Côte-à-côte in the studio
We asked two of our favorite Swedish emerging painters; friends and long-standing studio mates Fredrik Åkum and Tomas Lundgren to take a break from the preparations of their upcoming solo shows to freely record a conversation from their white cube-like studio in the city of Gothenburg.
F.Å: Hello C-print! Thanks for inviting us to have this conversation. I'm Fredrik Åkum and next to me is Tomas Lundgren.
F.Å: We've just gathered here after a long day in the studio. Having been working together in this space for so long comes with a certain jargon which probably won't be very easy to catch on tape but let's give this a go.
T.L: Did you say who you were?
F.Å: I did. I'm me (laughs) – Fredrik.
T.L: And I'm Tomas.
F.Å: To begin with, we've been sharing a studio ever since graduating from Valand in Gothenburg. While still at school, we learned that having studios nearby served both of us well. Being able to discuss our work was convenient as both of our practices revolve around painting that is based on photography in one way or another.
T.L: At school, I think we were both considered ”good students”. In the sense that our individual practices require for a good amount of hours spent in the studio.
F.Å: Oh, that's what you meant (laughs)! At first I thought; now where is he going with this? Yes, it's true though. Our work is very time-consuming and it does require studio work. For me, the studio is crucial for my practice. The one where we are right now is the second one we share after graduation. Initially we shared a tiny commercial space with some others. It was lovely but quite crammed and located far from home.
T.L: I think that space was merely 16 sqm. and we literally worked back-to-back. It always felt very temporary and we were always on the lookout for something more substantial. Then in 2014, we got this spacious studio; a former rehearsal studio which we more or less re-built into a white cube.
F.Å: It’s like six times the old studio, with high ceilings, quite a stretch from the previous one. It used to be an old hospital which was later turned into a studio collective for artists in the 80's. When we moved in, it almost felt like revisiting the 80's. It required a great amount of work but it was a rather enjoyable experience. Aside from being personal friends, having studied at art school together and shared studios, we've both also worked as technicians at Göteborgs Konsthall. I think we had worked on a couple of exhibitions together and already had a sense for rebuilding spaces.
T.L: To be able to build walls is a skill that comes pretty handy as an artist. On that note, I think we even had a three-weeks' class in how to build walls at Malmö Art Academy.
F.Å: Oh wow. Things were a bit more DIY at Valand. You would have to ask somebody who had the know-how. Anyway, the studio does look significantly different today. It has the look of a white cube. Friends who've only seen images have jokingly said that it looks like two doctors at work in an operation theatre. I quite like having it this way. These crispy white walls and high ceilings allow you to test hang your own work and map out upcoming exhibitions which is very convenient.
Today, after having remodeled the space, we have three rooms; a big one which we both use when working on bigger paintings, a smaller one which is great when you need some solitude and also a combined storage and office space.
T.L: Both you and I have been working pretty intensely for the past months preparing for upcoming projects. Tell me a little about yours.
F.Å: I recently finished a few works for a group show at Gallery Steinsland Berliner in Stockholm. Above all, I've been preparing for a solo show at Gallery Thomassen in Gothenburg which recently expanded its premises. There will be another solo show running parallel; Jakob Ojanen upstairs while mine will be held in the space downstairs. After the gallery show, I'll start working on a publicly-funded project for the entrance of a school which is currently being constructed. Also, there's an idea to start a new publishing house for artist books and publications and hopefully work on new exhibitions. How about you?
T.L: Currently I'm working on an exhibition which is about to open at Färgfabriken in Stockholm and have been doing so all fall, ever since being informed about being the recipient of the Beckers art grant.
F.Å: It feels like you've been working 8 to 9 ever since the announcement...
T.L: An hour per day, yes (laughs).
F.Å: Try 12 hours per day (laughs)? You've made four new very big paintings which make part of a series which also includes a number of smaller works.
T.L: Färgfabriken, the site for the exhibition, is pretty big. Initially my idea was to make an installation in the center of the big exhibition hall but while working, I felt compelled to present a proper exhibition rather than just an installation.
F.Å: The room is very different from your average exhibition space.
T.L: Yes, it's a lot less white-cube-like than our studio for example.
F.Å: Also it's naturally quite dark which is refreshing.
T.L: It's a bit reminiscent of a church in fact with its pillars. I've tried to make use of the unique architectural properties for the installation.
