“What You See Is What You Get”
Georges Bergés Gallery
September 7th to October 1st, 2023
Curated by Paul Laster
By MARK BLOCH, September, 2023
I always enjoy watching Johan Wahlstrom transform himself— using only paint brushes. Just months ago he was showing monochromatic experiments in a slow moving process with primary hues and overlays of pigment that subtly changed as the light pivoted. The artist, building up colored surfaces toward a top transparent series of layers, told me that his patient lamination strategy allowed him to venture into new works as he waited for the multiple see-through strata to dry. With time on his hands, he began to dance with the whimsical, often-cartoony images that he often experiments with—and now a series of those images have become this show.
Wahlstrom ́s latest exhibition, “What You See Is What You Get” is an array of colorful but haunting depictions of human faces and bodies, curated by Paul Laster at Georges Bergés Gallery in Soho. From the opening September 7th, 6-8pm, until October 1st, viewers will have had an opportunity to see Wahlstrom’s work in its latest incarnation in full bloom, unabashedly depicting the human figure, while returning to its 20th Century roots and paying homage to the aritsts who first made an impact on the Swede as a young artist in Northern Europe mining the history of modern art.
“He apprenticed with an accomplished Swedish painter in a rural village in France, making his own versions of canvases by modernist artists that he admired,” Laster explained, “recalling the Russian and German expressionists like Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc or CoBrA painters, like Karel Appel, Corneille and Asger Jorn.” Laster also pointed out Wahlstrom’s use of the colors of the Ukrainian flag, which also happen to be the colors of the Swedish flag.
Some of the other artists that have inspired Wahlstrom are Gaston Chaissac, the French outsider artist, who called his style “modern rustic.” He participated, along with Jean Dubuffet, another of his influences, in the first Art Brut exhibition in Drouin, France in 1949. Chaissac (1910-1964) was born into a rural working class family. All his life, he studied and researched, creating assemblages, large collages and murals, and said “no” to money in order to to protect his independence. “All the paintings in this show are based on social and political subjects I have done lots of research on, myself,” Wahstrom said.
Wahlstrom was also influenced by the colors of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993), the California abstract expressionist who became part of the Bay Area Figurative Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the first significant North American movement to be based on the West Coast.
He also cites the color influences of a member of Der Blaue Reiter group, for whom color was a specialty, the Berlin artist Gabriella Munther (1877-1962). Like Wahlstrom, she was also a musician. She was a student and romantic interest of Wassily Kandinsky, whose early works were also an influence on Wahlstrom. Looking around this show, I can see her purples, pinks and muted colors as well as the lines of the early Kandinsky.
The pieces I like the best here are the semi-realistic faces of A Game Of Chess, He Got Himself A Gun and On My Way. I also like the Surrealistic feel of the works Fine Dining and Future Marriage. I personally feel that the more realistic drawing style of Munther works better for Wahlstrom than the cartoony style of Chaissac.
Laster mentions the chess piece in an essay, citing The Seventh Seal, where a medieval knight plays the mindful game with the personification of death, who has come to take his life by the Swedish “national treasure” Ingmar Bergman,” the filmmaker whose television production Scenes from a Marriage is also depicted here.
In a work, Somewhere In West Virginia, Wahlstrom points out “more than 300,000 people have died the last 20 years only in the US due to prescribed opioids like oxycodone.” He adds, “The faceless father does not he see his son who is trying to walk the opposite way, away from the poppy field toward trees that bares no leaves.” Wahlstrom also pointed out the “hole in the head” of the son which I saw as more of a Charlie Brown scream. Regardless, a sense of angst hangs over the works.
Loneliness is another condition we see in this show. Elsewhere people shouting show an opposite emotional extreme. “A pair of paintings titled This Is You and This Is Us impulsively present groups of women in senseless cat fights,” says Laster.
It is good to see Johan Wahlstrom fully devote himself to the human figure without obfuscation. In the past, he lost his characters purposely in calligraphic Abstract Expressionist-like strokes, or, as in the last suite of monochrome works, where he waited for the translucent colors to dry, one could see distorted visages just below the surface. His figures and faces seemed to lurk— trying to get out. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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