Hate/Love: Johan Wahlström’s Shift From Music to Art

By Anna Mikaela Ekstrand Anna Mikaela Ekstrand has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on May 16, 2023

In May, New York’s art world expands as it becomes host to Frieze, a major art fair, and satellite fairs. Concentrating actors from around the world it is an opportunity to become introduced to new galleries. New York-based Swedish painter Johan Wahlström is however showing on his home turf, albeit with the Marbella-based gallery Wadström Tönnheim, at VOLTA.

I caught up with Wahlström on the phone to discuss his participation.

“I work on several different bodies of work at once. In my half-screwed brain, if I paint a political social statement in a figurative work—like women screaming at the grocery store in response to current inflation—then I also need an outlet for the feelings that surface which I paint in my abstract paintings,” Wahlström tells me. Being Swedish, we have met several times in the New York art scene. He is gruff but kind and direct.

Johan Wahlström
Johan Wahlström’s work on view at VOLTA from his “Connectivity” series. Courtesy of Wadström Tönnheim.

At VOLTA, he is showing works from his abstract series “Connectivity.” In them, he layers thirty-five to forty different shades of one color. In this case, blue or red, he mixes from both wet and dry top-of-the-line Guerra pigments. Using large brushes and a technique where the brushstrokes are not visible he layers the paint, which often is transparent—the effect creates mesmerizing pictures that look different depending on the light. One of his collectors told him that it felt like they had ten to fifteen paintings in one.

Upon closer look, his “Connectivity” series is not only abstract but they also incorporate imagery and concepts from his strictly figurative paintings: written text, airplanes, distorted or suffering faces, elements from the city, or landscapes, that become visible in certain light.

Wahlström started his career in the music industry as a freelancer—based out of Sweden’s capital Stockholm but often on tour in Europe, he worked with local and international greats like Ian Hunter, Mick Ronson, Ted Gärdestad, and Mats Ronander.

But soon his rock ’n roll lifestyle caught up with him.

“Unfortunately, I was addicted to drugs and alcohol. I was drowning and very tired of music. All that was left for me was to cut everything and everyone. I knew a guy who was a very good Swedish artist—Lennart Nyström. He was hot in the 1970-80s. He lived in La Garde Frenet right outside of St Tropez, a little bit up in the mountain. So, I moved there,” he tells me. “I had tried a couple of different treatment programs before going to France, but they did not work—I realized that I needed to kick the drugs and alcohol for myself and not for someone else. This allowed me to succeed. Well, that and focusing on painting,” Wahlström says.

In France, Wahlström painted every day, and together with Nyström, they critiqued each other’s work. Wahlström had painted and drawn throughout his life. “You should not think you can paint until you can draw,” his grandmother, a landscape painter, told him as a child. His mother also painted. And, he tells me proudly Valdemar Tode—who is in the collection of Sweden’s Nationalmuseum—is a relative. So, during the seven years he lived in France, he returned to his roots and painted every day.

Johan Wahlström painting
Painting by Johan Wahlström. Courtesy of the artist.

I wonder if making music and painting are similar. “Yes,” he says. “Now, I want to spend every waking hour in my studio. When I made music, I felt the same way.”

On their differences, he says, “The painting process is more direct than musical production, mainly there are fewer people involved. In the music industry, you write a song, it is recorded, and then you see if it works on the radio. With painting, I can get immediate responses; although it does not happen often, I have sold paintings that I painted during the day in the evening,” he says chuckling.

Johan Wahlström
Johan Wahlström’s faces. Courtesy of the artist.
Johan Wahlström’s faces. Courtesy of the artist.

Recently Wahlström worked with the Swedish ceramics manufacturer Gustavsberg to design a limited edition plate. The artist collaboration series is new, a brainchild of Jocke Jonason, a celebrated and avant-garde adman. Jonason is the mastermind behind the controversial, fresh, and political Diesel ads that tackled race, religion, and sexuality in the 1990s. Joining Jesper Waldersten, the feminist artist Marie Louise Ekman, and world-renowned photographer Ellen von Unwerth he says “I am honored to be part of this group.” The design is based on an original painting. Together with Jonason, they decided to focus on weird faces: ”the faces that have become my signature,” Wahlström says. Gustavsberg is the only one of the nineteenth ceramics manufacturers that still have their factory at the original factory site. “All of the designs are screen printed—hand-made—artistic work from beginning to end,” he tells me. Located in the Stockholm suburb of Gustavsberg the old factory site is worth a visit.

Wielding the agency of visual art, Wahlström‘s work critiques the society we live in. Financial hardship, anxieties, ecological destruction, and selfie or celebrity culture are all thematics he has dealt with in his work.

At Ethan Cohen Gallery he was included in the exhibition ”From Warhol to Wahlström: From 1960s Celebrity to Today’s Social Media” in 2018. “Warhol’s Polaroid picture was a predecessor to the selfie,” he says. Pointing to the relationship between access to data and celebrity culture, often celebrities do not necessarily want the intimate details do their lives shared across platforms, but they have no control. Today, regular folks have no control of their data: ”Have you seen The Great Hack?,” he asks me. It is a documentary about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “Many do not know that the world’s combined data has surpassed the value of the value of all oil in the world,” he says with a warning.

“Globally, it feels like it is more and more difficult to do good things together to save our planet. The seas are rising,” he says.

Blue works from his “Connectivity” series were exhibited at “We Are the Ocean” a conference in D.C. at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on water advocacy. Among its mover and shaker participants, his work served as a backdrop to conversations between senators, United Nations representatives, and “Robert Kennedy’s daughter who delivered a powerful speech.” He tells me about a California-based stockbroker that only buys lakes—unfortunate. “We should find ways to work together that are less about money and more about sustainability,” he says.

Some works are however more lighthearted. The gallerist Ethan Cohen has commissioned several blue portraits in the style of his “Connectivity” series. “I have painted his mother and father, him and his ex-wife, and I have painted them in the blue, sometimes with black contours.” Like one painting featuring Kate Moss that is circulating online.

Johan Wahlström. "Red." Courtesy of Wadström Tönnheim.
Johan Wahlström. “Red.” Courtesy of Wadström Tönnheim.

“In the fall I am showing with Georges Bergès Gallery in New York and Wadström Tönnheim in Marbella—where I moved after France and lived for ten years. After Spain, I moved to New York to accelerate my career in art—I applied for an 01-visa and I got it.” Currently, he is also preparing for an ink pen exhibition in Chicago at The Swedish American Museum—where works from his series “Connected to Nothing More” and “What You See is What You Get” will be on view.

Wahlström has a Swedish approach to art, he is not afraid to tackle larger questions and the darkness that lies therein à la playwright Lars Norén or director Ingmar Bergman. “Nordic darkness,” he calls it. “Art that is dark and full of anxiety engages as well as art that is full of joy and harmony, but art in between is less interesting. I am looking for one of two reactions: ‘I hate it’ or ‘I love it.’ If I reach one of these I am doing something good. Then I will not be forgotten.”

See Johan Wahlström’s work at Wadström Tönnheim Gallery at VOLTA NYC 17-21st May. Follow the gallery here.

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By Anna Mikaela Ekstrand Anna Mikaela Ekstrand has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Grit Daily columnist, an art critic, and a cultural strategist. She is the founder of Cultbytes, an online art publication and culture-focused communications agency. She is also the Associate Director of The Immigrant Artist Biennial and is curating its 2023 edition. Anna Mikaela has held curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Arts and Design, Solomon R. Guggenheim, and Bard Graduate Center. She holds dual Master’s Degrees in Art and Design History from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center.

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