Time, Memory and Experience: An interview with Tom Cullberg

Artists We Love: Tom Cullberg

WORDS Sean O’Toole PHOTOS Courtesy of the artist and the Barnard Gallery, Vanessa Cowling Photography

Tom Cullberg’s fascination with the formal appearance of things purposefully arranged on a shelf endures in his engrossing cabinet installations presented in his latest exhibition at the Barnard titled Local Stories.

When he was seven, artist Tom Cullberg attempted to scale a bookshelf at his family home in Stockholm, Sweden. ‘It didn’t take long before the whole thing began to topple and I was under an avalanche of books,’ wrote Cullberg in 2009. ‘A literal lesson in appreciation of the weight and power of literature.’ By age 14, the bookshelf had lost its acrobatic appeal; instead, he was riveted by the ‘evocative potential’ of the books it held, objects with determined forms, colours and typographical treatments. This fascination with the formal appearance of things purposefully arranged on a shelf endures in Cullberg’s engrossing cabinet installations presented in his exhibition Local Stories.

Started in 2020, Cullberg’s cabinet installations number ten completed works. Each cabinet installation was worked on discretely, until completion, before the next was begun. Each cabinet installation is the outcome of a twofold process. The individual paintings are executed on birch plywood, which the artist sands and primes with gesso. The hard, smooth surface quality of the substrate means that paint is absorbed differently and produces a crisper image. Cullberg’s cabinet installations also contain sculpted objects, a new departure for the artist, albeit based on an old habit and love going back to his youth.

Organising follows making. “After the paintings are produced I spend weeks moving things around until the individual works settle,” says Cullberg. “I think a lot more about colour, because each element exists in relation to other paintings. Each cabinet has a special hum of colours.”

The glass-fronted shelf cabinets created by Cullberg to house his patiently constructed images and objects reiterate a familiar form in art history: the cabinet of curiosity. Whether housed in dedicated cabinets or occupying whole rooms, these spaces traditionally offered their aristocratic benefactors a way to order and display disparate organic and synthetic objects, from animal residue (horns, feathers, shells, carapaces) to paintings and busts.

Time, Memory and Experience: An interview with Tom Cullberg

Cullberg’s cabinet installations hew to a more contemporary and impressionistic tradition of cabinets created by private individuals to enshrine personal experience. And yet, Cullberg’s large displays are not wholly or singularly explicable as biographical statements. “Their meaning is not easily fixed,” Cullberg insists. “I am creating a set where things are happening. These works are about a painter looking out at the world, not inward. I am interested in how objects like books and albums can act as portals to stories, memories and associations for the viewer.” What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation that started in Cullberg’s Cape Town studio in November 2021, and was concluded by email while the artist was in Paris in January 2022.

You exhibited your first cabinet installation, Runaway, in 2020. Since then you have produced an additional nine glass-fronted shelf cabinet installations. How did you arrive at this formal presentation device? And what about it appealed, enough to prompt you to make more?

The idea for these shelves has been on the cards for years. I recently looked at a maquette I made ahead of my Stockholm exhibition at Candyland in 2013, for which I proposed making a shelf structure to display a group of 20 or so small canvasses. I ended up not producing the shelf. Woodwork is something that is close to me. I like building things. The shelves I make mimic a Japanese construction method where you don’t have to use nails; the pieces slot into each other. The shelves are easy to assemble, deconstruct, move and reassemble. It is satisfying. The glass-box frames housing the shelves further function to join the separate pieces into a unified work.

Before 2020 I had been working mainly with larger canvasses and I was curious to get back to the smaller format, and to paint on wood, a more rigid substrate than canvas. I was also keen to work more sculpturally, both dealing with the painting and the form of its display. It may be my middle age speaking, but there is something satisfying about working on a single cabinet, in completing it before moving on to the next, this in distinction to working on a set of canvasses concurrently, which I did before. Maybe I was also influenced by the times to make this work. I felt we were on the cusp of leaving an old age and about to enter a new one. On a personal level, I have entered some sort of midlife zone. This also places the work in a very specific timeframe, which also heavily informs the work – like a diary.

