FROM WARHOL TO WAHLSTROM: From 60’s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, FEB. 2019
There are artists who like to investigate what they can do with current tech, the way Warhol made movies, as David Hockney has used video and seemingly just about any device that comes his way, as Richard Prince uses Instagram and as a slew of artists are using Photoshop but not that many artists have thought to examine just what it is that current tech is doing to us. This though is the slippery slope upon which Johan Wahlstrom has made himself very much at home.
Wahlstrom’s show FROM WARHOL TO WAHLSTROM: From 60’s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media was up at Ethan Cohen, first on West 19th, and until 03-31-2019 at Ethan Cohen The KuBe Beacon. He is a Swede but lived many years in Spain before moving to New York three years ago and it was in Spain that he began to explore the twin preoccupations that have become central to his art making. The first was in the area of subject-matter. “I have long been interested in facial expressions,” he says. “How I can picture myself and others? Tribal faces.”
This evolved into a fascination with the unprecedented speed with which the technology of communication has been changing and its effects upon those who use it. Meaning all of us to one extent or another. “So I got really, really interested in how we intersect through the internet.,” Wahlstrom says. “How we use our cellphones. And how that has become the norm of today.”
Wahlstrom’s second preoccupation became devising the most effective way to deal with a subject-matter that seemed literally to be staring at him in the face. An appropriate delivery system was not so immediately clear to him but he found the it in a place upon which ideas are routinely plastered but upon which they less frequently found: Walls. “I was interested in how street artists like Banksy use stencils,” Wahlstrom says. “I wanted to paint without using stencils but to have the look of stencil Street art. Because Street art to me is socially and politically engaged. So, the work I am doing is definitely based on how I see Street artists doing their work out on the walls.”
Wahlstrom credits Paco Barragan, a Spanish curator who curates museum shows world-wide, for proposing that he should do a series wholly focusing on the human addiction to cellphones. The timing is ominously elegant. In our brave new world, the cybersphere, the matrix, call it what you will, just what is being communicated and the body-language – or, perhaps better, disembody-language – that possesses us when we are gripped by our thrillingly null communications devices, our banal wonderland of screens, have slammed together with the cheerless clunk of the door to a cell from which we should not expect to be exiting any time soon.
Andy Warhol, a tutelary deity of today’s art world, played a critical part in his thinking as he got to grips with his mission. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? “I loved he way that he repeated images,” Wahlstrom says. “Because I’m quite interested in marketing and repetition is very important when it comes to marketing. Also I was fascinated by his use of Polaroids and the photo booth. So I got very hooked on this idea of painting our world of selfies today.”
Wahlstrom is not just looking at the narcissism of the selfie culture though, that being as obvious as a target painted on a face. His work also explores a human first, namely the gleeful sacrifice of privacy at the formerly private upper levels of the social order. And here too Warhol’s work was key. “He was really fascinated with celebrities and surrounded himself with a lot of very famous people,” Wahlstrom says. The difference between Warhol’s world and earlier manifestations of the celebrity culture being the contemporary obsession with everyday detail. “How they freely give out their information today, sharing it with the world,” he says. “What they had for breakfast … where they are travelling … what books they are reading …”
Wahlstrom set himself to building a body of work that would show us our increasingly worrisome new environment, and its population of oblivious screenies. Hence this show. What these images share that they look at once timeless and close to a vanishing point, which is generally the existential situation of Street art, so that is precisely where Wahlstrom was planning to take them when he set himself to mastering stencils. Some of the source images have been lifted directly by Wahlstrom off Instagram, others have been manipulated and yet others are largely or entirely the work of own hand. But each has been chosen for its contribution to the story Wahlstrom is telling so each generates an individual and very different charge of energy.
I’ll be specific. Here are five individuals, businessmen by the look of them. Two are looking at their devices, three are looking at them, and they are standing close to each other, but they are apart, and it’s not the self-aware apartness of, say, a bus queue. Wahlstrom’s presentation of the image is such that they could be standing on separate asteroids. Here are the police, at the center of action, a probable news item tomorrow – the lead with any luck - and a swirl of pure energy, like the wheel of a passing train or an Italian baroque painting, and here is a man catching it on his tiny screen. Of course. Always.
And here is a forest of arms. They are raised in front of what looks like an illuminated world map. They are holding their devices on high, a familiar gesture, once closely associated to Lady Liberty, holding aloft the torch, but here with a 180-degree reverse twist, in that the gesture indicates an eager surrender, a cheerful servitude to any remotely celebrated chunk of reality that can be captured as an image. His trove of images often includes recognizable pieces of human currency, such as selfie shots with Leonardo di Caprio, Jeff Koons, Vladimir Putin, but is mostly of unidentifiable individuals engaged in chillingly mundane activities. ‘Like I show how people are using their cellphones while having dinner,” he says. Welcome to the world we are living in now. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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