The Past is Not What it Was
Georges Berges Gallery
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST April, 2022
This show of recent work by Johan Wahlstrom is at once strong and unusual, the strength being self evident and the unusual element being that from canvas to canvas he will use wholly different methods of picture making and paint handling, from figuration to pure abstraction with many diverse in-betweens. Which is Post-Post-Modernism taken to an extreme. I observed to the artist, a Swede who moved to New York seven years ago, that he seemed clearly capable of moving from one method of making a painting to another within days. “That is correct,” he said.
What is his rationale?
“I know that the traditional way is to do one thing over and over again,” Wahlstrom said. “I used to do that but it made me bored. So I have this big urge just to experiment. I see my art practice as a journey. And it’s a very interesting journey in that I don’t know where I’m going. I just love the exploring part of it, to see what I can do next. And to step outside my comfort zone. step out of the box, be more free! “
Wahlstrom first got attention with canvases featuring rawly painted faces, which were large, their expressions sometimes disturbed. That body of work is represented here by Just Face It and we are what we are, in both of which the faces are often open-mouthed, with troubled eyes, so rather more stressed out than the earlier face paintings. Also surely any viewer will quickly become aware that smaller faces can also be spotted amongst the abstracted paintwork. Alerted by this, they are likely to search out smaller and smaller faces and/or figures, as in, for instance, the appropriately named Stuck In A Maze.
This inherent urge of ours to to see faces or figures in random markings, patterns or arrangements of objects is called pareidolia.
Is Wahlstrom using this as a way of energising abstract painting, a manner of art making widely seen as somewhat played out, more retro than radical or – to use Gauguin’s cutting distinction – plagiarism rather than revolution?
Absolutely. “To me abstraction, besides being a non-existent artform, needs to be played with,” Wahlstrom says. “You can experiment with it. You can use it for humor, for something to laugh about, you can use it for something serious, something very deep. But, more importantly, what I’m doing now with these small figures is trying to play a little bit with our brains.”
Just why does he describe abstraction as non-existent, I wondered?
“Let’s say that there is a piece that is totally abstract,” Wahlstrom says. “But our brains are wired to look for something. Usually you look for a face, a head, something human. And it we can’t find that we look for an object. Or landscape, or anything that is familiar to us. To make a painting where the viewer does not try to look for something, it’s very difficult to do that.”
Many of the greats dealt with ideas, I noted. Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky.
“Yes,“ Wahlstrom agreed. “But when I look at Kandinsky I look for things. And I usually find things as well.”
There has though been a fresh development in some of Wahlstrom’s new work. Tiny faces are still to be seen but they don’t assert their presence. “With this tiny little ink pen I can create more of a pattern,” he says. “Like a map. I want people to feel it’s like looking at a map and they are part of my journey. I’m still keeping some of my traditional faces there as well but in a very small scale. I am also finding it extremely satisfying to do all these details. Because most of my works have been more raw and less details.” Now he meticulously outlines blobs and shapes, as if to load them with meaning.
What took him in this direction? Was there a lightbulb moment? No. “It just happened. I was fooling around. It was just there. And I realised, ooh wow! I really like this. I like this a lot. That was three months ago.” The end product can be seen in such recent canvases as Stuck In A Maze and It’s All Linked, which also makes it clear that titles are important to Wahlstrom. This, he says, is because he was in a rock and roll band in Sweden for many years, a period to which he owes both his fixation on faces, after having stared down at so many from the stage, and his conviction that titles can have an impact on the reception of work. “I used to write a lot of music,” he says. “The titles of rock songs are important. And most of my art has a theme: Connectivity.”
Which has long been a preoccupation of the artist. From Warhol to Wahlstrom: From 60’s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media, Wahlstrom’s 2018 show at the Ethan Cohen Kube Gallery in Beacon was a pictorial contemplation of the celebrity culture in a time of social media. “And I believe that we are all so closely connected today and when it is so easy to connect with someone anywhere in the world, we should find ways to work together and not work against each other,” Wahlstrom says. “Compared to when you had to ride a horse for five days to deliver a message”. It’s kind of refreshing to talk to an artist who believes that his work may not merely reflect but might even effect changes in a stricken world. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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