Most of the works in Local Stories were produced during the seesaw period of Covid-19 pandemic, with its ebbs and flows of risk and abatement, lockdown and openness. How did your experience of the pandemic inform the making and content of this body of work? Did it hinder your production fundamentally, or was it merely a temporary interruption? And, given the timespan of two years, do you see shifting moods across the series or in particular works that reflect the difficult circumstances we all found ourselves in?

I made two cabinet works before the pandemic. Already in these works there was a notion of movement in time and place established as a format for these pieces. I wanted them to be set in the here (Cape Town, South Africa) and now, but with points of departures into other times and places. Each cabinet installation took three to four months to complete. I worked on each separately, until completion, before starting the next one. This places the work in a very specific timeframe of the pandemic, which also heavily informs the work – like a diary. The pandemic period was the first time my flight route back to Sweden was cut, which was a strange feeling. On the other hand, it was the longest time of consistent studio work, which was very good. Overall, it was a very productive and focused period for work.

In speaking about this body of work, you have generically referred to the framed displays as cabinet paintings; I call them cabinet installations. Is it useful or even necessary to have a stable descriptor for this work? On one level, I would say it is – it shifts thinking away from the work as purely being composed of paintings, which it isn’t – but you may hold other views.

That is true. I would say it is necessary only in that it draws attention to the fact that the finished work is something different from its component parts. The work starts out as paintings, sculptural objects and structures, but there’s a shift that happens when they are placed on a shelf and grouped together. Relationships form and new meanings appear. A radical shift occurs when the wooden box is attached; it creates a unifying effect. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am excited to work three-dimensionally and with wood. It is a material I haven’t brought into my work much before, even though I have worked with it prolifically on the side. I have, for instance, built a green house for my mom, also furniture, as well as toys for my children.

I only started talking about them as cabinets when making the third one. A friend pointed out similarities between my works and cabinets of curiosities. I am aware of their difficult history, although I think my cabinet installations are still very much of the realm of painting. What I like about them, particularly in the making, is that they have introduced a different relationship to my process. My studio process involves making stuff – paintings mostly, but also objects – and then curating these things on shelves, which creates a unifying space.

Can you elaborate a bit on this twofold labour of making and curating? For instance, do you mock up the cabinets and their contents in a sketch first? How exact is the process? Are there excess paintings and objects?

It’s an organic process to start with. I make the paintings I want to make at the time. They tend to be what I’m thinking about and follow associative sparks. Once finished they go up on the shelf in the studio. With my earlier book portraits I was more stuck with the initial composition. Here I can be brutal, taking things out, moving them around, until the cabinet starts to take shape. It might be the content of a painting that steers off from the theme of the cabinet that prompts this, or a colour that clashes. I move and replace over and over for several weeks until it all syncs. Sometimes it is only at this curating stage that I understand what the overall work is about. Not unlike Sudoku, each cabinet has to work horizontally, vertically and diagonally. I find that it involves an obvious yes, and an obvious no. It’s very exact, but often, I guess, subjectively so.

Has the process of curating your individual paintings for these cabinet installations changed your understanding and approach to painting?

It gives me more freedom to paint whatever I want. I can take on a new “style” or include subjects that on their own wouldn’t make sense but in the context of the cabinet do. The paintings and sculptural pieces also become objects. While they are obviously still very much paintings and live in the changeable sphere of painting, they somehow achieve distance from themselves. I enjoy this tension.

Tom Cullberg
Don’t give up’, 2021, Acrylic on panel, wood glass
Tom Cullberg
Conspiracy’, 2021, Acrylic on panel, wood glass

You spend a lot of time on creating colour harmonies and relational logics between the discrete elements in each cabinet installation. As you said earlier, the process of curating often reveals to you what the work is about as a unified object. Does each cabinet installation have a guiding narrative or logic, or can the viewer make what they will of the juxtaposed objects? How important is it to you that the viewer knows and understands your motive or intention in each painting?

