Bob Landström, an Atlanta-based visual artist, explores his interests in the metaphysical from a terrestrial perspective.
Where did we originate? The Earth or the stars? Bob Landström explores these deep-rooted philosophical questions through visual interpretations of our psychological relationship to place and time. A painting practice that incorporates earthen materials intermingling with his own complex vocabulary of symbology, his works become their own artifacts of not only a reimagined past but a speculative future trajectory of a collective humanity.
Landström’s work has been inspiring people from across the globe. He has gained acclaim, exhibiting extensively across the United States, and has work featured in permanent collections internationally. In between his exhibitions and working in his studio, he took some time to connect with Tainted Magazine to discuss how his work comes to life and dissect the hidden meanings within.
The Gritty Truth
Materiality is at the core of Landström’s work. A visually striking texture formed through the use of volcanic rock and dust, a texture that echoes even in each work’s photographic reproductions. While encapsulating his own distinct aesthetic, the earthly material becomes a tool for more than conveying representations of his subjects, but the terrestrial nature becomes an extension of the subjects themselves.
TM: For our readers that are new to your work, can you explain the volcanic rock material you use and how you came to incorporate it in your art?
BL: There was a time when I painted with conventional liquid media like oil, alkyd, and acrylic. I got this notion that my work would be stronger and more authentic if the painting medium itself was more closely aligned with the subject matter. So I started looking around. I tried a bunch of things. Mixed media stuff, mixing things into paint.
One day, I was in the desert in the American Southwest looking at Native American petroglyphs. This was a very deep experience, seeing these very old carvings of glyphs and images in the stone. The landscape out there is so powerful. It grabs you by the heart and demands you pause to take it all in. It was in this setting that the idea came to me of using the Earth itself as a painting medium.
The Earth is such a spectacular example of manifestation. I’m an Earth sign. It seemed to have some synchronicity. So I started experimenting with this too. By chance, I thought, “Wow, what if I used igneous rock?” Igneous rock has that sort of alchemical property because it’s liquid when it’s molten inside the Earth and now solid as I hold it in my hand. That really resonated for me.
TM: The volcanic rock, being such a notable part of your artistic practice, produces an incredible textured surface on your works. As the artist, what meaning or impact is this texture intended to have on the viewer?
BL: I often ponder metaphysics and esoteric fields that are, in my view anyway, resurfacing in contemporary physics over the last century and a half or so. One topic I think about in particular is how things become things. Where does all this stuff come from in the first place? You and I are made of all this stuff: matter When you experience my paintings in person, the materiality of them strikes you. It’s sort of in your face that this painting is something other than paint. I think that’s the impact that it has. It flips that Earth Energy switch in your head as you look at the painting. It’s a very primitive surface and at the same time, it’s very elegant.
Landström is a composer. Dictating color, texture, and figure to evoke a specific energy that radiates from each piece. From the gesture of his hands, to his active mixing of materials and pigments, to applying each hue of color or symbol with the most precise of intentions, he orchestrates every work from a place of introspection. What appears as an amalgamation of history and emotion is a portrait of an internalized moment that transcends notions of the past, the present, and the future.
TM: Now that we understand more about the materiality behind the works you create, can you share how these works come to life – from the inception of an idea to the final execution of the composition?
BL: Well, it’s probably a process like many other artists. I spend a lot of time thinking. This can happen anywhere. Maybe I’m riding the train, maybe I’m sitting in a shop having a coffee. I have these bird feeders in the garden behind my studio. I sometimes sit there for hours, watching and thinking. Artists need a lot of free-thinking time. That’s really important.
Eventually, I’ll do some sketches to see if an idea has legs or to bring the idea out for more clarity. Most of my sketching is on an iPad. For me, it’s more spontaneous than getting all these art supplies together. I sometimes jump out of bed in the middle of the night to sketch something down on the iPad. I think I was much less prolific before there were iPads. I accumulate dozens of these electronic concept sketches. Out of all those, I keep a running bench of “Top Five” selections that are standing by to get turned into paintings. The sketch is a rough framework for the piece. It’s a starting place, but rarely the ending place.
Before I can actually begin to paint, I have to make the colored gravel that I’ll use in the painting. I might already have some of the colors I need, but not all of them, so I have to pigment a bunch of rock to have the colors I want. I’ll make dozens of bins of individually pigmented, ground-up rock with different sizes of granularity. If you can imagine a baker’s racks stacked with plastic bins, each containing a different color of gravel, that’s what it looks like in my studio when I begin painting.
Most of the actual painting work is done with the canvas sitting horizontally. Either on the table or on the floor, it’s face-up horizontal as I paint. When I work on larger canvases, it’s hard to reach the whole canvas just by kneeling on the floor. So I have a yoga swing that’s suspended from the ceiling. I hang face down in the swing and move the canvas around underneath me as I paint. Most of the painting is done this way. When the composition is nearly done, I’ll put it up on the wall to make final adjustments.
TM: Within each work there is the texture of the dust, the painted images of animals and objects, symbols drawn and etched in the surface, and phrases or words all working in unison. Can you tell us the importance of combining text and image in your work?
