The Storyteller

Meet Johan Wahlstrom

14 SEPTEMBER 2015,
You Are In The Army Now
You Are In The Army Now

Johan Wahlstrom, Swedish-born, Malaga-based painter, invited me to dive into his world, through his powerfully charged canvases, with an ever present, underlying Rock and Roll twist.

Wahlstrom harbours a turbulent background; he started his career as a musician in a Rock band based in Sweden, touring Europe. Having always evolved around art and music from a very young age, he preserved a link towards painting; first as a side passion whilst his music took centre stage, then as a profession, when he decided to leave the music industry and its destructive lifestyle. Wahlstrom explains, ‘I left Sweden and moved to France where I got cleaned up and have stayed clean for 17 years now, In France I focused on painting and have not looked back ever since’.

From then on, Wahlstrom has dedicated all his time and energy to his creations. The rough and hectic experiences he had witnessed during his musical career became a profound weapon in communicating his ideas on a society that needs help, a world that is yearning for a change, and barriers that are desperately screaming to be broken. These powerful concepts gave rise to series inhabited by titles that quickly set the tone:

Ego What Ego?
Crisis What Crisis?
God What God?
It’s Boring To Die

The unavoidable sarcasm and irony present within the titles of Wahlstrom’s work jump at us, as an eye-opening critique, making us stop and question ourselves.

I have tons of titles jotted on scraps of paper all over my studio and every day I decide what title is going to be painted, usually I play loud music that is relevant to the title as well, then I block myself from all other thoughts and focus to be one with the title to make it come alive on the canvas.

Wahlstrom immerses himself within language and attaches great importance to its function in the interpretation of the work he makes. Whether it be through written text or spoken words in a Rock and Roll song, he uses phraseology as the premise and inseparable ally to his visuals.

His most recent work is part of a series entitled House Of Lies (2014). Black, brown and shades of grey dominate his work. Individuals in pain, screaming to be heard, their faces joining in resemblance and suffering, their heads delineated by a thick black outline, crowds moving together, in a united feel seemingly protesting ‘enough is enough!’. The people depicted in Wahlstrom’s canvases become a ‘whole’ each withholding their own emotion and struggle yet united through a common dissatisfaction and rage towards society. Wahlstrom is painting you, me, himself; he is portraying us, ‘we’, the individuals that populate this planet.

It takes many singular fragments to make up a mass. A group harbours its power in its entirety yet cannot exist without considering every unique element as a necessity to build and strengthen its structure. Wahlstrom applies this when creating his paintings, concentrating each brush stroke as a gesture, a distinguishing movement representative of our diversity. He describes this process saying, ‘I also use the rhythm in the music to set the tempo for how I move the brushes on the canvas, you could say that I try to dance with the brushes to the music’. With this technique embracing the music as guidance to his hand, he first outlines the figures and progressively layers them, bit by bit, adding to their complexity.

I question the uncanny resemblance of the individuals Wahlstrom depicts to Edvard Munch’s infamous painting The Scream (1893) in the idea that Munch described as being the ‘…enormous infinite scream of nature’. In Wahlstrom’s case, I feel as though the characters in the work embody this cry for what surrounds them, he agrees, ‘Yes, many of my paintings are based on people/society´s scream for help, a scream of enough is enough, a scream of anxiety that too many of us either have or are surrounded by’. Wahlstrom denounces with emotion, he touches upon these issues by telling us that we are not alone, he regroups and encourages us to think together, looking outwards instead of within.

He fearlessly states that it is ‘his duty’ to paint about today’s society, unravelling the lingering despair that we all conceal inside. ‘I see myself as a storyteller and I want my voice to be heard in the daily debate’. He philosophically embraces the little imperfections in his work and talks about the importance of risk taking in the intensity of an experience lived to its fullest. He is driven and a firm militant for a world with ‘…less lies, less greed, less war, less poverty, less religion, less violence, less people in jail, less child abuse, less problems with the environment and so on…’. With bold ideas resulting in visually substantial work, Wahlstrom is human, and acts it, without tricks or overloaded fakery; he remains himself.