Tom Cullberg’s ‘Finding New Life in an Old Form’ sees the artist breaking new ground in the balance between abstraction and representation and between narrative and painterliness. It is as if each canvas is a slice through time, a calculus of forms if you like, and the viewer is presented with an exquisite moment of tension that refers obliquely to something that has passed whilst offering a glimpse of what is to come.
The backgrounds of these works are, for the most part, abstract and expressionistic tours de force: deft, almost calligraphic swathes of paint surmounting a deeper level of color and form. But breaking through this abstraction and surmounting it are moments of realism: faces; quotidian objects; printed matter; architectural structures and landscape. If one looks carefully however, it also appears from time to time as if the realism is the base and the abstraction is what is overpowering and encumbering the realism.
The centrepiece of Cullberg’s exhibition is the large painting Finding New Life in an Old Form (2016), which depicts eighteen newspapers on a neutral ground. The work is reminiscent of his well-known Book Portraits series (2009–on-going) and was inspired by an October 2015 edition of the Cape Argus guest edited by eight students involved in the #FeesMustFall student movement. Cullberg, a compulsive newspaper reader since his youth in Sweden, was deeply moved by the student-edited edition, later remarking “It felt like it was something that was alive, something that was direct. It didn’t have all these filters. It had something personal, the translation of personal experience into print.”
Cullberg’s paintings share a similar quality to his analysis. His practice is very much occupied with rendering sensate experiences using painted forms. Among the large paintings on exhibition, many are rendered in the style of his earlier Book Portraits series, but here include idiosyncratic montages of vinyl LPs, magazines, newspapers and objet d’art. His paintings also depict mid-twentieth-century domestic furniture by Danish designers Børge Mogensen, Swedish Bruno Mathsson and Hans J. Wegner and Italian-born American Harry Bertoia. “I know what it is like to sit in those chairs,” says Cullberg of the furniture portrayed in his work. “I know the feeling of the material. I have memories of those objects.” This sensorial knowledge is, however, not a sacred value. Many of the objects in Cullberg’s paintings are altered and lightly fictionalised. The inauthentic has equal value in his paintings, which offer more than simply unprocessed descriptions of the material world.
The chairs are often open structures that need to be filled; a motorcycle needs to be ridden somewhere; a pencil needs to make its mark. Similarly the images of magazines, books and the like (subtlety reimagined by Cullberg from their original source) offer the promise of data and information against a backdrop of woven linen. The origin of the word ‘text’ is the Greek ‘textus’ the same as for textile and reminding us that a text has weft and wove and the printed letters mean nothing until uttered, read or activated by human agency.