F.Å: It certainly has a sacred feel to it. I'm very much looking forward to see the end result.
T.L: For this show, I was given a very tight deadline which means I have had to work very long hours in the studio. Also, more than usual, the outline for the exhibition was set very early on.
F.Å: Isn't that always the case for you though?
T.L: I do appreciate having a rather clear idea but this show has been exceptionally mapped out. How have you prepared for your show at Galleri Thomassen? Have you had a model of the space when outlining the exhibition?
F.Å: I quite enjoy the planning stage to be honest. From experience, good ideas tend to come with it. Those phases between actually making works are also quite valuable. Also, from a logistical point of view, knowing the space really helps. I usually tend to come to the site well-prepared. Having said that, I'd rather bring more works than have too few so I can edit on location. At my last solo exhibition at Gallery Steinsland Berliner, I think I brought twenty works but ended up only showing nine.
T.L: Yes, the end result departed quite a bit from the initial exhibition plan.
F.Å: That show was also a bit different. I presented an installation of a fence in the center of the space which is pretty difficult to visualize beforehand.
T.L: The first time I made outlines for an exhibition was for my degree exhibition at Valand which was also the very first time I presented a large-scale painting from the gray portrait series. I reckoned it might be good to get an idea of how it would be observed by the viewer. Smaller works are easier to hang and allow for more possibilities whereas with big works; they kind of hang were they can.
F.Å: You mentioned gray portraits but perhaps you should say something about what they represent?
T.L: I make these gray portraits and have been doing so exclusively since graduating back in 2013. They're based on photographs of people I've found in digitalized archives. Initially, I liked the contrast of shedding light on these anonymous characters by painting them on the canvas.
F.Å: These images served scientific purposes, often to document diseases and odd physical traits, right? Like the one we're looking at right now; it depicts a woman, seemingly quite calm and focused, but I believe she had been bitten by a dog.
T.L: I think it was her boyfriend even.
F.Å: I can tell a change in how you work with the original images. Previously, you've stayed very true to them, like the works you showed at Thomas Wallner and Moderna museet in Malmö. On this painting here, for example, it isn't very obvious that she has been bitten. To me, your new works bear abstract qualities in a way they haven't before.
T.L: When I started preparing for my degree exhibition, my focus was to put these anonymous people to the fore through portraiture. But as my work progressed and as a result of having depicted numerous people and having made some forty or fifty of these paintings, I've gathered my own archive in a way. My work has increasingly come to revolve around the anonymity in these portraits and less about the actual people on them. If they were initially tributes of sort, they've now dissolved into mere traces of people. I find this new direction more interesting on a personal level.
F.Å: Might we see a total departure from portraiture in the near future?
T.L: At the moment, I am pretty keen to take a giant leap forward to see where it takes me. I'm not sure really what that would be though.
F.Å: That must be a pretty exciting feeling.
T.L: Often when I think of taking things to a new direction, I end up right where I am. It's almost as if you have to think in terms of giant steps in order to take a baby step forward.
How about you? I get the impression that things can change very quickly for you; between shows or even from one work to another.
F.Å: I'd like to believe there's a red thread running through my work in recent years.
T.L: Working very closely to you, I can see the progresses you've made. If you look at some of your older paintings or even the ones from just a few years ago, the progress is evident, both in terms of your style of painting and themes.
F.Å: Well, the quest to improve or evolve is always omnipresent. For the time-being, I think I'm very prone to finding excuses of working more abstract.
T.L: Thematically, I believe there's this sense of ”the unattainable” in your work.
F.Å: Yes, my last solo show Gallery Steinsland Berliner in 2014, gathered works that in various ways all kind of dealt with just that; a longing for what is out of reach. This was partly represented through the depiction of exotic plants that don't grow here. The founding idea, and this might sound very abstract, is that there's a utopian state that comes with what you haven't experienced personally. I mean in the sense that you can mold it yourself according to how you want it to be. I'm quite curious to examine how this can be dealt with differently. In the last years, my work has revolved a lot around plants and pots which also stems from a personal interest but having done it for a while now, I've grown a bit bored.
T.L: Your last show at GSB didn't only extend to paintings, but also the fence installation you mentioned earlier that divided the show and the exhibition space into two parts.