Each cabinet is a story. It is specific and detailed, with a narrative or a theme but also open. The beauty of it is that they can be read in an instant, and you will get a feeling perhaps spark your own associations; you can look closer and think about the connections. I think they have this quality because they have this guiding logic.

I think it is important for the viewer to know that they have been constructed to carry connections and meaning. The viewer can make up her own stories if she wants to, of course, but, more and more, I want to communicate something quite specific. All the information is there, I think enough of my motives and intentions will be revealed for anyone who takes the time to look.

Are the individual titles important in negotiating the individual works?

Yes, the titles are a guide to what the works are about. They are usually borrowed from books and music. I think I’m allowed to do that. The titles take on new meanings and direct the work. I’m not the collecting type, but the cabinet works like a collection of things to describe the present time, a feeling, events and links to the past.

Given the large number of musical references, a possibly obvious question. Do you listen to music while painting? Do you listen to LPs, which is a very deliberate way of listening, or do you allow yourself to be served music by a digital streaming service?

I do listen to music, as well as podcasts and a lot of Swedish radio programmes when I paint. There is a definite dialogue between what I listen to and what I make. I have a record player at home but I hardly ever use it. I do not have a good and extensive vinyl collection. Streaming is fantastic to be able to freely and instantly dip into a whole world of different music. While I am a devoted convert to the digital, I miss the physical object that once accompanied music, a thing to hold and feel. It’s funny that this tactility is described in paint rather than material, with my wooden cassette tapes and records. The painting fills that gap.

The books and LPs in your work often have a personal significance. For example, your father bought you a copy of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), a rendering of which appears in Runaway (2021), during a visit to London when you were a teenager living in Sweden. Beyond the personal significance of particular works of literature and music in your cabinet installations, what meaning or feeling do you hope to convey in your frequently modified and wilfully transformed representations of well-known books and much-loved musical albums?

On one level, it’s about my experience of the books and music: the associations and memories they bring. But it also forms part of the story within a cabinet piece; it is a building block and forms part of a greater story. Painting takes time; it creates a bond between you and the subject. Reading a really good book absorbs you in a similar way. The making of a painting of an album or a book cover is an intimate process. It involves scrutinising every millimetre, appreciating the design, translating it by applying paint and thought. I hope that this labour translates into something that conveys meaning, and the meaning can be open. My references draw from the collective imagery of popular culture. Each cabinet installation is an invitation to collaborate, a search for common ground with the viewer. The relationship is visual but also psychological. These cabinet installations definitely involve finding equilibrium between work and pleasure. One of these pleasures is seeing or recognising that a real book will accept my made up one. Similarly painting non-music imagery the size and square format of an LP, complete with record label logos, enables the image to enter that world. Especially in my work Conspiracy I use the label logos as components to the “story”.

Let’s look more closely at Conspiracy. As in your other cabinet installations, it juxtaposes abstract and figural compositions. This is a hallmark of your output as a painter. Was it your intention to bring these two modes of painting into a more intimate conversation in the cabinet installations?

I feel that the two modes have almost merged in my Local Stories series. The panels start as an abstract field of colour and or shapes and different levels of figuration is added on from something that is just words to all over imagery. The purely abstract pieces create breathing space, silence between the sometimes very talkative figurative pieces, but also function to carry a mood, a psychological attitude. Conspiracy gets it title from the album-sized panel featuring a group of men paddling down a river after an image from one of those picture encyclopaedias on 1980s South Africa. There is also a billboard of some river rafters advertising “Rapid Rivers” and “the last trip”. This work is partly about me getting acquainted with a time before I settled in South Africa, through imagery that is latent and psychologically open.

Conspiracy features images of urban and rural architecture. The buildings are recognisably of the Cape, your home of almost three decades. Can you speak about the process of painting buildings and infrastructure? It is something that has occupied you for a long time.