BL: Yes, you can often find text, formulas, and ancient symbols in my paintings, as well as glyphs that are entirely of my own vocabulary. There are a few reasons why I use these. I see a painting as a snapshot of a moment in time of this one person’s human consciousness. Things that I’m thinking about, experiences, questions, and answers at that moment. These get scrawled into the gravel or made with the gravel. Some of it is partially or completely erased or overwritten in the process of painting the piece. Some marks make it all the way to the end of the finished piece. That is evidence of the story. Evidence of one human being’s consciousness.
Equally important, though, is the power and energy of a symbol, a letter or number all by itself: the graphical quality of it. If you look at alphanumerics or symbols from the perspective of plastic space, they’re all just shapes. They’re gestures. Some of them have deep meaning and others are meaningless except for the way they plan in plastic space. So you see, they all come together as a plastic language. Some are read and some are not, but they all play together in the delivery. This is a lot of fun, actually.
TM: When viewing your work these subjects and symbols appear on fields of color, devoid of a specific setting or background. It is an interesting juxtaposition to the earthen quality of your medium that so firmly relates to a sense of place. Can you explain why you keep the objects within each work presented in an isolating manner?
BL: These letters, numbers, or symbols inherently have an energy or gesture to them. In that sense, they work in the very same way as a more “traditional” shape, like a square or a triangle. They’re graphical elements. These “fields of color” you describe is an approach I’ve been using to simplify the space, to calm down the energy, to allow the elegance and primitiveness of the material speak for itself. It creates that “sense of place” that you mention. It’s a way also of allowing the piece to simplify and be more meditative for the viewer.
The Infinite Pursuit
These works are imbued with numerous subtle details and complexities. Landström has coalesced a lifetime of experiences and intellectual passions into a cohesive artistic practice that asks his viewers to question their place amongst the annals of time. His paintings become a representation of his ever curious mind, translating his personal journeys into universally relatable philosophical explorations of mankind’s cultural evolution. It is our pursuit as humans to know, to understand, to absorb.
TM: You have been known to have a passion for esoterica and metaphysics. What about these disciplines intrigues you and how does this manifest within your work?
BL: I guess I have a lot of questions, and I seem to get answers that make sense to me in those places. You can learn something by someone telling you it starts with A, then B happens, then you go to C, and so on. You can also learn by thinking about how and why things work, and then let the learning come to you. My work, for me, is that “coming to you” bit. A painting is like a page from a mental notebook: a place to work things out.
TM: When thinking about the use of symbols across the entirety of your artistic practice, do you feel that these symbols are more allusions connecting us throughout history or that you are reimagining them in order to construct your own language of symbols?
BL: That’s a very insightful question. I might say that the allusive nature of any mark you make on a page is hard to avoid. We do indeed have symbols that connect us through history. They connect across race, nationality, sex, time, and place. They do this simply by their graphical qualities. Those graphical qualities trigger responses in our brains. Sometimes, I’ll appropriate that power by using a certain symbol. Mostly though, I’m using it for its graphical qualities and how it plays with other things in the plastic space of the canvas.
TM: I have come to notice that you are often compared to a cartographer, creating intricate maps within your work. Why do you feel that this comparison is often made and do you agree with the sentiment?
BL: My paintings go through a lot as I make them. The material is solid, areas of the painting are applied, and then later taken away, I scratch into the pre-cured material with knives, nails, wooden sticks. If you can imagine looking at the finished piece up close, you’ll see all these high spots and low spots, incised lines that disappear under the rock and then reappear in another spot. I guess that’s like looking at a map. I think it’s this aspect of the material that I use. You can look over it as well as at it.
I suppose, given it is in fact made with Earth, it makes some people have that “map reading” experience. You follow the roads, the streams that run around this and under that. It’s a side effect, though. I’m not thinking of maps or cartography in the slightest as I paint.
While his works may not be made with cartographic intention, they continue to guide his viewers. These seemingly topographical explorations reveal the collective experiences of our human cultures, the depths of our inner psychologies, and our interactions with the tangible world within each granular composition. We are led through the cyclical patterns of our world – Landström returned to the site of ancients and their petroglyphs, he examines how knowledge is recycled and reimagined throughout the ages, and recognizes that all the world will return to dust just like that which coats his paintings.
TM: As you continue to produce works and series, what can your viewers expect to see in future phases of your artistic practice?
BL: I really wish that I could tell you. The grounding in physics, metaphysics, and mysticism is a persistent thread in my studies, so I expect that to continue for some time. It takes a good while to feel a strong theme emerge for a series. I have been noodling on a few concepts though.
On one hand, I’ve been thinking about nursery rhymes. They carry a sort of sinister message behind them, but we tell them to our children. It’s kind of ironic. I have some pretty well-developed concepts already in place for this.
Otherwise, when I began work on this current Multiverse series, there was this desire to go deeper meditatively with the work, to really simplify the message. At times, I think I’ve touched upon that in Multiverse, but I still have further to go. I’m always pushing the techniques and the material. I come up with some new delivery method from time to time. That sort of thing will appear in the work organically. I’m sorry for the vague answer but apart from these series and potentially releasing another book, that’s the best I can tell you about future work right now. There’s never enough time in the day it seems.