Lost and Found: Faces and Figures in the Art of Johan Wahlstrom in 'artcritical'

From Warhol to Wahlstrom: From 60s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media, Part II at Ethan Cohen KuBe and Johan Wahlstrom: Collisions at Georges Bergès Gallery

Ethan Cohen KuBe October 18, 2018 to August 31, 2019 211 Fishkill Avenue, between Verplanck Avenue and Kent Street Beacon, New York, ecfa.com

Georges Bergès Gallery June 6 to June 30, 2019 462 West Broadway, between Houston and Prince streets New York City, bergesgallery.com

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

Johan Wahlstrom, a Swedish artist who moved to New York four years ago, has had a couple of shows recently that could hardly be more unalike. From Warhol to Wahlstrom: From 60’s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media at Ethan Cohen KuBe, Beacon, NY is ongoing, while Collisions, was at George Berges in New York City earlier this summer. The Beacon show is also the second part of a show that was seen at Ethan Cohen’s New York City space in the summer of 2018. Wahlstrom is also included in Berges’s current summer group exhibition. This contrast already got my attention, but it is the differences within each show, both conceptual and in the handling of materials, that clearly position Wahlstrom as a Post-Post-Modernist, a maker of art in a time when the “March of the Isms” is well and truly over.

First, Collisions. Some of the works here are close to pure abstraction, like Collisions 2, which looks like the diagram of a shock wave. Others are figurative, face paintings all, like the single faces in Empty and Dancing on My Own and the threesome in And Here We Are, none of which include abstraction.

But there are also multiple distressed faces emerging from abstraction in Distorted View, Troubled Minds and Waiting for the World to Change.

Mostly the work is a mix though, offering areas of abstraction upon which you will see a face here, a face there, and some rudimentary faces are brought into being by so few marks that if it wasn’t for other overt faces around the show you could wonder if you were not just building them out of nothing. Which brings to mind the potential for ambiguity that has existed in abstraction since Kandinsky conjured it out of a Monet haystack. I remember a show of Mondrian’s early tree drawings at London’s Whitechapel Gallery years ago which signposted the road to his mature work. And elements of landscape and/or the body can add heft to canvasses of Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner.

That said, Wahlstrom is clearly up to something radically other here, in that he is not just evolving abstraction from natural observation but either imposing faces upon pre-painted abstraction or locating possible faces on an abstract ground and developing them. Maybe both. Feeling that I needed to be filled in regarding his methodology, I made a pre-critique telephone call.

Why the faces, I asked? Pure bio. Wahlstrom began in Sweden as a rocker. “I used to be on-stage in rock and roll bands for eighteen years” he said. “I’ve always had a big audience in front of me. That, I believe, is why there are so many faces in my abstract work.”

Johan Wahlstrom, Collisions #2, 2019. Urethane and color pigments on canvas, 60 x 76 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bergès Gallery

Mostly he applies them to a completed abstraction, sometimes making them plainly visible, but not always. “Some paintings are more abstract,” he says. “But I put in hidden faces and hidden figures. A lot of people will see them sooner or later. They will pop out after you have lived with the painting or after you have seen it a few times.”

Sometimes, too, he develops faces from pre-existing paintwork. They can be easy to miss, like those in Collisions.“There are faces in the back but in that particular series they are really hidden. I used to do them much clearer. But I found it more interesting not to put everything right in the viewer’s face. I want them to discover, and look for them, and make it a little bit more mysterious. And I think that these paintings will live longer because they are not as obvious as some others.”

I suggested that Wahlstrom was playing games with the afore-mentioned natural human tendency to build faces out of strokes, drips and blobs, just as any of us are liable to discover convincing faces, figures or objects – a fish, a ship, an airplane – in the random blotches on a wall, and he agreed that that was his intention.

Wahlstrom’s central purpose with the work here, as reflected by the title, is both to reject the purity of abstraction and to suggest the pressures of contemporary life. This is underlined by the presence of a single classically figurative canvas: Punch Them Hard, which depicts Donald Trump at a rally. And that focus on contemporary pressure points provides the substance in Wahlstrom’s Beacon show, From Warhol to Wahlstrom: From 60’s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media.

The energy of this show, both as to form and content, derives from a couple of the artist’s preoccupations, each developed since he moved to New York after several years of painting in Southern Spain. These twin preoccupations are at once distinct and as closely connected as fist to glove, one being celebrity culture and the other the increasingly rapid evolution of hi-tech communications, specifically the smartphone and social media. His interest in celebs began as a musician touring Sweden with such medium-heavy rock dudes as Graham Parker – who came up with a name for his band, Johnny and the Yobs – and Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople. But in New York he observed that the slipstream created by selfies, screens, Instagram etc. were pulling Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes into an ubiquitous blur. Hence the title of the show that he began to develop with Paco Barragan, a curator, with whom he had begun working in Spain.

Wahlstrom’s motivation, though, is not just nostalgia for a more innocent celebrity culture, a period when a Michael Jackson could walk unbothered through Studio 54. There is also an element of anxiety, worry that the giant eye of Big Data is focusing on just about everybody, counting every Hit, Like and Dislike, and turning this info into moolah. He draws attention to a point made by The Great Hack, a documentary about Cambridge Analytica, the sketchy British political consultancy, which posited that nowadays this accumulation of Big Data surpasses the value of oil. True? False? Stoopid question in a post-truth landscape. Visual documentation of this brave, new world furnishes the substance of Wahlstrom’s darkly sardonic work.

Johan Wahlstrom, Disconnecting #6, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Ethan Cohen Gallery

The pictures tell the stories, and, yes, celebrity does share space with screens at From Warhol to Wahlstrom in the form of Vladimir Putin and Jeff Koons. Other pics, mostly drawn from Instagram, show, for instance, a forest of arms, uplifted with devices, a screenie couple enjoying a deathly silent meal, a screen-rapt subway car and a street scene of screenies cut off at shoulder level, the inference being who needs to look at ungiving faces? My preferred image is derived from a picture taken in the Mahwah woods, Ramapo, in New Jersey. These are convincingly wild, a woodland where apparently one can from time to time encounter black bears or rattlesnakes, and a couple are sitting there, as solitary as the pioneers before them, but they are staring at their screens.

Johan Wahlstrom, Disconnecting #1, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Ethan Cohen Gallery

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