January 3, 2006

Thomas Millroth on Jacob Dahlgren

In conversations about Jacob Dahlgren stripes are usually counted, how he collects striped shirts, how he paints them as ditto paintings and how he is said to have over 400 such garments in his wardrobe. Stripes both from shirts and other things are convincingly documented in many of his photographs.i

Strictly speaking, I should not write stripes. Lines are what they are called! The line, of course, is a subject of Vantongerloo, Marcus, Ridell, Kölare, Riley, Orup, Bærtling, Buren; pure concretists. A basic element, that allows itself to be transformed into everything from space to horizontal extension. Even a border phenomenon between figurative and non figurative ii, real and unreal. The primary cell for the building of a picture. By means of braiding, twisting, permutation, meeting, addition… With this we have quickly come close to the core of l’art concret, concretismiii. It is the transformation, that picture’s alchemy that lifts a simple part of the construction to a new dimension, where the combined parts make up something completely different, the intangible, the dizzyingly myth-saturated fourth dimension, which in the best case gives this type of art a shamanic irrefutability. We enter into concrete art’s dream world, the vision and the revelation, that at the same time make it one of modernism’s most pretentious and captivating endeavours. I like to see Jacob Dahlgren as one of the artists that is consciously captivated by the unrealized utopias that (art) history is full of. To name only De Stijl, Suprematism…- the list is endless. The utopia plays with the total transformation and therefore is best in writing or a model. The thought of this desired “new” lived in many works, for example Rietveld’s Red-Blue chair. Seating furniture by Jacob Dahlgren at Liljevalchs Konsthall in 2001, paraphrased as “Grace Kelly 1-1V”, was lined up in front of a wall of wavy mirrors, whose title quite exactly gives the carried through transformation of a concrete object: “How the Physical Existence of an Aesthetic Object Vaporizes in an Immaterial Play of Forces.” From concrete object to concrete visionary space, an intangible, continuously transforming whole. But just as obvious is how easily Dahlgren handles these thoughts, how this deportment is allowed to be ironic, and how the utopia – it is always safest this way – is disarmed, to in turn transform into a sharper tool, which possibly, if a bit bluntly, can be called criticism of ideology.

The theme “transformation” easily brings other works of Dahlgren to mind, the painting made of differently coloured clothes pegs (2001), pillars of moulded, coloured plastic hangers (2001), paintings of yellow and red yoghurt cartons (Hamburg 1982”, “Krakow 2002”, 2001). Simple mass-fabricated objects have been dispossessed of their role as objects of everyday use and used as aesthetic building components, cleverly masking their origin. Subject to a concrete, or rather minimalistic, principle of composition they act as an undercover of a still-life of everyday objectsiv.

If we see the objects’ physical evidence in themselves – even more when transformed to works, how they, dispossessed of their essence, have become concrete – the word “concrete” given an expanded meaning. In addition to concrete art there is also music and poetry that is called concrete. The object is dispossessed of something that is experienced as central: that a door can be closed, that a hanger bears clothes, that a mug contains liquid. Instead other characteristics are emphasized: form, colour, sound, repetition, prolongation, surface. The same goes for words. Concrete poetry, lettrism, or whatever you want to call it – transformed words and grammar to sound, clang, feeling. When Dahlgren transforms Russian Malevich into a letter sculpture (“Item 9; headmaster”, 2004) this is an artistic lettrism, where the modernist pioneer’s name consists of stacks of letters in dazzling colours – as if the spirit behind the stripes/lines had chosen to step forward. The artist M became word, which became a new picture. This formation of new with its emotionally strong colouring follows in the spirit of Velimir Chlebnikovv. Words were clang and colour to him. “Kopotsamo, minogamo, pintso, pintso, pintso, pintso!,” sing the mermaids in his “A night in Galicia.” In a similar fashion, songs such as “Item 9” sing of Malevich, helped by Dahlgren’s line theme: colour clang in primary element (block letters, colour).vi I would like to see a work like the blinding “Glamour”, 2001, in the same way. Word and concept combined in the flickering pink-shifting wall with a simple grid like spark-igniting lattice.

