Jacob Dahlgren’s Everyday Abstraction
Some years ago I worked for a Swedish museum director whose daily uniform of choice was a black shirt, black jeans and a black leather jacket. Every day. Regardless of the weather or what was in the diary for the day in question. His purist approach held some appeal: consciously eliminating choice from the daily act of getting dressed not only saves time but also removes the anxiety that the decision of what to wear each day can, let’s be honest, induce, leaving you free to focus on the important stuff. Like art. For the Stockholm-based artist Jacob Dahlgren, the monochrome palette of my former boss would be an anathema and yet his wardrobe choices, though far more expansive, are no less bound by a self-imposed code that he has adhered to for over ten years. Each day he selects a striped t-shirt to wear from his growing collection of over 1000 as part of an ongoing project in which he sees himself, in his own words, as ‘a geometrical painting moving about the world’.
Trained as a painter, Dahlgren started out making hard-edged, abstract paintings but eventually grew tired of the need to constantly invent arbitrary combinations of colour on the canvas. His solution was to look out into the world, or more specifically into his own wardrobe, thus beginning his series of paintings, knowingly titled Peinture abstraite, each one replicating an example from his personal collection of striped t-shirts. The paintings in this ever-expanding series appear to pay homage to the abstract art of the second half of the twentieth century when the stripe was the motif of choice for American colour field painters such as Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland. It was also the primary vehicle for the dazzling perceptual experiments of British artist Bridget Riley, who painted her first stripe paintings made of vertical bands of colour in the late 1960s. Dahlgren is well aware of the hu mble stripe’s auspicious art historical lineage but he is much more interested in the way in which it, along with other signs and motifs associated with twentieth century abstract art, have been appropriated by contemporary visual and consumer culture, from product design and fashion to street furniture and soft furnishings.
A well known work by Dahlgren that deftly merges the legacy of an another iconic moment in twentieth century abstraction with an experience of the everyday is Heaven is a Place on Earth: a plain of red, white and blue Ikea weighing scales, arranged in a chequerboard pattern reminiscent of the metal floor pieces of the master of 1960s Minimalism Carl Andre. Like Andre’s sculptures, the piece can be walked on by the viewer and also expands or contracts to fit the space available to it (previous versions have included a vast grid of several hundred scales at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm and a long, narrow pathway of scales installed in the Turner Contemporary Project Space in Margate.) Andre himself once remarked that ‘the essence of art is human association’. In much of Dahlgren’s work, such as his children’s climbing frame of coloured steel blocks named after the defining exhibition of Minimalism (Primary Structures, 2011), the physical involvement of his audience is key to playfully dissolving the boundary between ‘art’ and ‘life’, so that it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins.
In a pair of performances in Stockholm and Margate, the visual and the social came together as people were invited by the artist to converge in a series of public locations – a busy shopping mall in Stockholm, an amusement arcade in Margate – wearing striped clothing (Signes d’abstraction, 2005-09). In the Swedish version, participants were instructed to visit certain shops and cafes and to only give up their seats to others wearing striped attire whilst in Margate, the group moved in unison from one seafront location to another over the course of an afternoon. In both works, Dahlgren successfully combined the camaraderie of the demonstration with the apparent spontaneity of the flash mob to create a kind of moving, three-dimensional abstract painting.
What united the participants in this piece was not revolution then, but art. Dahlgren has appropriated the format of the political demonstration in other works, including Playing the City (Frankfurt, 2011), and his art is replete with references to the utopian ideals behind the mßodernist movement. In the hands of painters like Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Mark Rothko abstraction was allied with a quest for the spiritual or Sublime whilst the unifying impetus behind the Bauhaus School was to bring all the arts together with a shared rationality of approach. In Dahlgren’s home country, the emphasis on functionality in Nordic design in the mid-twentieth century was inextricably bound up with the emergence of Scandinavian social democracy. A century on, abstraction has not only seeped into every aspect of our lives but it has also become big business, as even the most cursory flick through the Ikea catalogue, with its candy striped rugs and geometric cushions, makes plain.
Jacob Dahlgren’s eye is trained on the everyday abstractions that pass most of us by unnoticed. He travels everywhere with a camera, photographing the small, incidental patterns that form so much of our urban landscape and in which small echoes of the modernist past can arguably be discerned: the luminous chevrons on the back of an ambulance; hazard tape around potholes, the concentric rings of a beach umbrella and of course, that most universal and democratic of garments, the striped t-shirt. A self confessed sampler, he wears his influences lightly, if not literally, on his sleeve and his love affair with ‘the wonderful world of abstraction’, to borrow the title of one his earlier works, shows no sign of ending just yet.