In April 2009 we got an email from Johan Wahlstrom. “I am a visual artist, origin Sweden but living in Marbella. Let me know if I could join your community.” I typed Johan Wahlstrom into Google to see what I could find. Wahlstrom seemed to be everywhere: facebook, myspace, fineartamerica, absolutearts, artslant… Always on the move, by the time we finally met he had visited Stockholm, Berlin and Boston before returning to Marbella. Epitomising the modern artist, shifting his time between creating, self-promotion on the Internet and travelling around for exhibitions, I finally pinned him down at his studio, a warehouse within the industrial estate known as la Campana on the outskirts of Nueva Andalucía (Marbella).
A: I exhibit frequently in the USA and they have labelled my work outsider art, a style originating in the use of tribal art during times of slavery by African Americans expressing their feelings in artwork without any formal training.
I haven’t had a TV for about 15 years and in the 1990s I refused to read even newspapers or use the Internet. Time is too short to spend in front of a TV telling you what is right and wrong. When the Twin Towers happened I wasn’t even aware of it. But I felt good, a little outside the bullshit going on.
I don’t believe political leaders are in power, they are marionettes for others with more power. The Bilderberg Group is a strange one. I’m not so sure the crisis is real either. The poor are poor, were poor and will be poor and the rich remain the same. The people that get hurt are you and me in the lower middle – the normal people. When the middle gets too strong it’s dangerous because it’s the middle classes that cause revolution.
Q: Your myspace page states “to paint every day is a must for me”. Do you find it easy to work anywhere?
A: I work wherever I am: the airport, airplanes, in the car, on the move… When I travel I take equipment, some paper, acrylic, oil pastel and charcoal. In spring 2008 I travelled around Arizona and California for a solo show. I kept a diary and painted a painting my impressions every day. I sold a lot of that series in California.
Q: How did you develop your style?
A: By painting all the time. My style has changed over the years. Over the last decade painting has been my main source of income. Before that it was music.
Q: How would you describe your paintings?
A: In Europe they say I’m an abstract expressionist. I like the term outsider art (laughs). Today I would say outsider expression. I just created a new style!
Q: Your style is quite childlike. Are you trying to be more pure by painting in this way?
A: I try not to think too much when I paint. I work on a title and try to express it. In the last year I have felt more free… there are no thoughts. You just po po po (he signals paint strokes with his hands). Spontaneous and instant. I want to have it done the same day. Crises what crises took very little time. Maximum two hours. It happens now. I get into a mood and I lose control of time until I’m finished.
Q: Your artist statement mentions three stages of drug addiction in your life. Do you think an artist needs to hit rock bottom to create their best work?
A: No. I believe artists have to have experiences that can be either very positive or dark. You can’t pretend to be an artist, you have to be it. If you don’t have an output from inside you will just be mainstream and there will be no energy in your work. If your life is dull and routine what are you going to paint? Life has to be a little roller coaster.
Q: Have you ever produced a piece of work and felt that it was too revealing to sell?
A: Those I keep at home. On speaking about a series of mine, a German art critic once commented that she loved it but wouldn’t buy it, saying there was too much feeling and expression in it. She noted it would be hard for someone to put in their living room and I should save it for the day I decide to do an exhibition in a museum.
Q: What expectations do you have for your time in Andalusia?
A: I love it here. The freedom, colour, light and the ocean. It’s a great place to paint, but I couldn’t be here without having the opportunity to travel back and forth.
Q: Do you have difficulties approaching galleries with your work in Andalusia?
A: What’s difficult is to find galleries here, though I still haven’t explored outside the province of Malaga. It’s especially hard to find a gallery in Marbella. The majority are quite boring, filled with repetitive work that has been done so many times before. There is only one exception – Houses of Art. I prefer to exhibit in big cities. In Berlin they don’t want to see another nude woman, they want something new and personal. They want to know what you want to say. Do you dare to paint what you feel? Or do you paint what is easy to sell?
Q: Have you ever overheard someone speak about your work when they didn’t know you were there?
A: I overheard someone say: “what a piece of shit. It looks like a child did it. I could do this tomorrow”. I thought, show me. My aim is for someone to hate or love my work. That’s very difficult. I’m happy if only one out of every 50 do. In both I’ve succeeded since they’ll never forget it.
Q: How do you price your work?
A: Pricing is difficult and I never know what to put. Openings should be an auction and the price should be the same everywhere. The Berlin city town hall selected me to be one of sixteen artists to decorate Berlin with art. They made huge prints of original art on ad space. Since then, the Patrice Vuillard Gallery in Berlin put my prices up. The art a person likes is priceless. It’s worth everything to you if you like it. I like to make people’s brain spin by painting about things happening today. Great artists painted their reality. That’s my main target, so I need to travel and that costs money. I do well but I have no real security. It’s like running a company in which I invest into my brand which is me.
Q: You have agents in Sweden, Germany, UK, Denmark, Hungary and Spain. Does an artist need an agent?
A: Over time the number of countries and exhibits grows and I simply can’t handle it all.
Q: Your Financial Meltdown series includes paintings such as Crises What Crises, Stockbroker, Real Estate Broker and Is the future brighter? Is the crisis the beginning of a better time, or the end of an era?
A: (Pauses and thinks). The problem is that the very rich are quite happy with the crisis. It could drive us to war and war is good for some. Real estate agents are charicatures and part of a big game. How can property really be an investment for a normal person? In reality the bank is the owner and so you are in the hands of someone else. Real estate agents are cheating you. You should buy a home, not a house.
Q: Financial Meltdown, Car theft, Struggle with the bottle. Is your work a way of escaping or understanding the reality around you?
A: A combination. If it’s something personal, then I escape through my work like I once did with drugs and alcohol. I was trying to get rid of bad memories and think in a different way. Today it’s about understanding why and communicating a message of what’s going on to make more people start to think or get angry.
Q: Do you think that works created by painters that avoid abstraction have less energy than abstract art?
A: A realistic piece can also transmit feeling and expression. The fundamental point is to transmit energy.
Q: Is there a market for artwork online in sites such as fineartamerica.com?
A: Not really. There is a market for printed versions of artwork. People prefer to see a painting up close before they buy. I have been invited to shows thanks to my presence on the Internet however.
Q: What does music allow you to do that painting does not?
A: They are both very different ways of expressing. My music used to be much more of a political statement. Today I don’t have same need to express through my music as I do with my paintings. With our band, The Stockholm Stoner, we try to make high quality music for adults over 35. It’s a very American-style band with country and rock rhythms. The music market is far more difficult than the art market. Selling 4000 records, I make the same money as I do by selling just one painting.
Q: Myspace, facebook, fineartamerica… Does the internet give or take energy?
A: The Internet takes energy.
Johan Wahlstrom Studio
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- • Official website for Johan Wahlstrom
- • Official myspace for Johan Wahlstrom
- • Official website for Stockholm Stoner
- • Official myspace for Stockholm Stoner
- • Johan Wahlstrom in the Official website for Patrice Vuillard