Concrete poetry’s new formation and reconstruction of words has parallels in concrete music. Pre-recorded “sound objects” – coughing, whistling, slamming doors, motors – have played an all more central role in music since Peter Schaeffer launched concrete music in 1949-50. Undressed in their ingrained meaning and dressed in new tones, they play an important role along side of/or instead of the ordinary instruments, with which ordinary “abstract” music is created. The concrete was the tangible. It is this tangibility that Dahlgren uses, where he refers to plastic mugs, clothes hangers and other things in his paintings and sculptures. But he does not only use transformation from one form to another. Take for example “Item 1; youth movement” and “Item 2; bohemians”; in the former, fruit lies sorted according to colour on a shelf construction, which could have derived from an early Mondrian (with the exception of the colour); in the latter, diverse shining table lamps are mixed with a free standing shelf construction, in which an expressionistic, spontaneous streak clashes with the construction, not least emphasized by the muddle of electric cables. Is this a conscious irony – how the individual fruit and respectively the individualistic lamps shine with their form and their naked bulbs – so strikingly alike but yet so readily seen differently? In that case a sideline about the shipwreck of individualism. An argument against overconfidence.

The use of day-to-day objects – hangers, mugs, lamps – and the production of usable works of art – shelves – is tied to an affair of the heart in the tradition of concrete art, benefit to society. When I visited Pierre Olofsson he was just as happy to discuss a painting as he was to discuss the colour scheme of SAAB cars or kitchen appliances for Husqvarna, proudly demonstrating colour proofs on small pieces of paper. Bengt Orup in a similar manner held up a few drinking glasses to the light. Gert Marcus described the colour scheme of buildings in detail. The works of art were a sort of model. Works that share greater structures. Functional reality was essential.

Quite a number of useful industrially manufactured everyday objects have been given functional, rational and therefore beautiful forms in the spirit of concretism. Dahlgren does a reverse movement and restores the object of daily use to an artistic context. That which was intended to work as a part of our everyday lives instead becomes a functional part of the art work. In its own way it also mirrors – also in concretistic circles – a retreat from the great utopias to the personal image invention’s intrinsic potential. In this rift of a genre, that derives from transformation’s intended necessity, an antagonism is exposed that was there all the time, the one between lofty ideas and the characteristic individualistic inventiveness, that is of course typical for the concrete line. Those who see these artists as conformists are completely wrong, few have been so unwilling to subordinate themselves, devoted to their own ideal. I believe that precisely this insight belongs to Dahlgren’s source of inspiration. What made Olle Bærtling persevere? Why Dahlgren consciously touches on this great modern utopian I think is clearvii. Bærtling was not only the visionary of colours, he was one of them who, as stubbornly as intuitively, used the theme of the line – in paintings as boundaries between fields of colour to give vitality and endless prolongation, – and in sculptures as a sort of space catalyst. Even if the former banker’s visions can be seen as flatly modernistic, his intensity, glow and engagement in the work is captivating. A light vertigo comes about in front of his paintings, not least when they have been given the placement he desired in modern buildings, for example in the lobby of one of the skyscraper buildings at Högtorget. Dahlgren included a photograph in his 2003 catalogue of a Bærtling-like painting in a lobby that first tricked me into confusing it with a work of the inventor of open forms, until Dahlgren told me that it was a “find” that he had made, a decorative painting that through the glass door’s gleam could be misunderstood. A practical joke of art history, but that does not change the matter at hand, that the photo is a clear address to Bærtling. Also interesting is how Dahlgren in parallel allows the depiction of one of his own striped paintings. In them namely the intensive flicker and the spatial experience, not limited by the form, can be felt strongly. It is a personal recreation of the experience from the concrete work of a Bærtling-utopian devotion. I would say the same thing about the painting he did in 2001 in a corridor at Södersjukhuset in Stockholm. Mirroring, glass, transparency in combination with dynamic outstretched, non naturalistic colours give a floating Bærtling-like view of a transparency, for which the French term éspace was used during the 50s and 60s.

As a driving force in Dahlgren’s work, I see the remarkable fact, that many works of art, even after the death of the utopia itself, are still charged with the intoxication and energy of this vision, evoking the dream of the future. On one level I believe that they are personal tales of these physical experiences that differentiate themselves fundamentally from other art experiences, whether landscape, expressionism or conceptual art. To satisfy oneself with a distanced commentary or paraphrase would have been to run away from the subject. It is about finding your own charge of energy. No more, no less. There, perhaps, also lay the motivation for many concretist precursors, where they connected with their forerunners. But, unlike them, Dahlgren did not seek to create his own image invention, one small element of his own to experiment with. Collecting has become a road. Between us collectors, I recognize this. These quantities of objects which are piled up and put together, these striped shirts, speak their language and generate a sort of expression. Another is where the collecting is more about experiences, where each one is unique in its own way, yes, like in bird-watching. But here it is a question of a sort of “art-spotting,” if you can say so. In order to give back these collected impressions, your own expressions are needed, also, by way of exception, elements from other artists turn up like a sort of recognition bonus, Rietveld’s chair, Judd’s boxes (Item 7; public prosecutor”, 2004), but always, however, with a central and conclusive divergence from the original. Dahlgren has chosen another parameter.

