of otherwise purely abstract paintings of various compositional features. Whether the depiction of the face is overt or concealed, these arresting pictures of the exhibition recall the pioneering visual grammar and instances of Surrealism, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, as well as a series of notable paintings by Mark Grotjahn of the past two decades. As if having excavated from the legacy of modernist and contemporary art, Wahlstrom reformulates the features of the pictorial mask through the opulent formalist language of Abstract Expressionism. Within these works, painterly brushwork, smudges, strokes and drips in vibrant and neutral colors give rise to distinct renditions of human heads that present themselves to the spectator as means for introspection.

Johan Wahlstrom, Waiting for the World to Change, 2019. Urethane mixed with color pigments on canvas, 50 by 80 inches. © Johan Wahlstrom. Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.

Intense blue contours continue swirling in Waiting for the World to Change (2019), generating intertwined countenances tilted in endless directions within the electrifying space of the painting, inundated by shades of vivid pink and ochre. Wahlstrom has singularly articulated these facial expressions, conveying a diverse set of psychological implications that range from pure attentiveness to unfathomable meditation to neutral indifference to wholly closed eyes that shift the beholder’s perception to the domain of dreams and the unconscious. Partial arms and hands are depicted within this massif of transparent heads that are suspended across the visual field, pronouncing the duality of touch and sight as the twofold conditions of painting as well as that of the individual’s sensorial reality. As the emphatic texture of the painting generates symbolic imagery here, Wahlstrom connects the tactility of the hand to the opticality of vision, both suspended within the pictorial field of the painting that presents itself as a modality of boundless space that is nonetheless inseparable from its unrelenting materiality. The motif of the hand that appears in three instances here recalls the prehistoric cave paintings in Pech Merle in Occitanie in France, for instance, where visual representations continue bewildering us. As the pictorial space of Wahlstrom signals at the pre-historical through the juxtaposition of hands and eyes, touch and vision come across as concurrent, inseparable entities that formulate perception. Waiting for the World to Change incorporates the far past and near present instances of image making, relying upon the materiality and texture of painting that presents the potentiality for travelling above and over that physicality through sensation. This impressive painting of Wahlstrom, like Paul Klee’s astonishing painting Introducing the Miracle (1922) of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, unequivocally asserts materiality and sensation, themselves running parallel to the simultaneity of hapticity and opticality, body and mind, actuality and potentiality.

This art-historically charged depiction of Wahlstrom may also recall Number 7 (1952) by Jackson Pollock of the Metropolitan Museum of Art insofar as the highly gestural rendition of the head is concerned. Furthermore, these imaginary, mask-like faces of Wahlstrom tie themselves to such modernist masterworks as The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch of the National Gallery in Oslo, Still Life with Masks (1911) by Emil Nolde of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and Demonic Puppets (1929) by Klee.

Holding his ears and screaming at the same time, The Scream of Munch embodies a mental state, as noted by his remark, “I felt as though a scream went through nature—I thought I heard a scream—I painted this picture—painted the clouds like real blood. The colors were screaming.”1 Although Waiting for the World to Change has multiplied the head and hands of Munch, the anguish we find overtaking Munch’s figure has been entirely transformed by Wahlstrom. The exquisitely interlaced heads and hands of Wahlstrom here shift the torment of Munch toward instances of profound introspection, as if echoing “I,” “me” and “myself” as catalysts of inquiry. Writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, the influential theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo would formulate the state of awareness as that of thinking and existence. When the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant would condition the inner perception of the self through the “I think” condition of selfhood, he would render self-awareness itself as primarily representational. As if a reincarnation of the Romantic sublime, Waiting for the World to Change unfolds the paradox of human existence through expressively spontaneous gestural curves that give rise to a mystical crowd of faces. This painting also evokes the “automatic drawing” that the leading theorist of Surrealism André Breton would advocate as a means through which “the distinction between subjective and objective ceases to be necessary or useful.”2

Johan Wahlstrom, No Rules, 2019. Urethane mixed with color pigments on canvas, 50 by 60 inches. © Johan Wahlstrom. Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.

Such works as No Rules (2019), Letting the Days Go By (2019), We Played by the Rules (2019), Don’t Give Me Up (2019), and Troubled Minds (2018) of Wahlstrom also perform as devices of self-reflexivity on the level of pictorial representations. If the riotous faces in the highly expressionistic Still Life with Masks of Nolde amount to a crescendo of self-reflexivity, these intriguing paintings of Wahlstrom appear as having distilled that image formally by interconnecting faces.

Johan Wahlstrom, Distorted View Part 3, 2017. Urethane mixed with color pigments on canvas, 60 by 48 inches. © Johan Wahlstrom. Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.

While the Demonic Puppets of Klee appears as a progenitor of the overwhelming imagery of mask-like faces present in numerous paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, such as Melting Point of Ice (1984) that is housed at the Board museum in Los Angeles, Distorted View Part 3 (2017) of Wahlstrom has subdued that ferociousness through tightly-knit, translucent visages. These faces come across as direct nods to the skeins of Jackson Pollock. A summation of thread-like lines, points and chaotic marks of red, yellow and blue paint, Distorted View Part 3 is an unrivaled integration of Klee, Basquiat and Pollock. The commanding Face No. 1 of Grotjahn appears to have masterfully combined and reinvented, for example, the aggressive Woman No. 1 by de Kooning (1950-52) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the archetypal distortion of Man Writing (1971) of Picasso at the Musée Picasso in Paris. In turn, Wahlstrom has filtered explicit references to these paintings on the level of pictorial configuration. The enigmatic, interlocked heads in Distorted View Part 3 occupy a pictorial space that offers the spectator reflection through a restrained yet absorptive manner.

Johan Wahlstrom, Troubled Minds, 2018. Urethane mixed with color pigments on canvas, 48 by 48 inches. © Johan Wahlstrom. Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.

Having reformulated the representation of heads, faces and hands, a given picture of Wahlstrom is an engaging means of depicting the iconic language of the face, only to consistently convert the gestural silhouettes of masks into transient frames of abstraction. As these provocative paintings convey remarkable allusions to the narratives of both figurative and abstract painting of the twentieth century and onwards, they come forth as pictorial undertakings that demonstrate painting’s capacity to present the pleasures of experiencing the materiality of paint and color on par with the exuberant psychological potentialities of imagery. WM


1. Cited by Arne Eggum, Edvard Munch: Symbols and Images (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1978), p. 391.

2. André Breton, “The Automatic Message,” in What Is Surrealism? ed. Franklin Rosement (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), p. 109.

Please note: “From Warhol to Wahlstrom: From 60s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media, Part II” is a current exhibition of Johan Wahlstrom, curated by Paco Barragán, on view at Ethan Cohen KuBe, 211 Fishkill Avenue, Beacon, NY 12508.

Thumbnail credit: Johan Wahlstrom, We Played by the Rules, 2019. Urethane mixed with color pigments on canvas, 60 by 60 inches. © Johan Wahlstrom. Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.

Raphy Sarkissian

Raphy Sarkissian received his masters in studio arts from New York University and is currently affiliated with the School of Visual Arts in New York. His recent writings on art include essays for exhibition catalogues, monographs and reviews. He has written on Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Anish Kapoor, KAWS, David Novros, Sean Scully, Liliane Tomasko, Dan Walsh and Jonas Wood. He can be reached through his website

view all articles from this author