Carl-Oscar Sarfati introducing the exhibition Aspects of a summer at Flach Gallery in Stockholm 2023
“Det som blir går inte att kontrollera,” säger Niklas. Han målar. Som om instinkt skulle göra jobbet, utanför kontrollens förmåga. Koncentration och fokus, men utan att tänka för mycket. Han brottas med ytor när han målar. Texturen i en skuggad växtlighet, där mörka grässtrån sticker fram i en solgata ur en lågt liggande sol. En gungande vattenyta med reflexer åt alla håll. Texturen i hår. När Niklas målar hår är det aldrig ett allmänt hår han fångar, det måste ha rätt karaktär och närvaro. ”En ny lätthet,” säger han när han kommer hem från jobbet. Jag ser direkt att det är mitt hår, mitt huvud, trots att det är långt ifrån klart. Bara några antydande penseldrag, utsmetad färg på duken, men håret är utan tvivel specifikt mitt.
”Jag vill att du går i där,” sa Niklas och pekade på näckrosorna, en grön matta av blad. ”Med eller utan badbyxor?” frågade jag. Jag skämtade.
”Helst utan, om det är okej,” svarade Niklas. Jaha, tänkte jag. ”Men behåll kepsen på.” Första foten ner i det kalla vattnet landade mjukt i en tjock, lerig botten. Andra foten tvekade.
”Går det bra?” frågade Niklas mellan slagen från slutaren i kameran. ”Nja,” sa jag.
”Kan du gå mer ditåt?” Han pekade en bra bit längre ut i näckrosvimlet. ”Försök iallafall.”
Jag kämpade mig ut med båda fötterna i geggan. Solen stod låg och bländande ihärdig, brännande het trots att den var på väg ner. Det var sommarens varmaste dag. Jag plaskade mig fram i den tysta kvällen. Det skvätte vatten runt mig, i stänket bröts ljuset i tusen riktningar.
”Är det bra så här?”
”Nej, mer i ljusgatan, titta på solens riktning.” Hans lediga hand vinkade mig åt sidan. ”Och det var jättebra när du vinglade till, typ som om du tappade balansen.”
”Såhär?” Så fort jag lyfte på ena foten sjönk den andra längre ner, armarna vinglade till utåt sidorna och jag famlade efter balans. Det rusade vattendroppar upp i luften. Jag svor för mig själv.
Vi gick barfota tillbaka till bilen över den varma asfalten. Niklas blev nöjd med bilderna. Men det blev ingen målning från den dagen. Han väljer från andra tillfällen, andra bad, andra ljusförhållande. Andra stämningar. Det är ögonblick av en särskild stämning som Niklas fastnar för när han söker sina motiv. Det är en närvaro av något flyktigt, en närvaro så flyktig att den inte ens syns. En osynlig närvaro, en icke- existerande närvaro. Fast hur målar man något som inte syns? Hur fångar man det man inte kan greppa? Man kan försöka. Men det som blir går inte att kontrollera. Lik förbannat greppar han det.
Niklas visar vad han gjort under dagen. Och där på duken är det. Egentligen är det bara Quinacridone, Vermilion, Phtalogrön, Pariserblå och Zinkvitt, blandade med varandra och utplacerade med koncentration. ”Den jävla ultramarinen,” kan han svära. ”Det ska lysa i blåhet,” säger han och så gör det just det. ”Jag vill få kontakt med det som Är.” Och av bara farten får han också tag på det där andra. Det som är men inte syns. Intets närvaro. Den till brädden fyllda tomheten.
“What appears cannot be controlled,” says Niklas. He paints. As if his instincts are doing the work, beyond his ability to control. Concentration and focus, without thinking too much. He wrestles with surfaces when he paints. The texture of shaded vegetation, where dark blades of grass stand out in a sunny street from a low-lying sun. A swaying water surface with reflections in all directions. The texture of hair. When Niklas paints hair, it is never a general idea about hair he captures, it must have the right character and presence.