F.Å: I was quite pleased with that installation. Or this other one I presented at Malmö Konsthall for which I used dead palm leaves and a Xerox machine. These tiny gems you make besides paintings really add something extra. I'm trying to think of myself as the glass between the Xerox machine and what comes out of it. It'll sound abstract, but my ambition is to make paintings that are reminiscent of images in a fanzine.
T.L: It makes sense to me. I remember writing about it in the final thesis at Valand. I compared my own impact on what I do as a filter of sort. Most often, there's not a radical change between the original and my work but you've still left some kind of mark.
F.Å: Both of us, although working differently and using different source material, we both take an interest in repetition. At my upcoming show at Thomassen, I'll be presenting a suite of paintings where one is painted off the other as opposed to different images. In the end, you almost feel like a Xerox machine yourself.
T.L: Isn't that quite inevitable considering how we work? It's funny that we've both worked quite a bit with duplication but with different approaches. You have a background in fanzines and printed matter whereas my entry was to work with painting that reflected the memory and how images can be recreated through it.
On a different note, we mentioned leaving a mark and that's something you've also worked with recently. Not traces made by yourself but by other people. That seems to be the vantage point for this new series of yours.
F.Å: The idea for this series, Carvings, came from photographs I've taken on tree trunks on which people have carved things. I like how the carved words get blurred out with time. On certain pictures, you can tell that there's once been some kind of a text. I find trees' ability to heal themselves pretty fascinating. I think there'll be sixteen of these paintings in total at the upcoming show. They're quite small but will consume most of the space and will be the second series I show alongside the one I mentioned earlier.
I will also present an installation of flags which I've done once before at Göteborgs Konsthall. What I like about the flag installation in particular is that it pinpoints my idea of the role of contemporary art. Flags in general serve a purpose, notably to convey or indicate something. To me, contemporary art should pose questions and evoke ideas rather than providing answers. In the past, the flags have been installed a bit nonchalantly in a way that the entire image hasn't been visible. So in a way, they are embedded with a function without really being functional. I like the idea of making use of the space and although my work might depart from painting, I also enjoy exploring other media. On that note, your show at Färgfabriken won't only be about the paintings, right?
T.L: Right. It's not so much about the individual works. They're replaceable. The vantage point has been the installation itself. The way the works will be installed is that the viewer will move through a path surrounded by pillars leading up to a room-like installation of four walls on to which there'll be one panting each. Between the pillars, smaller works will be hung, facing another one on the opposite side. The works have been made with this idea in mind. The idea is for the viewer to enter this room and being forced to meet the gaze of the woman, the one we mentioned before, on all four paintings.
F.Å: I think I really get what you're aiming at. It'll almost be a reversed situation of the viewer being observed rather than the other way around. You won't be able to move without having the woman's gaze fixed on you. I don't like to use the word
”revenge” but in a way the power dynamics will have shifted.
To sum things up, we've discussed what we've been up to lately. One thing that we haven't mentioned, which also tends to be the most frequently asked question, is...
F.Å: Yes; why based in Gothenburg? Also; is there an art scene?
The latter is impossible to answer but I think both of us agree on it being a good city to work in. It's easy getting around – you can demand space.
T.L: What I need for my practice is breathing space, being able to work undisturbed. Also, having this shared space and being able to have daily conversations about pretty much anything counts for a lot too. What is interesting though is that none of us has exhibited much here. You've exhibited mostly in Stockholm and myself in Malmö.
F.Å: The exhibition at Thomassen will be the first in years. And you'll be exhibiting alongside Ylva Carlgren at Galleri Box later this year. It'll be quite the Gothenburg raid this year.
T.L: None of us are originally from Gothenburg so we don't have a natural connection to the city. Right now, however, it just serves me and my practice very well with all the necessities in place.
F.Å: Sometimes you feel a bit isolated from social events and happenings but it's not really a big deal. We do see the shows and attend the openings that speak to us. It's just a matter of going in the end.
T.L: Oh, yes, that's another thing we do together – we travel together to see art (laughs).
Tomas Lundgren's show solo show at Färgfabriken in Stockholm runs through March 6.
Fredrik Åkum's solo show Endless Hunt opens at Galleri Thomassen in Gothenburg on February 25.
For more information about the artists, please visit:
Images accompanying the feature courtesy of the artists <3.