Patterns of the Otherworldy A conversation between artist Markus Åkesson and curator Joanna Sandell

What guides your art practice in 2024?

I have delved deeper into patters and art history through combining a motif from the Middle Ages with a floral pattern. Patterns have always fascinated me, they represent a sense of security because of their predictability. Central to my new paintings is an engraving from the 1500s by Albrecht Durer called Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat.

The engraving is intriguing, it shows a naked witch surrounded by cherubs. The which looks powerful, she sits steadfast as the goat leaps through mid-air while the cherubs stumble and fall around them. What is it about this older artwork that fascinates you?

The art of the 1500s was often macabre and provocative. I have thought a lot about what the world view was like in those times, when a work of art like the one of Durer seems to have been mainstream. I completed a sketch of The Witch and combined the motif with a floral pattern. I then had the pattern made into a textile and in my studio we made clothing items from the fabric. The work was finalized into an oil painting of a model clothed in this unique fabric. This is my way of entering into a conversation with the art of the Middle Ages, it is an artistic enquiry that can only have an artistic outcome.

Why did you become an artist?

The most important incentive was initially the craftsmanship – the act of creating. When I was young, I drew incessantly, and I was fascinated by how something "appearing" on the paper. It was like magic. When I was eleven, I started to draw self-portraits in front of the mirror. My parents and other people around me thought I was amazingly talented. Art as such wasn't something that existed in my family. As a young boy I had no real artistic role models. I studied mechanics in high school and thought that what was most important was to get a job. Becoming a professional artist was never an alternative and I didn't know any artists. Many of my friends were into cars and so that was how I started airbrushing designs onto vehicles in my later teens. Most of the jobs were commissions and I achieved some technical skill. I took out books at the library and taught myself how to airbrush. In those days you couldn't just look things up on YouTube, knowledge wasn't as easily accessible. The same company that made the airbrushes also sold a small sandblaster. I had a glass table and tried making a picture on it, a fantasy image. Through the Yellow Pages I found a company in Nybro where I lived that did glass engravings and I went to see if I could buy blasting sand from them. They offered me a job on the spot, and it became the beginning of a new chapter.

The glass industry is strong in Småland and this was a completely different environment to the one I was used to. It was unbelievably creative. We were four engravers who sat together working on glassware. Pretty soon I was allowed to start working with commissioned portraits. Then the recession hit, and we were all let go. But by this point I had started to gain an understanding of craft and design and I had met a lot of people who worked in the field. I felt that I had begun to find my community. I didn't want to do commissions anymore; I had my own thoughts that I wanted to develop. I applied to the local art school Ölands Folkhögskola and was admitted on a reserve place on my third attempt.

You have recently returned to "the Kingdom of Crystal" doing art glass for Kosta Boda, what brought you back?

I joined my partner Ellen, (Ehk Åkesson, editor's note) who is also an artist. Ellen was spending a lot of time in the glass district; she had received the Ulrica Hydman Vallien-prize that came with a residency in the hot shop in Kosta. While we were there many conversations were held around art and art making. I was asked whether I wanted to do some sculptural pieces for Kosta Boda. Of course I did! Having grown up in Småland the environment is not at all exotic, on the contrary it evokes a sense of familiarity in me. It is part of our local cultural identity, and even though I don't know how to blow glass I am comfortable with the elements that make up the glass industry. I experimented a lot in Kosta and made a version of the Now You See Me-series in glass. The patterns in my paintings are represented by at set numbers of colour in the glass. The colours are draped together almost like a fabric and the glass workers turn the sculpture so that the colours blend and form a morphed organic figure, a bust that resembles my paintings.

I love the process of sculpting. In some ways sculptures represent much of my process as a figurative painter. I see my paintings as a form of "window" towards an unknown world. Metaphorically this window stands for an inner world or something outside of us, that we long for. In a similar manner a sculpture is a manifestation of an idea that the artist is reaching for. I see it as an alchemic process, the sculpture becomes a talisman, an object of magic, charged by our dreams and desires.

What interested you early on as an artist?

