Life is Good
Johan Wahlstrom, Stupid White Men. Urethane, color pigments on canvas, 40 x 90 inches. Courtesy the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.
On ViewGeorges Bergès Gallery
March 15 – April 8, 2018
Johan Wahlsrom’s recent show, Life Is Good, is smaller than last year’s Distorted Happiness. Appearing speedily and intuitively achieved, Stockholm-born Wahlstrom’s maneuverings are the result of much experience and contemplative deliberation. In images with titles like, Stupid White Men, faint pink and peach fields are traversed with muted greens, and grey strata and razor thin, labyrinthine blues and blacks twisting, bending, and looping briskly across non pictorial facades. Jackson Pollock and other icons of Abstract Expressionism come to mind immediately in Strange Creatures Amongst Us (2017). It is impossible not to contemplate Action paintings—less layered than Pollock’s, more complicated than Morris Lewis’s, though some, like The Best Day Ever (2018) recall Lewis’s staining and pouring into unsized canvas. Edges in Wahlstrom’s backgrounds are more Frankenthaler and Gorky than Styll or Motherwell; brushstrokes more Kandinsky than DeKooning, but Wahlstrom limits his palette here. Think rose-tinted nudes descending staircases.
But one distinction separates this and AbEx. Like DeKooning’s Woman I moving away from representation, Wahlstrom advances, intentionally fusing abstraction and representation, always with methodology skimming the biomorphic, returning not to the whole figure but particularly the human face.
After it enters our eyeballs, data about images seeks a destination. It runs along the bottom rim of our temporal lobes, near the base of our brains, just above the cerebellum, literally between our ears. That is where human faces get processed, a particular spot has evolved to make finer distinctions possible. There, differences are discerned—between individual faces as well as gender, age, trustworthiness, attractiveness, even perceptions of happiness and sadness, anger and fear. Brains categorize faces as important. So does Wahlstrom.
Perhaps the Jean Dubuffet-style mugs that separate him from Pollock and the Matisse-like expressions reaching out between abstract compositions are the result of the two decades Wahlstrom spent looking out at seas of features as a successful rock musician in Sweden. “My bands, the Johan Wahlstrom Band, later Johnny and the Yobs, lead to other Scandinavian artists using us as their backup band on tours,” Wahlstrom reminisced. “In the early ’90s, Mick Ronson from David Bowie’s band moved to Stockholm and got involved with us and asked his friends Graham Parker and Ian Hunter if they would like to come over and tour—and they did.”
Johan Wahlstrom, The Best Day Ever. Urethane, color pigments on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Courtesy the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery.
While the Swede confessed, “It was a great feeling to be on stage with artists I’d had posters of on my wall as a teenager,” it also meant he “got stuck there for eighteen years.” But this fifth generation artist “kept painting on the side and I’m more happy to be a visual artist-painter than I was a musician.” He has fond memories of a painting grandmother. His father, a 1960s businessman, insisted his wife accompany him to social functions, ultimately not pursuing her artistic gifts, leaving son Johan to complete her dream.
Thus, Life is Good. “I have always felt at home in New York. The energy in this city is the best there is, the inspiration to paint, the best I’ve had.” He wants to stay.
“I paint about today’s society, social and political issues. I try to meet non-representational with figurative elements such as distorted faces.” He clarifies they have now become “almost abstract to show the emotions and expressions” of the masses they depict. He operates from the Mana Contemporary arts facility, a 2 million-square-foot, 35-acre campus-like spot in Jersey City where he got a residency three years ago and remained.
A second studio he maintains in Spain led to his 2008 Barcelona exhibition It’s Boring To Die  where the faces began to break through. That coincided with his first U.S. show. In 2014, adding hard-edged stencils of “figures, corporations, and politicians,” Wahlstrom moved through periods depicting monkeys saluting world leaders or people hugging while secretly staring into phones in an exhibition, Social Life. Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities (2016) showed refugees behind chain link fences.
In recent years, replaced by a new series of works, the same complex, ambivalent emotions are expressed more as ethereal, mysterious phantoms, expertly proclaimed via eruptions of pigment. His spaces are shallow—fields of restrained color—eclipsed by fiery arabesques meandering like comets across adroit stacks of potato-shaped heads.
There are exceptions. The large Silenced Voices (2018) inspired by the recent school shootings in Florida, later subtitled Our Voices Will Be Heard, heaves shades of black and copper combining to break and crack, reminiscent of Larry Poons, to project green auras amongst troughs dug out of thick textures. In one corner, a smaller black painting, Where It All Began (2018) features organic formations bleeding into the background a la Lewis.
I asked Wahlstrom is he introverted or extraverted? “I would say I am a social person. I love meeting new people.” I suspect some may unknowingly morph into dry or liquid color pigments, semblances reconstructed with binder and urethane.