All Is Tenderness

Of Martin Gustavsson’s two exhibitions in Stockholm, one renders the love between men, the other gives hope about the generosity and beauty of the world.

Installation view from Martin Gustavsson’s Un Chant Ecarlate at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Photo: Vanessa Fristedt.

In Stockholm, Martin Gustavsson’s work is currently on view in two exhibitions in the same building. On the The Royal Art Academy’s second floor, Un Chant Ecarlate is showing; a few floors up at Galleri Flach, is an exhibition called In No Particular Order. It’s a highly unusual occasion and experience, like seeing the same show twice, but one from the outside, the other from the inside. The subject matter tends to be the same: flowers and bodies – occasionally even with ostensible displays of homophobia, as when Gustavsson renders the wounds of martyrs like oddly placed orifices – tinted by an almost hallucinatory eroticism.

The visual is emphasised in the Flach exhibition. The homoerotic iconography is staged through surreptitious glances, or a helpless stare at the interesting detail. It is made clear that the gaze turns the object into something that is perhaps different from what others see. What draws the gaze is what creates context for the paintings, which can then, as the title says, hang in no particular order. The other exhibition, Un Chant Ecarlate, is a masterpiece. In it, love between men is not only a theme and motif, but desire itself becomes art. Gradually, the works took over my sensibility and elevated it to sensualism, such that the time I spent in the installation unfolded in Gustavsson’s world of desires – except that I was moving amongst paintings, instead of bodies. Here desire transforms from being aimed at the body (the anus is particularly prominent) to pining for what I guess must be called beauty. I’m still shaken by the experience. 

The two exhibitions are an opportunity for the audience in Stockholm to catch up with Gustavsson, who hasn’t had a solo presentation in the city since 2007. And the exhibitions aren’t really new either: Un Chant Ecarlate was first shown at the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, 2018; In No Particular Order was shown at Gothenburg Art Museum in 2011. Then, the latter was 120 paintings, I think; now, it is just fifty. All of them measure 101×66 cm, and they hang adjacent to each other in two rows. The distance between the viewer and the work is accentuated. It is possible to stand in the same place and look at all the paintings, following the stream of motifs from the same visual environment. If inspiration has been drawn from historical sources, my guess would be Montaigne’s essay On Friendship, which is a classic attempt at understanding love between men. Not like the ancient Greek love of boys, not fraternal love, not father and son – but also not quite love between a man and a woman – this is a love that isn’t only focused on the body, but on everything around it. It is a love that allows the self to mutually dissolve into the other’s will, so that the lover duplicates themselves in two bodies. If this can be combined with sex, Montaigne points out, it is of course all the more perfect.

Installation view from Martin Gustavsson’s In No Particular Order at Flach Gallery in Stockholm. Photo: Vanessa Fristedt.

Additionally, Montaigne was inspired by an artist who, like Gustavsson, staged a dual composition: he painted a mural where “bodies made of various parts, without any certain figure, in any other than accidental order” were placed on the outside, while leaving room in the middle for a meticulous composition. I also see In No Particular Order as a kind of framing device, an exterior, and Un Chant Ecarlate as its inside. While the first positions the artworks tightly on the walls, the second exhibition occupies the centre of the gallery. The paintings are suspended from the ceiling in intersecting rows, creating small rooms between the paintings. Each canvas is painted on both sides, and is transparent enough to admit light, lines, and colours. While the paintings on the walls exclude their backs as well as spatial experiences – and in certain cases, emphasising the ground’s opacity by rendering transparent figures – these paintings in the middle of the room emphasise their own translucence. Another feature that activates the exhibition space is that the pictorial space is virtually wiped out. Instead, it is the canvas as a body that has a mysterious depth – a kind of thickness in the transparency, a glow. It is as if Gustavsson had painted rapture as a colour. It makes me afraid of going crazy.

Un Chant Ecarlate can be translated as “a pink song” or “a scarlet singing.” ‘Pink’ is perhaps preferable for its semiotics, but if it is intensity and fragility, exposure, an almost sickening desire that the title seeks to convey, then ‘scarlet’ (the colour of a fever) is better. And ‘singing’ highlights both the presence of the paintings as something going on, and a certain remove, like a humming that’s either distant or softly nearby.

Installation view from Martin Gustavsson’s Un Chant Ecarlate at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Photo: Vanessa Fristedt.

Walking through Gustavsson’s exhibition is fantastic. After a while it’s as if the light in the canvases, these odd bodies of light, numb my hearing: I am all eyes and skin. I move between the paintings “silent like a ribbon of Vaseline,” as Jean Genet put it. The fact that the other side of the canvases are partly visible makes the me guess and anticipate what can be there, to the point where you’re not sure that what you see is what’s there, or if it’s a fantasy. One of the bodies depicted has a flaccid penis on one side, and on the other it is erect. This can be discerned from either side, which makes the cock appear with the same spiritual weight as the lotus flower, which supposedly can be both flower and fruit at the same time. And just as the lotus has its hypnotic aroma, this exhibition has an enchanting power that I cannot come up with in any word for other than beauty. And here and there I am confronted with strips of black paint: censorship. Homophobia permeates and affects even those in paradise.

Western thought first linked art precisely to the relationship between erotic desire and beauty. According to Plato, beauty itself was an object of desire that didn’t extinguish desire when it reached its object. Instead, beauty turns desire into a thinking which it continues to incite. That is perhaps not quite what happens here, but desire seems to transform without reaching a smothering climax. It transforms into sensibility or sensualism instead of sex or thinking. In front of a painting of male bodies – one with distinctly black swimming trunks perverting the gestures of censorship – on one side sprinkled with a thin golden shimmer, I feel completely and utterly defeated. It’s all too beautiful! This state of mind doesn’t focus on that single painting but, as Montaigne wrote, an “all-embracing” love of “generosity and beauty.” It moves me to tears. It’s similar to infatuation, yet not quite. What I feel is unbelievably voluptuous chastity: all I want is to remain in this enchantment of desire. Everything is tenderness. I feel it for the world, which seems gentle to me. But within me, it is sensibility itself that is tender, as if it had become overstimulated or hypersensitive. Tenderness as an indicator of sensibility’s limit and the generosity of the world. Martin Gustavsson has brought out the beautiful, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it before. Not in this way. His exhibition is an experience that, at least for me, may prove to be fundamental.

Installation view from Martin Gustavsson’s Un Chant Ecarlate at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Photo: Vanessa Fristedt.