The divergence is always central to the experience – and formulation. In Dahlgren I saw repetition and tried to find the serialism. There exists, of course, such work by Bonniérviii, Bodin, Frödin, amongst others; but the theme has constantly been “acentralized”. Translating a mathematical or musical principle to an image is not always matter of course, without intuition and/or randomness playing a part. This also applies to Dahlgren. Clearly this was naturally the case with the giant installation of dartboards at Norrköpings Konstmuseum in 2004, “I, the world, things, life”; the repetition of circles was numbing on such a large surface, but the vibrations of the red darts that the audience was invited to throw at the paintings became intensive. I see them as equivalent to the overtones that the listener soon discovers and sinks into when listening to extremely minimalistic music compositions.
The labyrinth is the symbol for the intuitive and the non rational. The mythological charge is strong, and has taken a hand in art history x. The labyrinth is the quintessence of the unknown, and perhaps precisely therefore a stage. Dahlgren entices play and movement in the mirror rooms he builds.

In Third Uncle, 2001 at Millesgården, the flat plastic room construction is activated by playing children in Dahlgrenish striped shirts. The mirroring gives the multi-room strong tangibility; the visitor himself turns up fragmented. Bit by bit by bit the parts are put together during an ongoing transformation. It is the theme of repetition twisted to the parameter of space and existence. Out in the roomix – and the observer definitely looses the possibility to imagine that he grasps the artwork’s lapse of time. “Neither man nor nation can exist without a sublime idea,” alleged Dahlgren in the title to the mirror work he built in 2002 in Vienna. In order to enter the gallery visitors had to climb through a mirror construction of transverse beams. The whole movement inwardly flickering with small individual fragments, up there, down, direction, orientation disappears. Decomposition in the process and the movement, the existential uncertainty x. No concept allows itself to be bound to eternity. This is proven – if nothing else – by what happens when the artist reduces the means to a minimum, repeating the primary syllable, if only to experience the joy of how this repetition of the simple explodes in a glitter of forms, where the little piece has chosen to unite itself with space. A discovery: “Less is more,” xiii, Dahlgren quotes van der Rohe at Konsthögskolans spring exhibition 1999; the result was a colourful corner with a roaring throng of square basic forms!
Superficiality, overconfidence and one-sidedness are transformed to ashes.
In discussions about Jacob Dahlgren stripes are usually counted, but this turns out not to be such an easy thing to do.

Thomas Millroth

i See Galerie Anhava, Jacob Dahlgren 27.2-23.3, 2003 “The possibility of eternal conceptual misunderstandings/Ikusten käsitesekaannusten mahdollisuus”, catalogue, Helsinki 2003.
ii Cp. The horizon: when does the line go from stroke to horizon!?
iii The international concept of geometric abstraction; “Concretism” with its origins in Otto G Carlsund is mostly used in Sweden.
iv Naturally, I could have named pop art, but I rather see Dahlgren’s work in an unbroken line of everyday objects appearing on the art scene, of which one element was pop; more art history than logo, naturally with the reservation that pop brought the logotype to art history. Cp. Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt, “The wonderful world of Jacob Dahlgren”, who on pages 6/7 writes regarding Warhol that “packaging is part of a product’s all-important brand identity, as vital as its logo,” in Ars Fennica 2002, Helsinki 2002.
v Chlebnikov saw the word as an independent power that organized feeling and thought material. That is why he emerged himself in the roots of words, in their sources, went back to the time when the name corresponded to the item.” Majakovskij, page 84 in Gunnar Harding, Bengt Jangfeldt, “Den vrålande Parnassen, den ryska futurismen i poesi, bild och dokument”, Stockholm, 1986.
vi In the same spirit I see other concepts that have become tools for visual new spelling like ”youth movement”. (“Item 1”), “bohemians” (“Item 2”) and “dadaist” (“Item 5”), all from 2004.
vii In 2002 the Konstnärshuset in Stockholm exhibited Jacob Dahlgren and Olle Bærtling!
viii Only in “Sagan om ljuset,” Blåsbskolan, Västerås, 1952-54.
ix Amongst concrete precursors Bonniér experimented with the theme in “Minos Platos”, 1965.
x Out in the room…” was Olle Bonniér’s label in sketches at the beginning of the 50s for what today would be called an installation; in 1950 he saw the years theme as beams crossing a room, a sort of labyrinth, which wasn’t created until many years later.
xi A related mirrored labyrinth work of Einar Höstes “Spegelrum”, 1969. The observer, however, did not enter the work physically, but looked into the work’s space.
xii The question is if it wasn’t actually Count Basie; it fits better to a tight swing.

Thomas Millroth