Johan Wahlstrom Plays America, But With Paintings Rather Than Songs
By Paul Laster
A talented musician-turned-artist, Johan Wahlstrom traded his keyboard and microphone for brushes and canvas in 1998 and reinvented his life as a painter. A fifth-generation Swedish artist, he had some big shoes to fill, as his great-grandfather’s art is part of the permanent collection of Sweden’s National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm and his grandmother, who taught him how to properly draw, and his mother were also exhibiting artists.
Leaving the arena and nightclub stages, where he had performed for some 20 years with such notable rock musicians as Ian Hunter, Graham Parker and Mick Ronson, for the more isolated existence of an artist in the studio, Wahlstrom apprenticed with an accomplished Swedish painter in a rural village in France, mainly making his own versions of canvases by modernist artists that he admired, in order to develop his painterly skills. After moving to Spain to professionally pursue a career in art in 2005, the emerging artist started capturing crowds in the compositions of his paintings—portraying sprawling audiences, which were similar to the ones that he had faced in his onstage performances.
Blurring the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, his highly successful Distorted Happiness series, which he started in Spain and still continues to create to this day, depicts floating heads in tangled webs of Jackson Pollock-like irregular lines, composed with rapidly poured, dripping paint and flurries of well-placed brushstrokes, to capture clusters of sad and glad people trapped in their everyday lives. An acute observer of the human condition, especially after traveling the world and interacting with ordinary people in local bars and in the moments after concerts, the converted artist soon began to integrate social concerns into his seemingly abstract compositions.
Relocating to America for an artist-in-residence gig in 2016, he confronted the outlandish rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald J. Trump through a powerful series of black-and-white paintings titled House of Lies. Struck by the existential threats posed by the brash candidate—long before he showed his true colors during his presidency—Wahlstrom revealed what was to come in poignant paintings, like Punch Them Hard, which shows Trump giving two thumbs up while a group of men kick a guy that’s down, and Women Should Be Punished, showing Trump stridently shouting amongst a sphere of suspended heads.
The politically engaged artist’s next series, Aliens With Extra Ordinary Abilities, visually responded to the immigration crisis along America’s southern border with Mexico and the struggle that arriving immigrants face when seeking a better life. And then, in his following series of mostly black-and-white paintings, dubbed Social Life, he took on Americans’ fascination with their cell phones, social media and selfies. Through various canvases titled Disconnecting, which feature people staring at their screens and celebrity artists, like Ai Weiwei and Jeff Koons, posing for selfies with their fans, Wahlstrom exposes everyone’s desire on social media to achieve their 15 minutes of fame.
Returning to his roots in his latest body of work, Wahlstrom is mining the history of modern art to conjure up images that pay homage to the artists who first made an impact on him. Recalling the Russian and German expressionists, like Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) painters Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, who made their mark in the early part of 20th Century, and CoBrA painters, like Karel Appel, Corneille and Asger Jorn, who were leaders of a short-lived Post-war art movement that continues to have an influence on artists, even in our current times.
Not forgetting his consequential social concerns, Wahlstrom has found ways to insert existing issues into his colorful new canvases. Beginning by drawing a social scene that he envisions directly on unstretched canvas with a marker or a brush, he then finalizes his expressive figures with a lively palette of high-quality acrylic or his own pigment mixed with urethane paints. Working in a stream of consciousness manner—similar to how Keith Haring would spontaneously render an eye-catching work on a public wall or a vinyl tarp—Wahlstrom swiftly brings his visions to life.
Two of the initial paintings in his aptly titled What You See Is What You Get series reference the Russian invasion of Ukraine through the use of the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag, which are also the colors of the Swedish flag. His expressive Runners painting shows a group of cattle-like characters frantically fleeing a collapsing city while grasping babies and belonging as their limbs separate. Likewise, Let the Children Play captures primitively drawn and painted toddlers—rendered like Jean Dubuffet might see them—clinging to the monkey bars or numbly observing their scattered toys in the middle of a war zone.
A pair of paintings titled This Is You and This Is Us impulsively present groups of women in senseless cat fights, like the street squabbles that get posted to social media sites as indiscriminate entertainment for the masses. Envisioned as surreal scenarios and rendered as allover compositions, in which bodies mash into one another to construct fluid forms, the canvases employ abstraction to brutal ends.
Two other canvases, meanwhile, pay homage to a Swedish national treasure—filmmaker Ingmar Bergman—whose movies and miniseries have been described as "profoundly personal meditations into the myriad struggles facing the psyche and the soul." Wahlstrom’s painting Couple in Bed represents the disintegration of a bored husband and wife’s marriage, similar to Bergman’s television production Scenes from a Marriage. And, relatedly, Playing Chess With Death mimics a famous scene from Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, where a medieval knight plays the mindful game with the personification of death, who has come to take his life.
Revisiting the past while looking at the present, Wahlstrom gives us what we want while revealing who we are. Painting the moments that we are currently inhabiting he offers a comical yet painterly mirror to reflect the absurd world around him in a symbolic style that we can quickly comprehend.