Jockum Nordström Is the Rock Star of the Stockholm Art Scene
Maybe it’s all the all the talk about “alternative facts,” but the world seems especially surreal of late, which, combined with a trip to Stockholm Fashion Week, got me to thinking about the alternative universe created by Jockum Nordström. Nordström, a primarily visual artist, had his first show in 1988, and soon became one of Sweden's best-known creators, primarily for his drawings and collages, which are united by the way that they ask the viewer to suspend their disbelief. "Surreal" doesn’t feel like the right way to describe these works, because their aesthetic borrows from folk and Outsider art, which gives them a surface naiveté, even though the content can occasionally be R-rated. His series of (appropriately rated) children’s books—"Sailor och Pekka," about a man and his dog—are comfortably considered classics in Scandinavia akin to Jean de Brunhoff's "Babar."
2017 finds Nordström in can’t-stop-won’t stop mode, with a solo show in Antwerp, an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, a soon to be installed commission for Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB) Bank, plus continued work on a book project in conjunction with the estate of Leo Tolstoy, and an upcoming album. Three days before Nordström and his band closed Stockholm Fashion Week with a performance at the Whyred after party, I sat down with the artist in his hometown to talk about his work.
Your work is comprised of so many techniques—how do you describe yourself?
It’s very hard to describe yourself, but I am of course, an artist. I can say it now, when I’m over 50. Pictures are absolutely [the foundation of my work]. Even if I make sculptures, I am still a man who makes pictures on paper.
I’m an artist from the beginning. I was always drawing and painting so it was very natural for me. I think I wanted to be other things first, maybe a carpenter, or sailor. I wanted to be a sailor when I was young, to see the world, but the only thing I could do was draw and paint. [Which I did] all the time. It was for me a way to be private. I created my own world in one way. I was [at it] every day. [If you work hard at it,] in the end you have your tools. [You know how] to draw and paint and you understand what kind of colors you like. And then of course you change it, but you have the confidence to use this when you create, and after a while [you create] a world. But you don’t think about this by yourself, it just grows slowly, slowly…like mold!
What is your process?
I have a lot—a lot—of books, a lot of records all over. When I make a collage, I cut first. I’m always cutting, and cutting for me is relaxing. I started with this maybe 25 years ago. You cut, and then you paint, and if a [piece] is not the right shape, you cut a little more; take off the head, make a new head. There’s a lot of freedom, it’s playful.
I really like the process when you make collages because it’s different floors: I start to cut and I cut until I am a bit tired. After three weeks or something I have a lot of cutouts and then I start to paint on them, maybe for two weeks or so. When I paint them sometimes I think this isn’t a good color, and I can paint the other side. If it’s really bad after that, I put it under the water and let them dry and the next day I go on, one more time. It’s like you go from details to a picture. If you are a classical painter—I was from the beginning, but I had such bad allergies that I stopped using oils—you start with a picture, with a composition, and go down to the details. [With my collages] it is a totally different thing. I start with all these details, and then draw on them, take some more week, and then take them out. Then I maybe work just with backgrounds, abstract backgrounds. A lot of these are really bad, you know, they’re shit, but I can’t leave them. I go down and try to make them good, put them on the other way, and sometimes I can use pieces of them. [By the time I’m ready to make] a picture I have a lot of materials.
And how would you describe your approach?
I think you have two different bases as an artist: you have nature and you have relationships: human beings, architecture, cities [with] all the people together. Nature is something else. It’s the light and trees, the animals. [When you make art] you have to put in your [own] psyche; you have to do something from your own. And if you work with relationships—films are almost always about relationships--you have to put your psyche in that too.
I grew up in a city, in the suburbs, so when I was younger, [my art was very much about] my life with all these relationships: love, hate, school, upbringing, building house, break down things. The scenography was always the city in one way, but I think I always have been very, very interested, down deep, in the nature. [It’s] the stars and the ocean, the animals the sounds—everything. Somewhere without words. I love that.
What is the role of narrative in your work?
I have a narrative in my head, always. It’s about my life, of course, and abstract thinking, too. Sometimes the abstract thinking takes over, and sometimes the narrative takes over. Narrative is very close to drivel because if you are too narrative, too pathetic, too emotional, [you basically say], “Here it is, take it,” [and] destroy [the reason] for people to look at it. I really love to work with this [balance,] which is really hard [to achieve]. It’s like a man walking a tight rope, and falling off. Then you try one more time. I like that feeling, I always like feeling that this is close to shit.
How do you feel about your art being compared to "outsider art?"
