Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Johan Gustavsson - 2011 - One-legged tables, miserable Christmas trees and juvenile spouts [EN, interview],
Interview , 5 p.


Hans Theys

One-legged tables, miserable Christmas trees and juvenile spouts
About Johan Gustavsson’s drawings

In Gustavsson’s drawings we seem to meet families or small groups of friends that have become petrified icons of a fleeting world. Clocks have stopped ticking, or endlessly gnaw at us with their noisy grinding of unrealised moments of intimacy.

Beautiful, asymmetrical compositions. Beautifully arrested drawings, with hesitating or sturdy, sometimes slowly disappearing lines, with clear shapes that suddenly become indistinct or messed up, with funny colour patches, with teapots with juvenile spouts, with depictions of tiny hammers and thin faucets, with sockets connecting us to the outside world, with one-legged tables, miserable Christmas trees and dreamlike summer cottages, with strangely silent protagonists.

Very often these protagonists are smoking cigarettes. Smoke is a funny thing to draw, especially where it’s supposed to disappear, but it’s also a signal of youthful rebellion, boredom and pleasure seeking, giving oneself an attitude or slowly killing oneself. Apart from this, one might imagine an artist creating the most fabulous forms with his or her cigarette smoke, seeing the most fantastic scenes in its vortexes and sways, evoking Arabian nights, thundering ghosts or spiritual encounters.

What prevails, however, is a feeling to be in the presence of a human being who went through things and reports about them, realising that a poetic evocation of failure can be a success. One feels a sense of relief. One smiles. Sometimes one laughs. If understatement can be hilarious, it sometimes is so in these drawings. We meet a dandy who elegantly stages awkwardness. We enter a world of sordid dreams, and are glad we escaped. We encounter art in its basic form: relating to experience, but doing so through the physical presence of an object. Because finally, we have to admit that what really unsettles us are the drawings, and not the depicted scenes. Nothing is expressed here, as Moore coined it, we are just confronted with the strangest of artefacts, created by a man who escaped life and hovers over it like an all-seeing ghost.


- Are your drawings based on existing images?

Johan Gustavsson: I use existing images as tools, in the sense that I take elements from photographs of my daily life and use them in my drawings. The photos do not serve so much as an image that needs replication, but as a reminder for the situation, the person, or the object that it depicts. For this reason, most of my drawings are not mere mirrors of a real situation, but also include elements that are not taken from existing situations, and are instead drawn from memory and are added on an intuitive basis. While working, I might suddenly find the distinct need to add a pineapple, or something seemingly unrelated, to the drawing without exactly understanding why.

Drawing is a diligent process of distilling existing images and combining them with intuitive interventions. My works are results of a concentrated action, almost a meditative state of mind where I feel I'm able to connect to all things I have ever seen, heard or experienced. Intuition is the key to all the experiences and knowledge someone possesses. Through this concentration or meditative process, I can infuse my drawings with information that I myself am not even fully aware of. Therefore I focus on what I know in my heart and mind.

I like how in my drawings a body part, for example, can suddenly become an organic form, and transform into an indefinable shape. I am not involved in any spiritual practice, but still I see these shapes as undefined forms of energy, as something bigger than us.

 (We look at some older drawings, which have been rejected by the artist.)

Gustavsson: Some of them I still like, but a lot of them don’t satisfy me anymore. They are too self-focused. It doesn’t work at all. Generally I don’t like drawings in which you feel they are made by somebody who has learned to draw, who is very good in anatomy, but who makes everything look the same, using a constructed line that’s not alive. Such draughtsmen use general lines, not personal ones.

I like the notion that our handwriting can be analysed. Why couldn’t a drawing tell us something about the draughtsman, in the same way handwriting can? If I can feel a mattress when I draw it, why can’t you feel it when you see it, even if it is not conscious? When I draw, I try to be concentrated and to mentally feel the object in my hands. I believe the onlooker can feel or read this. How does one draw a line that tells us something? Take this drawing, for instance, what do you think of it?

- I think it’s funny because it flirts with ugliness. Some of the lines are drawn with a ruler, others are very certain and fluent, but some look clumsy. I think the humour springs from the simultaneity of these different levels of craftsmanship.