“A new ease,” he says when he comes home from work. I see right away that it is my hair, my head, even though it is far from complete. Just some hinting brush strokes and smeared paint on the canvas, but the hair is undoubtedly specifically mine.
“I want you to go in there,” Niklas said, pointing to the water lilies, a green carpet of leaves.
“With or without these?” I asked, pointing to my swimming trunks. I was joking.
“Preferably without, if that’s okay,” Niklas replied. All right, I thought. “But keep the cap on.” The first foot into the cold water landed softly in the thick, muddy bottom. The other foot hesitated.
“How is it?” Niklas asked between the clapping sound from the shutter in the camera.
“Well...,” I said.
“Can you go further in?” He pointed a good bit out into the maze of water lilies. “At least try.” I fought my way out with both feet in the mud. The sun stood low and was blindingly persistent, burning hot although it was setting. It was the hottest day of summer. I splashed my way in the silent evening. The water swirled around me, refracting the light in a thousand directions.
“Is it all right like this?”
“No, more into the path of the light, look in the direction of the sun.” His free hand was waving me to one side. “And it was great when you wobbled, as if you were losing your balance.”
“Like this?” As soon as I lifted one foot, the other sank lower, my arms were flailing at my sides, and I struggled to balance. Drops of water sprang up in the air. I swore to myself.
We walked barefoot back to the car over the hot tarmac. Niklas was content with the images. But there is no painting from that day. He chose from other occasions, other baths, other light conditions. Other moods. Niklas gets attached to specific moments of a certain mood while searching for a motif. He seeks a presence so fleeting that it is hardly seen. An invisible presence, a non-existent presence. But how do you paint something that cannot be seen? How do you capture what you cannot grasp? You can give it a try. Without any control over what will appear. But he captures it just as well.
Niklas shows me what he did during the day. And there it is on the canvas. In real it is just Quinachridone, Vermillion, Phthalo Green, Parisian Blue and Zinc White, mixed together and deployed with concentration. “That bloody Ultramarine,” he swears. “It should glow,” he says, and that is exactly what it does. “I want to connect with what is THERE.” And then, coincidentally, he gets hold of that other thing. That which is but is not visible. The presence of nothing. A full emptiness.
Joanna Persman introducing the suite of paintings Interiör
Translation by Koshik Zaman.
Published as foreword in the publication Interiör (2018).
It’s about tenderness. The human being is never as naked as when exposed to the gaze of others. In Niklas Holmgren’s paintings the body is freed from inhibitions and the norm. What is invisible is visible here. The young men, so far untouched by time, are affected by their inner selves. Sitting, lying, adrift out of time and space, their presence weighs heavy in the room. Can a mirror preserve an image?
About photorealism in painting, Roland Barthes would probably say the same as about the photography. Irrespective of who and how a portrait is depicted; the painting can become invisible. It’s a person that we see. However, this is not due to the technical abilities of the camera but rather the bewitching mystique of the painting. The faces, the core, the limbs ... The sofa, the pillow, the tattoo ... Every detail concealing or uncovering something.
With a virtuous paintbrush and great sensitivity, Niklas Holmgren seizes fleeting moments and captures them in his work. Unlike the click of a camera, painting with the meticulous care seen here consumes time. Possibly the act of depicting is about turning the gaze towards one self.
A conversation between
Niklas Holmgren & Ashik Zaman
Originally published in C-print Journal (2018),
printed and published in Interiör publikation (2018).
A.Z: Your recent body of work as a painter is collectively titled “Interior”. How does the title relate to the suite of paintings it informs and what does it say about a thematic approach underlying the works?
N.H: Aside from all the scenes occurring in interior spaces, I imagine the works to be telling of internal queries and turmoil within people. In brief my objective and approach has been to attempt to depict and convey what is within the people you see. Their inner emotional life and psychological state if you will.
