Here at Art Unified, we're constantly striving to break down the barriers between artists and art lovers. So when Art Unified artist and co-founder Johan Andersson invited us to take a sneak peak at his latest series-in-progress, we saw it as an opportunity to share with our fellow art lovers a glimpse inside the artist's studio. We snapped a few shots of Andersson at work, and listened to him dish about his creative process, who he believes would get seated at a modern-day Last Supper, and what's up with the Los Angeles art culture.
Art Unified: What inspired this new series?
Johan Andersson: I think all of my series have always had juxtaposition in the concept, and visually, there’s always this paradox going on in the paintings, like with the Stolen Faces series and Brand for Life. It’s questioning something in society that really annoys me, or trying to get a message across in a thought-provoking way or a clever way. And I think with the new series, it was along the theme of taking and challenging traditional notions of religion and trying to say through these paintings that, actually, the religion is not what’s important, it’s relationship. And through this series, like the Last Supper and the heroin addict holding Jesus, it’s trying to show that people who are overlooked and are outcasts in society are people that in Biblical times Jesus would have actually hung out with.
I wanted to make the painting very irreligious, so it can actually reach a bigger audience. I don’t even want it to necessarily be a ‘Christian’ painting or anything like that. I want it just to tell the truth, which is taking a Biblical scene into our modern day culture and seeing, okay, who would be the person that would have been sitting with Jesus at the table in The Last Supper? Who would he have been close to? It’s replacing Biblical figures with modern day people.
In those days, lepers had to announce their uncleanliness. They had to shout it, so that no one could look at them. So for Him to touch someone like that was so against the Jewish laws and traditions in those days… but He would cut through that and still go to those kind of people. The tax collectors were despised. The Samaritans were despised. These people were isolated from society - it was so extreme in those days. Who are those kind of people today? That we judge, that we isolate and condemn? When you look at the types of people He hung out with, even the main disciples, it would have been people that were the equivalent of the Samaritan or tax collector. In these days, the equivalent of that could be an extreme fundamentalist or terrorist.
I wanted to show that. I wanted to show that painting can tell a story raise questions. That’s the biggest thing in my work - to try to raise questions, rather than anything else.
AU: In the past you've mainly focused on painting portraits of individuals, and this series represents a departure from your old work. What's it like painting with larger canvases and larger scenes and have you had any struggles in making that transition?
JA: Yeah, I painted Stolen Faces very big - even bigger than this current series. If anything for me, it makes it easier. I paint better on a bigger scale, for some reason, and I manage to get the trajectory right because I use big brushes and big brush strokes.
And it’s still portraiture, even though it’s figurative. I think that’s always been my way of communicating, through my paintings, that I wouldn’t be able to do through abstract or landscapes. I think it’s just a tool to express what I have to say. Through using figures and people, it conveys the most powerful message. Storytelling has always been through characters and people we can relate to.
AU: You grew up and attended university in London. What are some major differences you've noticed between the London and Los Angeles art scenes?
JA: The London art scene is far more conceptual than in Los Angeles, in my opinion. I think it’s… there’s more of an intellectual aspect to it. Too much in a way, where creativity can be taken out of it. It’s very much about how you talk about your work. Obviously, the scene is thriving in London and New York through the gallery scene, which I think at the same time as very commercial. There’s this kind of confusion going on, because people want to make work that’s really challenging and conceptual, but at the same time, they have to try and gear towards commercialism to sell stuff by way of art fairs and events and galleries, which have control - this gives off mixed messages to artists. That’s what we’re trying to challenge with Art Unified.
AU: So do you think that something like Art Unified could work in London or New York? Or do you think that galleries have a stronghold on that culture? I know that there are strong street art presences, but those can be pretty polarized cultures.
JA: I think they can work, down the line. But I prefer to go to areas where there is more need, where there’s no bridge for artists. If there are plenty of galleries around, that’s great because they can meet the needs of a lot of artists. But in spaces like Los Angeles, where there’s no center and no way of connecting artists, with a few galleries scattered all over the place, I feel like there’s no hub or connection for them to utilize their creativity through placements and selling work. And, galleries can be very exclusionary and limited - they’ll tell artists, don’t exhibit anywhere within this radar around this space. There are a lot of rules that come with them. I think that in New York and London they have stronghold on the scene there. I would prefer to go to places where there’s not as thriving an art scene, no connection for artists or a bridge that meets the gap for artists in selling their work.