Gustavsson: Yes, we know all about the good and the bad, but the ugly remains a mystery. A broken object takes more space than a perfect or ideal one. It’s irritating and inexplicable. It forces the viewer to notice it as a unique object. It's not ideal. It defines its own existence not only as an opposite of beauty or ideal. It creates possibilities to be something we don't know and can't control, and in the end, can tell us new stories. A so-called ugly drawing has more power than a perfect one… This character is based on Woody Allen.

- It doesn’t look like him.

Gustavsson: I know. Very often my portraits don’t resemble the originals.

- It makes me think of Nabokov’s story ‘Despair’, in which a man thinks he meets a double, whereas the guy doesn’t look like him at all. Do you like Woody Allen’s movies?

Gustavsson: I do.

- Do you know he is a great admirer of Bergman?

Gustavsson: No.

- His film ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ was shot by Sven Nykvist… Why would your character not look like Allen?

Gustavsson: I don’t know.

- We can focus on the drawings, of course, and not on their so-called subject matter.

Gustavsson: It’s alright. It’s true I like the neurotic aspects of Woody Allen’s movies, but I’ve seen all of Bergman’s movies as well. I’m very fond of Swedish and Scandinavian cinema. Especially the films by Roy Andersson, who makes beautiful films about the absurdity of everyday life: You, the Living (2007) and Songs from the Second Floor (2000).  I also very much appreciate the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki.

- Summerhouses and saunas are recurrent subjects in your drawings.

Gustavsson: That’s true. I built a sauna for my mother this summer with the help of friends in just ten days. Because we didn’t have a building permit, we built a sauna sled. My grandfather, who recently passed away, also built a sauna sled, for the same reason. It was an intense experience, both mentally and physically. Some drawings relate about this summer.

- In this drawing we recognise a summerhouse in the shape of a painting, which contrasts with the evocations of modern art in other drawings.

Gustavsson: I think it represents my grandparents’ summerhouse, where I spent much time in the summers as a child. The art in a few drawings might refer to my father’s house, which is decorated with art that I can’t relate to, or to works or pictures I feel connected to.

What I find interesting is that the paintings, drawings and pictures within my drawings are always finished, complete, whereas the rest of the drawings as a whole is always incomplete, using as few lines as necessary.

- What about the sockets?

Gustavsson: Partly, they are a formal thing: they help to define a wall. But they also stand for a connection to everything. Electricity goes everywhere, as an unseen energy, just as everything is energy.

- Very often the drawings show coloured dots in the corners.

Gustavsson: It’s where I try out the pens. When you’re trying out a pen, just to see how the markings show on the paper, it’s a completely thoughtless act, and therefore these dots become a concentrated corner of absolute freedom.

- In this drawing, the only colours used are pink for the nail polish and red for the cigarette filter. In this one we also find red. What do these tiny red spots represent? Wild strawberries?

Gustavsson: Well, maybe those red spots represent smultron: small wild strawberries that can be found in unexpected places, like along highway ditches, where you wouldn’t expect to find strawberries. They make me think of summer in Scandinavia. This is the girlfriend of a Scottish architect who both helped me with the sauna sled this summer.

- Do you like the drawings of other artists?

Gustavsson: I like, for example, drawings by Jockum Nordström, Jonas Ohlsson, Daniel Johnston and Willem van Genk, but in general, I’m not really into drawings by professional artists. I prefer amateur drawings. I buy quite a lot of them. Recently, I found a drawing of a soccer game made by my father. Things like that fascinate me. They just are what they are. In amateur drawings, you feel that there is a struggle in trying to make the drawing. There’s something very beautiful and honest in these attempts. When I paint, I think of too many paintings. But when I draw, I don’t think of other drawings. I am more free. I also like the directness of drawing. Drawing is immediate.

It's about that instinct, which is perhaps similar to the moment a professional football player passes the ball behind his back. He knows, not by rational thinking, but through intuition and training, exactly where to send the ball for his teammate to receive it. If he would be playing with solely his rational faculties he would never be able to be as exact. In the same way, I need to draw using a combination of concentration, instinct and intuition.

While drawing I can use my intuition to it’s full potential. They just have to be about things I like. I just have to know what I like. Finland and tits, for example. That’s all one needs to make a good drawing.

Montagne de Miel, 12 September 2011