Martin Wickström’s paintings take you into a sphere where different worlds collide side by side on a canvas, where photorealistic images of light and shadows play on building facades, where the face of a Khmer Rouge prisoner stares down at you, numbered before she is tortured and killed, and one where Jackie Kennedy is juxtaposed with an image of a calm idyllic island scene with a palm tree. With images that Wickström captures on his many travels worldwide, taking inspiration from the world around him and from his personal experiences, he continues to capture our imaginations with canvas after canvas. There is absolutely no doubt when looking at his body of work for over 40 years why he is one of Sweden’s leading contemporary artists today. Martin Wickström’s work is in the collections of Art Museums in Sweden, such as The Museum of Modern Art (Moderna Museet) and collectors worldwide. I talked to Martin at his airy, light filled new studio in a state-run building for artists, that he has settled into after 28 years on the wait list!
Photo of Martin Wickström by Ewa Rudling.
You graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in 1987, what led you to being an artist, when did that journey begin?
I was about ten or eleven when I received a box of paints from my grandfather for Christmas, I remember having so much fun with that. I loved painting and creating things but it wasn’t until an incident in High School that I would say was the turning point. We had a class where one of my friends asked my advice and help on a painting. The substitute teacher who was there that day told me off, saying I should not be teaching someone else when I wasn’t very good myself! This left me very angry and upset so I took some paints home and started to work on a piece. When I was finished I actually took a step back and was amazed at how it turned out! That feeling of immense accomplishment and that belief that I had created something so impressive I have never been able to match again. I then moved to Stockholm, studied at Gerlesborgsskolan, and got into the Royal Academy in 1982, after being rejected six times!
You were on the road to success immediately after graduation from the Royal Academy of Art, with a gallery representation and exhibitions, how did this impact you as a young artist?
It was of immense help, I have always been working on the side, with three kids to raise I had to. My first exhibition with Göran Engström as my gallerist, I was lucky enough to attract the attention of a very important Art Collector at the time by the name of Fredrik Roos. I had no idea who he was when he walked into the gallery but when he left I was told that he had bought several pieces from the exhibition, pieces that I thought would be very difficult to sell. This gave my confidence an enormous boost. He continued to collect my art until his death in 1991. He was one of those rare breeds of collectors who went entirely on his instincts, he didn’t need for an artist to be established before buying their work.
Could you explain how the process works for you when creating new artwork?
It forms as an idea in my mind. When it comes to preparing for an exhibition I work with the gallery space, starting with the room, followed by a theme. Most of the work is in my head really, I am a collector of images and objects and I use my computer to put these images together in a way that resonates with me. When I find that perfect fit, I start to paint.
Which artist would you say had the biggest influence in your life?
There are two Swedish artists who have had an influence when I was starting out many years ago, one was Dick Bengtsson and the other Öyvind Fahlström. I liked Dick’s way of working with surfaces and his painting process. With Fahlström I was impressed by his use of multi media in art apart from painting, I used to build things like miniature houses and airplanes, and through Fahlström I got the confidence of being able to decide what I create as my art, not to be dictated by what I should do. The eighties was also an exciting time in the art world especially in Berlin and New York and that was coming through to Sweden in a different form of artistic energy from the very political seventies, influencing me and my contemporaries from art school, some of whom are leading artists like Dan Wolgers, Fredrik Wretman, Cecilia Edefalk and Ulf Rollof.
You have done many paintings which portray facades of buildings, why does that attract you, and what do they represent?
A facade is thin and flat like a painting, in my photographs of facades I usually straighten them out almost Mondrian-like. Light is a very important factor for me, and I try to capture that light, and all buildings have different ways of reflecting off that light as well. The other factor is that there are never any people seen in those buildings, that is left to the imagination of the viewer, what goes on behind those walls and windows? Swedes who view the paintings of these facades always feel that they relate to it architecturally, that it reminds them of their home and they identify with the painting.
You are known to describe your work as archaeology, why? In what way?
I love browsing through flea markets, usually not looking for anything in particular, and can’t really describe what it is that will attract me but I will know when it happens! I have collected all kinds of objects, newspaper clippings, pictures and books, which I use in my paintings pairing them with my own photos. When we sold my parents house I found boxes containing 7,000 slides that were taken by my father. I scanned every single one and decided to pick out about 100 of them, all pictures of my mother looking directly into the camera at my father who was the photographer, and put that into a 11 minute video installation for my exhibition with Galerie Forsblom in January this year.
