Words & Photography
Petter Mejlænder | Magikon Forlag
The fact that Norwegian artist Hariton Pushwagner is still breathing is unbelievable. 15 years ago, as he approached 60, his images were practically unsaleable, and he was well on his way to drowning in drugs and alcohol. He had neither a bank account nor a place to live completely roughing it, sleeping in parks, underneath cars and in the homes of random acquaintances. His hands trembled so much that he could barely manage to draw caricatures in exchange for beer at the pubs of Oslo. He was a wreck whom friends and family had long given up on.
Ten years later he was Norway’s most talked about artist, and his work sold for millions. Film producers, museums, journalists and the public at home and abroad fought for his attention and treated him as a rock star – and the galleries saw sales records soaring. This paradox of a man, whose frail skin and bones physique exposes a life plagued by hardship, will turn 75 next year – and yet he draws, paints and prints images like never before. This autumn he will show new material both indoors and outdoors as Norway’s largest sales gallery, Fineart, will multiply its size in Oslo’s most exclusive area Tjuvholmen. At the same time he is being celebrated with a photo exhibition at the same gallery as well as a photo portrait book – and Oslo’s city council chairman will be among those congratulating him. Pushwagner himself is most keen on creating his own museum – he already has his own private gallery.
Chapters in Pushwagner’s life have already been documented in two documentaries (one for TV and one for the cinema), two books (one in Norwegian and one in English), and numerous articles in newspapers and magazines.
His life took on a character of adventure and myth already in his childhood – and most Norwegians have heard the most incredible anecdotes about his life of excess. But we won’t know the full story until his biography hits bookstores in a year’s time – it’s guaranteed to be anything but pleasant reading.
His life is marked by break-ups and loss, both in terms of friends and art. Hundreds of drawings that he sold on the streets of London in the 1970s are gone for good. The same fate seems to have befallen sketches and detailed pen drawings he gave away, lost, or had stolen in Oslo in the 80s and 90s. Over the course of 50 years he has created a universe which is moving and scary, and at the same time fascinating, beautiful, vaudeville, satirical, unfathomable and shows social criticism. His work is a mix of cartoons, psychedelic pop art and almost autistic detailed pen drawings. Some of his most important work has taken him years to complete.
The theme often revolves around the self-destructive character of civilization. He is a dystopian – but with a sound dose of humour. Some images might even be interpreted as ironic. This leaves no simple answers in his universe. That’s why some art critics compare his importance to Edvard Munch.
It’s just as obvious to interpret Pushwagner’s universe as a portrait of human idiocy – the reason (or lack thereof) of so-called civilised people. This civilised being is characterised as slow, idolizing illusions, looking for comfort, gullible and self-destructive. And underneath all the layers stirs a terrible fear.
The main works are the visual novel ‘Soft City’ (drawn in the 1970s and published for the first time as a book in 2008), the silkscreen print series ‘A Day in the Life of Family Man’ (his debut at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in 1980) and the ‘Apocalypse Frieze’ (large detailed painting series shown for the first time in 2008). ‘The New York Frieze’ from 1988, consisting of forty-four paintings, is another one of his monumental artworks. Today it seems natural to see these works as allegories for the environmental crisis, total surveillance and abuse of power (for instance NSA in the USA, Putin in Russia and the communist party in China). You could also draw associations to the power of the defence industry and the pharmaceutical industry over the development in society – just to mention a few of the current challenges of civilization which find their dystopian parallel in the imagery of Pushwagner.
In his satire – we might also label them as prophecies and warnings – it’s about Armageddon and the total collapse of society. The destruction itself – the apocalypse – is depicted in the painting ‘Jobkill’, which was bought by the National Museum in Norway in 2006. ‘Jobkill’ might be the most detailed painting in Norwegian art and doesn’t take just a few hours but rather days and months of studying to grasp. So far nobody has dared to take it on.
Still the audience asks: What is his agenda? The answer is: Primarily it’s not political or about social criticism. His obsessions are the technical challenges and the artistic quality. Today this obsession is largely about colours.
That is why, at least in my opinion, all his motifs are autobiographical in one way or another. In ‘Apocalypse Frieze’ he has even incorporated ‘Self Portrait’, his most famous work of art. It depicts the inside of a skull, like a cathedral with about 23,000 naked and paralysed humanlike silhouettes. This picture contains everything from psychology to anthropology, with clear links to literature, architecture and art history. And it begs the question: Is it a self-portrait, a portrait of the audience or of society? One thing seems apparent: the image says an awful lot about human potential and wasted opportunities in an uncomfortable way.
As you can tell, we are facing a furious artist who is merciless towards everyone – not least himself. But just as he is aggressive, he is also tender and kind, offering pleasant and joyful motifs – often linked to jazz and cars.
It’s this dualism, this ambiguity in his art and personality, which makes him intriguing to explore. For this very reason it is difficult to get at the core of his world. You are never done with him. You become unsettled and obsessed. And you are happy for him as his popularity and recognition soar – while the expression gets ever more colourful.
The colours have become so intense that the images almost catch fire. It’s difficult to interpret it as anything but an expression of the bubbling joy of success. (…)