In Conversation: Baldur Helgason on The Loneliest Stranger
Baldur Helgason is an Iceland-born artist who lives and works in Chicago, where he had a solo show with the Galerie F not long ago. Loneliest Stranger included a new series of quirky oils-on-canvas and ink-on-paper drawings, depicting the extraordinarily ordinary life of his iconic character.
Through his work, Helgason experiments with the human figure, playfully exaggerating features and toying with the representation of human emotions. While playful and humorous on the surface, these images actually portray anxiety, loneliness and melancholy, all presented through the life of a comic character. Big-eyed, big-nosed and with impossible limbs, this jolly fella looks like he walked out of a classic cartoon, yet is regularly smoking, drinking and getting involved in some sort of mischief.
Intrigued by the background of these captivating and lovable images, we reached out to Baldur, talked about his background, his work and recurring subject, and got an exclusive peek inside his Chicago studio.
Sasha Bogojev: What did your artistic journey from Iceland to Chicago look like?
Baldur Helgason: I was born and raised in Reykjavík, Iceland, and I received my BFA from the Iceland Academy of the Arts. I wanted to get a Master's degree in Art, and since you can’t get one in Iceland, you have to look abroad. So I ended up moving to San Francisco, where I received my MFA at the Academy of Art University. While studying there, I met my wife and fellow artist, Patty Spyrakos, and we moved to Chicago, her hometown when she was pregnant with our first daughter (we have two). I feel like I’ve lucked out by ending up here. Chicago has a rich history of interesting and weird figurative art, from Gertrude Abercrombie, Ivan Albright, The Chicago Imagists to Richard Hunt and Kerry James Marshall. There’s something in the Chicago culture that forces you to deal with the human as a subject.
Do you feel like there are elements of your Icelandic life in your work?
Oh definitely. I think it influences everything I do. Most of my influences come from living in Iceland and Icelandic artists that influenced me as a kid. When I was in Preschool in Iceland, most of the instructors/teachers I had were young artists, who taught kids during the day as a side hustle to pay the bills. I would sit and draw with them for hours, and supposedly, I was drawing in perspective when the other kids were drawing stick figures. So that early exposure to art definitely set me on my course. Later in life, some of those Preschool teachers were my professors in Art School.
Can you give an example of how the Icelandic way of life affected your work?
When you live in Iceland, your everyday life is dependent on nature and weather conditions. It affects the way you view the world, you’re forced to respect the earth and land you live on. You’re on an island, smack-dab in the middle of the North Atlantic, sitting on the boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The seasons and daylight greatly influence life there. It is pitch black six months of the year and the sun doesn’t set the other six, so it’s very manic living, you hibernate in the winter and don’t sleep in summer, and I think that sort of bipolar way of life is very evident in my paintings. You have to find something to do during those dark months, there’s not a lot you can do on an island of three-hundred thousand people, so people start bands and find ways to create art to keep themselves sane, not to become rich and famous. And I think that sort of manic-ness comes through in my work.
Yeah, there is certain anxiety or melancholy that I get from your work, for sure. What about the visual and aesthetics? Was that influenced by anything from Iceland?
We have a rich history of storytelling and not much else, so modern culture is very influenced by the countries geological position. We get our pop culture from America and Europe, and we misunderstand them in this beautiful way. So I grew up watching American and European cartoons as well as these incredible cartoons created in the Soviet Union. We also got both American and European MTV in the '90s.
So, who is the character we keep seeing in your work nowadays?
He came about when I was preparing work for my last show. I wanted to work with the idea of a self-portrait, to create autobiographical work. And then, I started toying with the idea of a side personality, or an “Avatar.” Because we all seem to have these versions of ourselves online, that doesn’t represent how we act in “real life.” I started by reducing myself into my most identifiable features. I have big eyes, big lips, and a small nose, so I started doing these abstract figures with no head only these big eyes and lips. Then I ended up adding head shape, big ears, and a big nose as well. The character keeps changing from painting to painting.
He seems to be having only one facial expression though, what's the story behind his grin?
Like I said, it’s a self-portrait, but like most avatar or emoji, he has a perpetual smile. He’s putting up a front. But I also wanted it to be an antidote to the traditional self-portrait. You never see artists smiling in self-portraits. They are always dead-eyed and serious. By having this insane smiling character making eye contact with you, you create an uncomfortable situation. Like he’s desperate for your approval or love. Regarding the style of the character, I grew up reading and copying European comics like Lucky Luke or Gaston Lagaffe, you could say it’s a combination or a hybrid of Gaston and Guston.