Many of your paintings are montage paintings pairing two totally different images together, what does this mean to you, and how do you wish for them to be viewed?
I love images and when I see something that attracts me I save it. I then play around with these images, they may be my own photographs and others that I have found and know when it is a match. I am not able to explain if and how these two images relate to each other but I just know when it does. I also don’t believe it is of importance what the meaning holds for me, if it appeals to the one viewing the painting, and gives meaning to the viewer, I think that is what’s important.
You often include installations along with your paintings, how do you bring it all together and why is that symbolism important to you alongside your paintings?
As I always start with the gallery space, I feel the room will be much more interesting if you could add something to it to make it more sculptural. Just as in combining two pictures together on one canvas, I like to have everything connected, offering an added quality and creating a dialogue combining all the elements together in one room.
Apart from being an artist you are also an art consultant. Can you explain what you work with and how did you get involved with that?
I have always been working with different things, all through my artistic career, from working the night shift in a hospital to teaching at Konstfack. After six years of working with Statens Konstråd, The Swedish Public Art Agency, I formed the art consultancy KiWi together with another artist named Ulf Kihlander. When we started there wasn’t anyone else doing it, galleries organised exhibitions but only with their own artists. We worked across the board, from private companies, public installations to restaurants and hotels like Sturehof and Clarion. It really is two full time jobs for me, and I do at least one exhibition myself a year.
As an art consultant, what in your opinion is good art, art worth showing in an exhibition?
Artists who don’t do what everyone else is doing. Young, not yet established artists should not be afraid to do something unique, and not follow trends of the local art scene. Both Ulf Kihlander and I have different tastes so we complement each other when choosing artists to work with.
Why is there such a lack of diversity in the Swedish Art Scene? Why do we hardly see artists of immigrant background represented?
It probably starts with the Art Schools, the Swedish tradition in painting is so strong it is difficult to break through that barrier for entry into these schools. How are we to say what is right or wrong when it comes to art, we are all formed by our own experiences and our own histories. Getting into a good Art College is important not only for the education you receive but also the contacts you are able to make. It is very slowly starting to change but it takes time, I feel art should portray and reflect the society we live in. But it isn’t only about immigrant artists but if you look at most of Sweden’s top artists, they all come from middle class, well educated homes, so it’s a question of class as well.
Where do you get inspiration from?
Everything. Music, people I meet, objects I find, life! When I am in my studio everything stops, I step into my calm almost meditative space, I love it.
Is there a favourite colour?
If I have to say a colour, I would probably say blue.
What is the most stressful part of preparing for an exhibition?
I am a time optimist, so I tend to push everything till it becomes pure panic. I do wonder if it is deliberate, I have a generous timeline, but it is towards the end that I feel magic happens. It is incredibly stressful but really good work has always been produced right at the end resulting in a love/hate relationship with this period. The conceptual work is a lot of fun but the actual end result is pushed till the deadline, every single time.
You have had an exhibition in New York, how were your paintings received there?
It was a very successful show, we had a big turnout, the theme was Vietnam, which initially my Swedish gallerist Angelika Knäpper thought it may be too sensitive a topic but the New York gallery had no problem with it. The Vietnam War had a very strong impact on my generation in Sweden in the seventies and I wanted to present that. I then travelled to Vietnam in preparation for this exhibition. I was going to do another exhibition there last year but unfortunately the gallery closed last year, I would love to go back.
What do you personally think of the Swedish art scene?
I have become less and less involved in the Swedish Art Scene, I don’t keep up as much as I did before. I work too much to actively participate in everything. It is quite good but of course more can always be more done and there are so many young artists who don’t find galleries to represent them and are unable to get the exposure.
What are you working on now?
An exhibition in Helsinki opening on the 20th of September with Galerie Forsblom. It is quite a large gallery space so I am working on a number of installations as well. The theme may be titled “Brothers” after a slide I found of my two brothers when they were little. And with KiWi, an exhibition of Lennart Nilsson’s photography at Sturehof opening on the 27th of May.
Below a slideshow done for the Paradiso Exhibition in January 2018 at Galerie Forsblom. The mother of the artist in 100 slides all taken by Wickström’s father, an homage to their love of over 50 years. A project from the 7,000 slides found in the family home before it was sold.