The Swedish artist moves on from Amy Winehouse and Muammar Gaddaffi to oil-based portraits of ”unheard outcasts”
A few facts about Johan Andersson that a biographer would note: he is Swedish. He is an artist. He paints in oil. He is 25. He has made a name for himself through highly aestheticised portraits of Amy Winehouse and Muammar Gaddaffi – but also unknown, socially marginalised people from the street. He is the youngest artist ever to be short-listed for the BP Portrait Award, which also makes him one of the youngest artists ever to be exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. He once (last year, actually) was part of a reality show on Sky Arts in which he hitch-hiked through Europe without a penny in his pocket, getting by only from selling whatever art he could produce along the way.
Now, Andersson has a new exhibition up at the Long Gallery at Englefield House in Berkshire. It’s called 'Stolen Faces', and replaces the portraits of noble men and women of yore with what Johan Andersson calls ”unheard outcasts”.
Dazed Digital: What are you hoping that people take away from the exhibition?
Johan Andersson: That they see other people differently. That we are all equals and showing the marginalised in a new light. The 'Stolen Faces' exhibition is a prophetic statement where I am replacing Vanity – aristocratic earls and duchesses – with the marginalised outcasts, the sort of people Jesus would hang out with. In those days it was a privilege to have your portrait painted and now we're giving these people a voice and showing them in a new light.
DD: I sense the Almighty has something to do with this?
Johan Andersson: Yes. God is the king of creativity and source of inspiration. He tells me which colours to use and creates devine encounters with subjects that I've painted.
DD: Wow. How did you become a Christian?
Johan Andersson: When I was 18 and a student at Central Saint Martins, a girl from college asked me and a friend to join her in church. She was really hot, so we went. During the service me and my friend sat in the back, just laughing and taking the piss. But then they were taking communion. Almost as a joke I decided I’d try it, and stood up. Then I thought of my dad, who died when I was seven, and how unfair that felt. ”God, if you’re fucking real, show yourself!”. And suddenly it felt like someone put a hand on my chest. It felt like peace, a very physical sensation.
DD: You've painted vagrants and ”outcasts”, but also Amy Winehouse and Colonel Gaddaffi. Which is the common thread in your work?
Johan Andersson: During the Arab Spring turmoil in Libya I attached a portrait of Muammar Gaddafi, stripped of his power and medals and portraying him more as a man, to a “Peace Plinth” in Parliament Square. And after Amy Winehouse’s death last summer, I displayed a portrait of her in Camden Town Tube station. But Amy Winehouse was a one off, it's not really me. My latest series includes child soldiers and victims of sex trafficing. It describes what I'm about. I will take this further by doing a documentary in South America, India and Africa, exposing the enslavement of western materialism and putting it into its true perspective. I will be working with screen writer Kevin Pecota and photographer Reid Welsh.
DD: Your oil paintings are beautiful and technically sophisticated. But when portraying marginalised people in this style, isn't there a risk you're also aestheticising the socially disenfranchised?
Johan Andersson: No, it's all authentic. I’m not trying to shock or glamourise anything. The pretty colours are subtle now, and simple. I capture people for who they are.
DD: A friend of mine in Los Angeles told me you were hanging out there recently. How is the art scene in LA different from London?
Johan Andersson: There are a lot more artwalks and art crawls. It's edgy downtown and more commercial in Venice. I painted a shotgun victim downtown called Jerry. That's where the real fire is.
DD: Are you thinking of moving there more permanently?
Johan Andersson: Yes. A) because of the documentary. B) because of a girl I've met!
'Stolen Faces' is at the Long Gallery at Englefield House, Berkshire, May 11th-18th, 2012
Text by Johan Wirfält