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Johan Wahlstrom: Distorted Happiness

George Bergès Gallery - New York

By Paul Laster

A rock musician turned artist, Johan Wahlstrom makes energetic paintings that blur the boundary between abstraction and figuration. Taking one of his own 2015 paintings of crowds of people seen from the performance stage as the point of departure, his solo show “Distorted Happiness” at George Bergès Gallery pushed his previously illustrative style into a more surreal, nightmarish realm.

That earlier painting, The Search for Happiness, captures a cluster of faces clamoring to see someone on stage, while equally hoping to be seen by a figure that they adore. Sketched in black paint like human caricatures or masks on a splattered, abstract field of pigments and newspaper, the gathered heads seem largely devoid of both bodies and souls. Representational in nature, they blend into the background of the work to become an accumulation that makes a mass.

Although he is a fifth generation Swedish artist, Wahlstrom began his creative career as a keyboardist and singer-performing with such celebrated musicians as Ian Hunter, Graham Parker and Mick Ronson, as well as his own band. After nearly 20 years of making music, he left the stage and moved to France to pursue the life of a painter. Inspired by Jean Dubuffet and the Art Brut movement that he championed, Wahlstrom turned the tables on his audience by making them and their social and psychological state of minds the focus of his expressive art.

Johan Wahlstrom, See Me Feel Me Love Me, 2017, Urethane and color pigments on canvas, 92” x 59.” Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bérges Gallery, New York.

Johan Wahlstrom, See Me Feel Me Love Me, 2017, Urethane and color pigments on canvas, 92” x 59.” Courtesy of the artist and Georges Bérges Gallery, New York.

When he came to New York in 2015 for a residency at Mana Contemporary, the newly launched presidential campaign of Donald Trump caught his attention and became the artist’s subject matter. One of the paintings from that provocative series was exhibited in the show. The 2016 canvas Punch Them Hard shows Trump giving a stereotypical two-thumbs-up in a sea of indistinguishable people, while deeper into the image a man gets punched in the face and a shadowy gang stomps a fallen protester.

Over time, however, Trump’s fervent supporters morph into skulls in the works on view and this is where Wahlstrom’s painting gets even more fascinating. In See Me Feel Me Love Me, whose title references a lyric from The Who, and Worn Out (both 2016) the artist uses stencils and poured paint to create skull-like heads that float in an abstract realm. In the 2017 paintings Distorted School and Distorted Reality, however, Wahlstrom’s barely formed faces approach apparitions, with features that flow like smoke.

And thrusting the notion of figuration to the limit of recognizable forms, the 2017 canvases Torn Apart and Keep the Party Going appear more like scrawls on alley walls-where the rebellious side of humanity commonly leaves its mark-than a depiction of real people. Mixing a sense of angst for the oppressive politics of the moment with a memory of youthful times when his world was a stage, the artist paints an expressive picture for everyman.

(June 29 - July 9, 2017)

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and artBahrain. He is a contributing writer to ARTPULSE, Time Out New York, The New York Observer, Modern Painters, Cultured Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine and Conceptual Fine Arts.

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