He seems to always have exaggerated arms, legs, fingers, etc. Any particular reason for that?
I like exaggeration in all forms of art, but it helps to create movement in the paintings. When I’m making the initial marks on the canvas, I like using my entire arm or body when making those marks, I lay down some burnt umber on my palette and dilute it heavily with turp, and just flail my arms around until I find some sort of a flow or movement that I’m happy with. That process is probably the main reason for the exaggerated forms.
And what about the repetition of certain features in your work? What's the idea behind that effect?
That was a continuation of that uncomfortable situation of him staring down the viewer. When you put eyes in a painting, you’re naturally drawn to them, so I started adding more eyes, extra ears, and noses, to add a visual complexity, and complexity to the character, not all is what it seems, there’s something deeper and darker to him than what he leads on. I’ve always felt that Op Art directly relates to the psyche, which is probably why most psychedelic bands or philosophers use it. So by using repetition, I was maybe trying to introduce some psychological complexity to my figure.
It also helps me play around with the design of the character. He is stripped down to these identifiable forms, and he’s always smiling, so multiplying the features helps set a certain tone or vibe in each painting. Sometimes he might have two eyes, three noses and three ears, other times four eyes, five noses, and an ear. It’s probably some sort of a cubist exercise on my behalf.
What type of atmosphere are you aiming to create in your work?
It's introspective work and I’m obviously dealing with the human figure, abstracting it and using these repetitive features. There was also a fair bit of anxiety in my last solo show, Loneliest Stranger. As an immigrant, I felt forced to explore the existential dread of living as a foreigner in today’s America. It dealt a lot with how technology is making us bipolar. The 24-hour news cycle is built to scare everyone, but you still want to be and feel informed of what’s happening in the world. We’re getting connected through social media, but more removed emotionally from each other. And of course, it’s slowly making us depressed, but dependent on these ‘like’ dopamine highs.
But I’m also playing around with art history, referencing works from history, that I feel connected with today. Also images from popular culture, or even song lyrics. I’ll hear a line from a song while I’m painting, and that line will completely change the direction of where the work was going. For example, the title Loneliest Stranger was a misheard lyric from a Wire song. I rarely sketch or plan out the paintings beforehand. I like them to be organic and alive, even if I tend to paint very tightly. It’s a sort of controlled action painting.
What sort of things inspire your work?
I like going to museums and I surround myself with art books. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about CoBrA, the European avant-garde of the late '40s early '50s. It was very influential in Iceland and had some Icelandic members. I’m always looking at the Expressionists, Fauvists, Symbolists, American art of the late ’60s and ’70s. And I found an old Chicago Art Institute box of Impressionist prints and I’ve scattered them all over the studio.
I also get inspired by listening to music, watching movies or documentaries, and I’m constantly inspired by my friends' work. Their work really pushes me to work hard. Patty Spyrakos is constantly surprising me with her sculptures and paintings. My friend, Emilio Villalba, is continuously creating incredible paintings and I really enjoy watching him evolve as an artist. And a bunch of other folks are blowing me away with their work, be it music, sculpting or painting, artist such as Mr. Silla, Jae Tyler, Anna Hrund Másdóttir, Rollin Hunt, Joe Tallarico, John Maloof, Michelle Stone, Davíð Örn Halldórsson, Peter Jeppson, Sean Gannon, Karin Hagen, Cheyenne Julien, Samual Weinberg, Jessica Pratt, Umar Rashid, Susan Carr, Kristín Morthens, Nina Chanel Abney, Nöel Morical, Caitlin Cherry, Katherine Bernhardt, Rebecca Morgan, Patrick Wilkins, Tschabalala Self, Ryan Travis Christian, Steve Sealy, Georg Óskar and Árni Már Erlingsson.
Do you have any big projects/shows planned for the coming year?
Right now, I'm getting back into the studio and trying to get started on a new body of work, prepping canvases, listening to music, reading, getting inspired. I'm still dissecting my latest show and figuring out where to take my work. I’ll be a part of a group show at La Luz De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles this May that I’m very excited about. I’m hoping to do more collaborations with Patty Spyrakos and finding new venues to show at around the world. We usually spend about two months in the summer in Iceland with the kids, and we’re hoping that we can set up a workspace/studio there this next summer.