Having first seen his work earlier this year at the Royal Institute of Art spring degree exhibition at Konstakademien, and been duly impressed, we meet up with painter Johannes Hägglund whose solo show ‘Happy Without You’ recently opened at Galerie Forsblom in Stockholm.
C-P: Hi Johannes. Congratulatons on presenting your first solo exhibition ‘Happy Without You’ at Galerie Forsblom in Stockholm. What might the exhibition title tell us about the show?
J.H: In the past I haven’t been so interested in titles. Besides a way of cataloguing works, I have felt like they do a disservice to the paintings and are redundant, with the risk of pointing the viewer to a certain direction. I like the idea of a painting being able to stand on its own and for the viewer to be able to approach it with a clean slate. One of the main considerations that went into the exhibition title is the fact that it speaks to and addresses itself.
Happy and happiness are pretty much words that have marked the working process and have served as the point of departure for the exhibition. The titles of the paintings are not meant to evoke any hints about the works but are in fact just names, just like names given to people. The selected titles I’ve chosen based on names that either derive from or have a connection to words like happiness and joy.
C-P: We first caught your work at the Royal Institute of Art degree show at Konstakademien earlier this year. In a room of several of works, I thought your paintings really commanded the space. I remember being struck by the ferocious brush strokes presented in one of the two large canvases. Can you share a few words about your method of working?
J.H: I have a very practical and methodological approach to my work. Generally, I always try to find new ways of creating an image and ultimately new methods to find my own visual vocabulary. I’m very restless as a person and tend to work a lot and fast. To achieve some structure, I often start by outlining systems within which I can create compositions and release the energy I have while working. It often arrives at a quest for balance – structure and meticulousness weighed against chaos and release of energy. One cannot overshadow the other. Ideally, I want the paintings to tell the various stages of the working process. Errors, mistakes, alterations and flaws are just as important as anything else in the image. My aim is some sort of anti-perfectionism; appealing and flowy brush strokes next to “sloppy” painted parts. Perhaps a little corny but it’s important to me that the traces of a human are visible and evident. I’m not interested in a perfect exterior. It’s the flaws and the errors that renders a work its soul. There is no such thing as perfection.
C-P: Looking into your early body work, there is the evident motif of plants. However, more recently, your practice seems to have taken a slightly new direction. Also, the palette seems to have changed a little with elements of brighter stark colours rather than the sombre colors of the past.
J.H: As I mentioned earlier, I work in a very practical way with different methods to make progress. For instance, I’ve never had the patience for croquis or still life painting, even if I can see the point in training the eye. Instead I’ve searched for my own ways based on similar principles. The motif itself isn’t the most important but rather how the work is carried out and which possibilities, limitations and ways that exist or do not exist in the realm of the chosen motifs and compositions. I have this idea of only working with painting, colour and form. The way I see it, I only use a motif or the idea of a certain composition as a vantage point to explore further. In the midst, an image which oscillates between abstraction and representation is created.
Having previously worked with pretty strict compositions and straight lines, I started working with vegetation and leaves as it was an easy and allowing motif to play around with. However, it also had its limitations in terms of choice of colors in relation to the kind of brushstrokes I wanted to exercise. In combination with restlessness and a growing interest for woodwork, carpentry, old houses and a longing for a more thorough knowledge about colors, I’m now keen on an even more straightforward working process in the studio, particularly during the actual painting process. Namely one with surfaces and shapes which allows for further distortions and possibilities to make changes in the image, without the same demands as a more direct way of painting might have. In the past, I’ve worked a lot with the image as a single unit whereas now I tend to see it as several smaller pieces and ideas in dialogue with each other that together have to create unity.
C-P: Still enrolled at school, currently a fourth-year MFA student at the Royal Institute of Art, how have you found your time at the school so far? With a vast and rich range of facilities available to students, have you been inclined to try any new techniques?
J.H: It’s very interesting and comfortable to be a student at a place like the Royal Institute of Art. Above all, it gives you time which feels like a necessity. To be able to develop your own practice without too much demand and influence from “the real world outside”. It’s also a great environment to be in, to be a part of a context and being surrounded by other people with a hunger for learning and with whom you can exchange ideas and thoughts with. Although it’s a very privileged situation to be in, being a part of an institution, however, also has its limitations. Times have been pretty turbulent since I started and I try to avoid internal school politics as much as possible and just focus on my own work. At the end of the day, as you pretty much have the luxury of shaping your own curriculum, the time spent at school is what you make out of it.
I’ve always been drawn to wood as material which I’ve been fortunate to work with and develop in the excellent wood workshop at school. Last year I attended a class in flat glass techniques and glass painting and felt there was a kinship to my way of working with painting. I think something new and exciting could emerge by combining these two techniques.
C-P: Lastly – perhaps the inevitable cliché – are there any artists who you look up to or who might have served as inspiration for you own practice?
J.H: Beyond anyone else, the person who always supports me, messes with me and encourages me on a daily basis – my partner in crime Inez Jönsson.
The idea of looking up to other artists doesn’t really speak to me. I’m more interested in the people around me and who feed me with energy with their enthusiasm towards what they enjoy and do. Friends with a passion and a strong belief in what they do, that’s inspiring to me. If a friend has made a work that I find good, then that can really trigger me to work hard in the studio. In a way, it’s perhaps inevitable and denying reality, but I stay critical to looking at the work of other artists for inspiration for my own work. I get afraid of looking in the wrong direction. Especially in relation to being a part of an art school with professors, guest teachers etc. where the concept of hierarchy is present. I’m sceptical to the idea of having a person above me. I believe, particularly in a school environment, that it can be a little risky. I’m also afraid of paying too much respect to a single person’s practice or opinion. There’s the risk of being too influenced. Not to say that you shouldn’t listen and consider the views and opinions of others, but you should also not forget your own and believe in them.
'Happy Without You' runs through December 22 at Galerie Forsblom in Stockholm.
Image nr 2 courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Béranger. All other images courtesy of the artist.
For more info, please visit: johanneshagglund.se