During my early years I was very much interested in the "bigger questions". I started to read philosophy and psychology on my own, that was obviously not something that you got taught in a vocational mechanics course. I took out high school books on philosophy and psychology from the library. At art school I got an introduction to aesthetics through Kant and I started to familiarise myself with philosophical paradoxes. Questions without definite answers, things beyond science. I remember getting particularly struck by "Schrödinger's cat." Is the cat alive or dead while it's in the box? According to Edwin Schrödinger's theory, the cat is in theory both alive and dead while it's in there. What are the implications of this if applied to questions about the existence of God? Wittgenstein became another important acquaintance, as was probability theory.

Has the esoteric always had an appeal to you as an artist?

I am not religious. I consider myself an agnostic, but I do think that some of the stories of the Bible are very interesting. I have often been attracted to questions around morality and free will. Many of the tales from the Old Testament stem from older religions. Take the The Garden of Eden as an example, where God doesn't want man to gain certain knowledge. God is afraid that we will become gods ourselves. That narrative is obviously age old and it does say something about humanity. I think many of these ideas are reflected in my art, the fact that some of the most difficult questions exist in a sort of borderland, just like the people in my paintings. A close friend of mine is a priest; we got to know each other when I asked for a consultation before an exhibition, I was doing on the theme the Last Judgement at Galleri Svalan. I felt that I needed more knowledge of the subject to be able to depict it. He accepted and explained some of the thoughts around the different biblical interpretations. That was ten years ago and the beginning of a conversation that is still ongoing."

Can you describe how you find your way to the subject matter that informs your art?

My world of imagery has become something of a parallel reality, an underlying world. Sometimes it feels like I only need to open that door to step inside and look. I can have glimpses of it when I meet people or come across objects. I collect curiosities that interest me, and my studio and our home are both full to the brim of them. I tend to see them as symbols or as actors in a world of symbols. They represent something that exists in other worlds or different times.

So, in that sense, I just paint what I see. It begins as a very intuitive process that then gives way to a more crafts-oriented process which renders the image. Arranging a collage of photographs that become the base on which I create a painting. Arranged photo sessions become the basis for a collage that in turn makes up the groundwork for the excision that I then choose as the model for the painting. A larger painting takes about a month to complete. In the painting process I often enter a meditative state where I do things without thinking too much. I am often very well rested mentally when I've had a long session at the easel. I work with classic art materials, oil paint on canvas.

Something that reoccurs in your paintings is a dream state, where does it come from?

Dreams and the interpretation of dreams have always intrigued me, and I have read both Freud and Jung. I'm fascinated by how symbols are created and how they change. Take, for example, the owl. The owl can see in the dark, it symbolises wisdom and observes the hidden. Through one simple symbol we can access questions about complex concepts such as the future and parallel worlds. Another interesting phenomenon are the things which don't exist, but at the same time do; mythological creatures such as the unicorn. Everyone gets the same image in their mind when they hear the word "unicorn", but unicorn don't exist. Or do they, as the word makes us all refer back to the same image? What does that mean? And what criteria make up existence? Is it something that must be physically tangible, yet these criteria do not apply to dreams. But few of us would argue that dreams don't exist. In the painting The Unicorn Hunt I have used a tapestry from the 16th century. In it, the unicorn is an allegory for Jesus, but the tale is much older than that and is used to symbolise deceived lovers.

There is a richness in detail and references to a world of symbols that belong to art history over quite a long arch of time, from medieval church paintings to 17th century still lives. Is it important to understand the references in order to appreciate your art? Do you think the ability to decode older symbols in art and culture will disappear among the general public in the future?

More than anything they interests me. I think it's exciting to find symbols and underlying meaning in older works of art. When I visit museums, I often end up in front of older paintings. I'm sucked in and suddenly you're there, in the world of that particular artist. You try to follow the vision of the artist and try to understand how the painting was made. I try to trace the process backwards. I have also noticed that the longer I spend painting, the more I see in other people's paintings.