I think art is something that is not so related to your personality because you are going to die and the art will still go on. It’s like nature, it’s not so much about text. I think art is visual, but if you want to do something, [make your mark], I think you have to be personal, to have your [own] voice. And voice is not so much about ego, it’s more about feelings, what you have to give to something. For me, if you’re an educated artist or an outsider, if you have this voice, you try to make something special. For me, it’s the same.
Some of the best artists are outsiders; I think it’s the same in music too. Of course I like the educated world, with all these intellectual things; it’s very important, maybe the most important, but sometimes it can be very, very dry and destructive. I like artists like James Castle, who was deaf, and Henry Darger. For me it’s crazy that you [draw a border between this and capital-A Art.] for this. Outsider art, if it’s good, is like educated art. I have never made a border about this, even when I was young. If it had good colors, good feeling, I was very interested in it, I saw it like a special thing with its own language.
And what about folk art?
I’m from the suburbs, where there are people from a lot of places. I’ve always been very interested in folk art style since I was young, and I am still. The United States is very strong in folk art because it’s a young place with people from all over. I think [these people] took their culture with them when they came to America, so it’s very rich the folk art from the U.S. from 200 years ago. I have been looking at that, but I have also been looking a lot at German folk art, and Italian, Swedish, Lappish, Indian things. I mix everything.
How did your children's book series come to be?
When we were a young couple, me and Karin [Jockum’s partner, also an artist, known as “Mamma” Andersson] sketched a boy and a dog for a children’s book. We made a lot of pictures but it ran out in one way, we were working with our paintings all the time. And then I [fell into a] depression; I was very tired of working with paintings and I started to make this children’s book one more time by myself. It was very good for my depression because I had a good time [making it]. In four months everything was done, it was like therapy.
I was young at the time that I started with [the books], and my children were small; now they are 26 and 29. They are big men. When they were small, the main thing with picture books, for me, was the pictures, the feeling of the environment, and the characters, and in some of the children’s books [we had] there was so much text, blah blah blah blah blah blah, and it was so boring sometimes, so I made these more special. The dog can be me sometimes, or he can be the children; and Sailor is me or Karin, the adult world.
The words—I have made five books—always come in the last minute. It’s the last thing I do and that’s the reason why I like them, because I’ve built them up from a kind of simple story. I write down a lot of notes on small sheets and I have them in a box. In the end, when everything is done, I look at all these notes and start to make the words, and I want to make them very simple. Sometimes you have very tiny places to put the words in, so I have to cut [the text] down, and I think that’s good for the rhythm.
The first three books I made in two years or something, it was close together. My children were small at that time, it was easy to do. When I made my fourth book, it was hard to do because my children were bigger and I had no help from them or their friends. But I did it, and I was happy for that. After I made four books, [I felt unhappy about the number]; three or five is much more beautiful in a way, it’s more like a family, so I decided to make one more.
Can you talk about some of your upcoming projects, like the show in New Orleans?
[Regarding the show at the Contemporary Arts Center,] the curator, her name is Andrea Andersson, wanted to have things related to New Orleans, to the music. I had a big show in Lille in 2013 that was a retrospective, maybe from 2000 to today. I didn’t want to make the same, so I have an idea to have a lot of recent things, from maybe the last two years, if we can borrow them, and then earlier things. I think it could be good to take out the ten or 15 years between, so you have different feelings. I really want to have some graphite drawings too from the beginning [of my career]. For me, they are about growing up, sexuality, the cities. Today my work is much, much more about nature.
I also have a solo show that is quite big in Antwerp in November. I want to make new stuff [for that].
I think I want to make a new children’s book, like Vart ska du? because I have been writing a lot the last year. Not from the beginning to make a book, more [just] writing. I think I can use words and rhymes from that to make a book.
And then I work with Leo Tolstoy. His grandchildren’s children contacted me. They have found fables that haven’t [or rarely] been seen, and they have the rights on these and they want me to [illustrate] them. I’ve been working a lot with this the last year, and I’m going to show them in one month what I have done. Sometimes they are simple things, but they have a very good feeling. It’s [a work] in progress; if it fails, it fails, but for me it’s really, really happy.
I think Tolstoy wrote these for orphans. They are for educating small children, small stories about simple psychological things, and to learn teach [children] about the spider, how they make their webs, and how tree grow, and things like that.
And what about music? Isn't that something that you're also involved with?
I play in a band, Joakim Åhlund & Jockum Nordström, and we’re coming out with the second album now. Playing music is really good for me now, I played when I was younger, of course. I play guitar and base. The first record’s name is “The Toad and the Dog,” the second is called “The Son of Dracula.” I think it’s hard to say if its rock or jazz; it’s something else. Sometimes it’s more like theater or film music, and sometimes it’s more blues.