It’s obviously an impossible feat since that will not be something visible at mere human glance. Nevertheless, it continues to be my driving force to try. Might one reach with painting where else not possible? My hope is that this to some extent might be felt looking at my work.
Interior moreover was the title of my first feature-length film starring Stina Ekblad and Peter Schildt and I can see in hindsight that I was informed by the same notions back then. Visually I was departing from the interiors of Wilhelm Hammershøi. I still feel my work bears a kinship with his body of work.
A.Z: It appears to me as though this suite of paintings presents itself as a comment on contemporary society; a rare pensive moment of being alone with one’s thoughts in contrast to the always social and connected quotidian way of life. So collective and yet somehow so alone. You know what I mean?
N.H: Perhaps as a viewer you might be struck by a voice to face oneself introspectively to get closer to the true self and to be more present. I think people today are generally more intimidated by their own selves and in particular of solitude. Gillian Anderson said something interesting in this regard; “It all comes down to how comfortable you are with that person in the silence.”
Who knows, maybe my painting can serve as a survey of who we are once subjected to this solitude.
A.Z: Your works could easily be characterized as hyper-realistic and they are blatantly marked by great skill and command. From where do your depicted scenes arise and what is your studio process like?
N.H: Ideas for a new painting generally will emerge as I’m in the process of executing one. All the new ideas just stand in line to be materialized. Usually one will feel more urgent and pressing, and that makes choices all the easier. I might make a prior sketch but the point of departure is always a photography. I work with a photographer called Paulina Westerlind. When I’ve found a model, we end up taking a ton of images for me to be able to make a selection of the image that best represents my vision or in best cases further enhances it. But the real materialization begins after this pre-stage of “sketching”. After that begins a long studio process of trying to channel into the moment that I want to convey.
When I look back on a completed painting I realize that I only get where I want if completely devoted to each moment along the way of completion. I almost need to be in a state of transforming myself into the subject, the room and the objects in the scene. I almost have to be swept by a physical sensation of what I’m painting to reach where I need to be. Metaphorically I would call it being so consumed by the process that the work itself possesses you and your body, and takes control over you. If the work ever gets completed, my first reaction will be to hate it. Then I take a breather from it by putting it in the “corner of shame” a few weeks. An expression that originated for me through my professor Mari Rantanen at art school.
A.Z: You mentioned already a background working with film, which you did many years after school as a director and screenwriter. It’s easy to see your works publically earning a label as “cinematic”. How do you yourself feel about that and do you distinguish artistically between your projects to date?
N.H: I see everything as part of a whole. I’m foremost an artist with roots in painting. My film works were based on the same thematic approach as my paintings today. Obviously I do imagine having been impacted as a painter by being a director and similarly films influenced me a lot venturing into art initially. My process as a painter however is different than that of my years behind the lens. It fits me better. When you give yourself to painting, a flow and rush arises that is indispensable. The difference with film is how that the latter is so much more a fragmented process where things happen in parts. My earliest exposure to art as a child was with realism and I can detect that this as well in my films; that there was a strive to depict things as they really are and appear without alteration.
A.Z: Is there any work in particular in the “Interior” suite that stands out as a pivotal moment or the background story of which reveals something for the viewer worth taking note of?
N.H: In my view I think of “Alexander on the sofa” as the most significant painting. Somehow I feel like I hit a sort of mark for myself, which I can’t really put in words or explain to myself. That’s where I want to reach with painting; beyond a point of what is explicable. I think it comes down to the gaze of the model, which I think is the case with all the works but in particular this one. There’s a gesture of physical movement exuding from Alexander’s body from the perspective of the viewer, which I perceive will be gone the next moment. My hope is that my work is marked by a feeling of ephemerality. And, that the painting stands in clear contrast to that. During the four months I was working with it, I felt I was being driven to sheer frenzy trying to seize and understand how it all relates together.