A few years back I became obsessed by a work of art called Dance of Death by Hans Holbein. In Dance of Death, we see skeletons dancing around human life, a familiarity around death that no one escapes. I decided to make textile prints of this work and draped a model in the fabric in the same manner as in my latest paintings. By coincidence I completed my first painting with the Dance of Death pattern shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe. As the pandemic unfolded the motif of Dance of Death became uncannily timely.

Is the process around choosing and creating textile prints different from painting?

They are very different, but two creative processes that complete the work of art.

The bodies in several of your series including Now You See Me are always completely covered in fabric, even the faces of the figures. The fabrics are draped in a manner that at times accentuate the patterns, at other times puts a focus on the hidden body. In this way you are in communication with several important fashion designers such as Martin Margiela and the young British star Richard Quinn. But what is the significance of the hidden body and the hyper-focus on the patterned fabrics in your art?

When I started making paintings that almost drowned in the patterned fabrics I wanted to evoke a feeling of becoming completely absorbed by beauty. I was interested in the "Stendhal-effect", when a human is completely overwhelmed by beauty. When I started covering the face of the model the narrative shifted and the character of the painting changed. The motif suddenly held a certain secret, in a similar way that older texts seem to carry several possible interpretations. The patterns in the fabrics became symbols that could be read as a full narrative.

You have also collaborated with the fashion industry?

I collaborated with Undercover which is the Japanese fashion designer Jun Takahashi's label. Jun Takahashi often works with artists, Pipilotti Rist, Cindy Sherman and Neo Rauch to name a few. In our collaboration Undercover used my paintings and patterns in many different ways, they appeared on dresses, jackets, skirts, handbags, hoodies.

Tell me about other pop-cultural references that are used in your art as material, for example, films.

Yes, I can use references from anywhere. One example is the series Psychopomp Club. In it, the children have painted their faces with masks of a skull. That mask is from a James Bond film, Live and Let Die from 1973. The mask refers to one of the villains in it, a voodoo priest that paints his face that way.

How much of your upbringing and your surroundings is present in your art?

To anyone who knows my history it's not difficult to see those connections in my paintings. I grew up in the countryside, in the forest. The closest bus stop was six kilometres away and there were few other children my age nearby. I played a lot on my own, I was always out in the woods, and I drew a lot. Another great source of inspiration is obviously my children. They are constantly with me, and through the years I have portrayed their lives at that particular time. At first it was about play and imagination. In the painting, The Woods (Escape from Kopetania), the title refers to their fantasyland by our summer house. Over time I have worked with different states of being. I have moved from dreams and fantasy to more metaphysical subject matters."

What have Ölands Folkhögskola and the art school there meant to you?

It meant a lot. I was already 27 years old when I went there, I was trying to learn as much as possible in a very short amount of time. At the time, in the early 2000s, painting was almost dead. At the art school on Öland there were still teachers standing up for painting and they encouraged me a lot, but the prevailing perception within the art world was that oil painting was no longer relevant. If, an artist, you still wanted to paint, it had to be conceptually – meaning you started in modernism to then arrive at conceptual art. To choose realistic painting at that point was not the easiest path and if I had been a younger student I might not have continued painting at that stage. But I had a few working years behind me and I had some more confidence. I remember reading Martin Schibli's and Lars Vilks' book How to Become a Contemporary Artist in Three Days and according to them, the worst thing one could do was to paint in a place somewhere in the countryside. But that's exactly what I have done.

Why, then, is painting still relevant in art today?

I think that it is interesting to ask why it would be irrelevant? To some extent, oil painting is just

a medium for thoughts and ideas, a technique for creating images. Realistic painting is a slow technique, which today could actually be seen as conceptual artistic action in itself. Something happens when many hours are invested in an object, it's as if it reflects some sort of contemplation.

Every brushstroke and very centimetre of the canvas has been consciously created. To me, the thoughts of Joseph Beuys are very exciting. That the artwork can work as a battery, charged by the artist with energy in the shape of time and thoughts that in certain contexts can be transferred to the viewer. He likes the artist to a shaman who moves humans from one state of mind to another. And no matter how rationally one tries to look at it, this is simply a correct description.

Joanna Sandell