Buildings are interesting to paint. They carry traces of past lives. They have history. They may have been a home or a place of work. Sometimes this order changes. The modernist tower with a BP logo at its top in Gimme Some Truth (2021) was originally conceived as an office block, known as BP Centre, but is now in the process of being transformed into urban loft apartments.

Conspiracy includes four depictions of buildings from Woodstock, the neighbourhood where your studio is located. What interested you in depicting the suburb’s late Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian period architecture?

As a painter I’m drawn to Woodstock’s varied and colourful architecture. The neighbourhood has lots of visible scars. It is ever changing, seemingly caught between decay and change, light and shadow.

In certain respects, Local Stories is your most identifiably South African work to date. The iconography is of South Africa. It is not just the architecture that prompts me say this, but things like your painting of an airplane pulling the banner for strip club Mavericks in your installation Runaway (2021). This is not to say you were avoiding South Africa in previous work, but it strikes me that your juxtaposition of disparate images – some speaking to things outside your window, others to memories from your youth in Sweden – visualise your hybrid identity. Has working on the series made you feel more at home than before, or, conversely, less so?

A simple answer, but not without weight: I think this series is an expression of feeling at home here.

The authority of white artists to portray black subjects has increasingly come under challenge globally. I think of the controversy around Dana Schutz’s work Open Casket (2016), which depicted murdered teenager Emmett Till, or the anger directed at Anton Kannemeyer for his stylised portrayals of black subjects that reference Georges ‘Hergé’ Remi’s Tintin character. Black figures have increasingly featured in your work since 2016. How, if at all, have the ethical debates around identity and authorship influenced your work?

I paint people from the world around me, be it figures from our public culture and common history, or from what I see and relate to in the everyday. I am obviously aware of the debates around representation. I feel that my work is respectful and un-speculative and hope other people will have that experience of my work.

Let’s look at another work. Runaway (2021) includes a copy of Gerhard Richter’s well-known portrait of his daughter Betty (1988). Do you treat your renderings of works by artists differently to your rendering of consumer items like books and LPs?

My painting of Richter’s Betty gives it the appearance of a book. This was intentional. I want it to have the flatness of a photographic reproduction of a painting, tapping into his oeuvre. I like that the work depicts his daughter. My daughter sometimes comes to the studio. It was with her that I started building the predecessors to the structures and buildings that appear in the cabinets.

I want to turn to Open City, which takes its title from Teju Cole’s celebrated novel of the same name. This cabinet installation was produced during and after the first hard lockdown (March to May 2020). This work could easily have been titled The Secret History, after the 1992 novel by Donna Tartt, which along with Cole’s novel also makes a cameo in this particular painting.

Yes, it absolutely could. The Tartt novel is there, along with the runners, wrestlers and portrait of English post-punk band Echo and the Bunnymen, because it speaks of the psychology within a small group of clubbish or clannish people in a particular setting or place, the togetherness and apartness that can be felt in such circumstances. During the first strict health lockdown this experience of community was unavailable to most of us. We could only hang out with the people we lived with. ‘Open City’ felt more informative and useful in describing my experience of that particular moment. Julius, a flâneur who wanders his adopted home of Manhattan, narrates the novel. The title gestures to what an open and closed city might be. During the lockdown, my son and I would walk the empty streets with empty shopping bags under the pretence that we were on our way to buy groceries, one of the few outside activities allowed. It was a mind-blowingly different way of experiencing the city and raised thoughts of the boundaries between personal and shared public space. It also prompted reflections on restricted movement in non-pandemic times, especially in a society like South Africa.

Tom Cullberg
Tom Cullberg: Local Stories’ at the Barnard in Cape Town

Tom Cullberg: Local Stories opens on 15 March and runs until 26 April at the Barnard in Cape Town. A limited edition publication of the project has also been launched and will be available for purchase during the exhibition. For more information, visit barnardgallery.com

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