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Axel Jonsson

In conversation with Barbara Pflanzner, Studio at Creative Cluster, April 25, 2023

You mainly paint portraits and people in scenic settings. How do you find these figures and motifs?

I might not call them portraits. I see my works more as scenes in which people appear. The individual images are not part of a series. I also don’t have any particular templates of subjects that I want to work on. Each picture is based on its own idea and has its own background. I find the motifs quite spontaneous, although there are a few backgrounds or things that inspire me. I like to work with experiences from my own life or paint things that interest me – for example from literature, history or mythology, but some things I just make up. I try to create a certain tension, a certain atmosphere in the motifs.

I always feel the scenes tell a story or are connected to a larger narrative, perhaps also through your use of titles. Would you emphasize the storytelling aspect or is it not that relevant to you?

It varies from picture to picture. The narrative level of the images and that they tell a story, so to speak, is not really important to me in some works, but in others it makes sense. For example, the reference for the Tove By the Sea image is the novel Dependence by Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen. When I read it, I had the moment depicted in mind. So, in this case the title of the picture has something to do with the novel and it’s then of course something that I can tell when I show the picture. But in other works, that isn’t necessarily the case and it may have been created in a completely different way. That said, it’s actually not really important to me. It’s more important that the picture turns out well.

What’s striking about the portrayed characters is that they aren’t necessarily idealized. Rather, they all have very distinct physical characteristics, such as features on the face, hands, feet, or rear end. Do you have a particular interest in human physiognomy?

I think that the interest in people and the human experience is a main theme in my work. I’ve always been interested in images of artists from art history who have dealt with this, such as Francisco de Goya and El Greco, but also contemporary artists like Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud. As a teenager and young adult, I read a lot of alternative comics in which the style of illustration played a big role. For instance, by Robert Crumb, to take a very obvious example. His illustrations are always about that little bit of exaggeration, which I really like. And I like the clash of the exaggerated or the extreme with the relaxed and calm. For example, the exaggerated in a scene that’s not really very striking in itself. That’s what I meant before by tension.

This tension also comes from the almost naïve imagery.

During my studies at the academy, I tried different styles and, like all art students, tried to develop my own style. First, I tried to copy from photos. But that didn’t work for me. The reason I paint the way I do now is that I don’t use templates. Everything, both the composition and the figures, I paint from my head. I might use a drawing as a template, but then this drawing is created in my head. And since I’m already rather dilettantish – I haven’t had any classical technical or manual training, because that’s not really taught at the Academy – this naive style has developed. I think you can see that both in the figures and in the composition, where the perspective isn’t always quite right.

The characters always seem quite introverted. They come across as androgynous and it almost seems like some of them appear more than once. Is this impression correct?

They are somewhat stoic and stiff, unrealistic. That they are androgynous is not really what I intended, but I didn’t actively work against it either. I work very intuitively, which is because I’m so dilettantish. I can’t control – or only a little bit – what a face will look like, such as whether the character is angry. Of course, when I paint, I notice what kind of facial expression will form, and I can try to control that. But this intuitive side of painting is important to me, and that I let the image form itself.

Because there are also some small-format works here in the studio in which mostly only one person is depicted alone, are these preliminary studies for your large-format works or independent works? Do you make a distinction in this regard?

The main focus is on the large paintings; they get more attention. They are also based on a clear idea, which means I know in advance what kind of motif I want to paint. I start with sketches, often draw several sheets and then use them as templates for painting. I find they often seem very controlled for the reasons I mentioned. They also require a lot of concentration and don’t offer as much room for experimentation or fun. That’s why the small formats – and sometimes the medium ones – are those paintings where I work more intuitively and experiment more with form, take more risks in painting and also try things that might fail. I don’t always start these works out of my head, but mostly without a template. Sometimes there’s already an idea, sometimes it forms directly on the canvas. With the very small works I can allow myself a different degree of spontaneity and freedom. For me, this is very important because I find that they have different energies. I don’t want all my paintings to be so detailed and meticulously painted. I also want to make paintings that are a bit simpler. I also can’t paint like this all day; it bores me too much. I usually paint the large-scale works in the morning, and in the afternoon I paint a bit more freely.

Regarding the Studio Program: How has it been for you so far, what have you been doing?

Very well, I would say. I was so happy about a good studio because the one I had wasn’t the best place to work. And then I didn’t have one for three, four months, and I painted at home in the living room. When I moved in here, I really had a great desire to just start going into a productive phase. I’ve been painting a lot and am going to continue to make good use of the studio until the end of the program. As it looks now, unfortunately, I’ll be going back to the living room afterwards.

Do you have any exhibitions planned in the near future, or is there a project coming up?

At the moment, not really. My solo exhibition at gallery Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman from December 2022 to February 2023 in Innsbruck was a big project and the next exhibitions with them will come but aren’t fixed yet. I’m currently also looking for a gallery in Sweden, where I come from. Of course, I apply here and there for residencies and exhibitions, but nothing concrete is actually planned yet.