Interview with Karl Haglund
Interview with Karl Haglund
This Image: “Product: Bananas Are Lies”
36(w) x 55(h) inches. Acrylic and pencil on canvas. 2018, Karl Haglund
This interview was conducted in March of 2019.
CHARGE MAGAZINE: Hi Karl! Thanks so much for talking with us. We’re Let’s start with a banal question. What made you want to be an artist?
KARL HAGLUND: There were “propellants” or things that were gas to the fire, but art is something I have consistently enjoyed doing. I always sort of feel bad when I take money for a painting because its something I did because I love it; the journey, the figuring things out, making something I like, sometimes making things I hate and want to set on fire, ha, but the journey is always the destination – as the saying goes.
My mother was an artist. She studied art in Leksand, Sweden, painting mostly watercolor landscapes and barns towards the end of her life. She was very talented in that, but never really did anything to push it as a career. Her dad, my grandfather, also painted. He would send postcard sized paintings to us all the time. He was someone that I wish I knew better and got to talk to more. He lived in Eskilstuna Sweden, was a pretty active socialist, wore cool glasses, was involved in the local bakers union – I think as President of that for a time. I did not know my Swedish relatives very well. I only visited a couple of times as a kid before they all passed away. I look at his work now as something I value very much. Very much outsider folk art. Some of my favorite pieces in my collection.
CM: How fantastic to have had artists in your family. In some ways I’m sure that made it a bit easier to think about art, and think about trying it out your self. Nonetheless, a creative career is never an easy choice. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced?
KH: I loved my mother, but she was a very negative person. It was difficult at times… and I am sure that relationship shows up in my work.
In terms of the art itself, the toughest thing has been getting out of my own way. I get tunnel vision with colors sometimes. Orange is a challenge because I love it so much. I have had to force myself not to use it. It still creeps in. Orange has been a mother fucker. (laughs) I may be overstating that, but I do go through a lot of orange around here.
I studied anthropology in undergrad and public policy for my year of grad school – both at UNI. So, informing my work has been something I have focused on. Reading, looking at other work.
CM: So interesting! I’m curious about the relationship you see between anthropology and art. They seem connected to me, both having so much to do with careful observations about life and how people live it. Anthropology then being an academic way to discuss or think through those observations, and art being another, perhaps more personal or lyrical way.
KH: I loved studying anthropology – it interested me. It may be a completely useless degree in terms of monetization and getting a job, but I don’t think I could have made it through a four year degree studying business or accounting. That was just never in my genes. My dad is an award winning journalist, my mom an artist. I don’t think I ever had a chance.
I did an independent study my senior year at UNI with Dr. Gray. He co-authored a book about Postville, Iowa. Immigration and food production was very interesting to me. How dependent we are on immigration for the actual food we consume, and then at the same time how some in society seem to resent that immigration. So strange that paradox. A quick history of Mexico/US immigration relations in the realm of food production will show giant hypocrisy and outright racism. I toured KU campus in hopes of going and working with a specific professor there, but it just did not work out. I was already married with kids, very difficult to make that move. And I’m not sure my interest in academics would have survived a PhD level of study.
But Dr. Gray always challenged me to find the “strange” in the normal. I think that’s a good way to approach art as well.
CM: Certainly. And in my experience, there’s always something strange just beneath the surfaces of the things we think of as “normal.”
Ok, so, I’m not asking you do give a definitive answer here, you don’t have to answer for everyone at all times an in all situations, but in your own life, right now, what is a working definition of Art that currently has meaning for you?
KH: Right now, to me, art is all about expression. It’s pretty simplistic, I guess. I am trying to express meaning, whatever that meaning may be, through random-ish shapes and colors. Finding the strange in the milquetoast. Like trying to build a cathedral in the middle of a strip mall.
I try not to overstate what art is or build it up to be some superpower in my life. I don’t think “Art is life” or “Art is love.” Art is an expression of my life and the things I love, but they are not one and the same.
CH: I love the image of building a cathedral in the middle of a strip mall. It sounds like another instance of the strange, or in this case the transcendent, side by side with the ordinary.
Let’s talk about the creation process for you. When you make a piece of art, do you have an idea already about what it will look like or what you want it to say or to do, or is that something that more emerges from the process?
KH: It really depends on what I am doing. I have a series of guitar paintings that have been my bread and butter – they are the reason I could afford to drop out of grad school and do art full time. I research those paintings extensively. Know exactly what I am doing. Usually, these days, they are already paid for. That’s a straight up business. I avoid those, but also need to eat and pay for things like Netflix and water.
The other work, the stuff I really love doing, the more abstract work like the pieces featured here are different. With these, it’s an entire process of conversation with the work. Generally, I have an idea of where I am going, but I am not rigid on that. It’s important to be able to “read back and rewrite” as I go along.
Lately I grab a couple colors and squeeze them out onto the canvas, then spread it around with an ink brayer or a piece of cardboard. Make the canvas something other than blank. Then go from there. Usually that first color is buried underneath. I really like that; it’s like building a house. Start on the foundation then start adding floors. I usually build twelve story apartment complexes.
CM: That sounds like a blast. What do you hope will happen when people encounter your work? In an ideal scenario, what is the effect that your work has on people?
KH: Any sort of reaction is great. Love it, hate it. I don’t take it personally either way. I once had someone ask to buy a painting that I had thrown into a dumpster. I hated it, they loved it. I love paintings that others hate. That’s why ribbons and bows are bullshit. I don’t enter competitions with my art or photography, because it would be completely meaningless to me. So fucking silly.
Ideally, everyone loves my art. But, that is just not possible. And I don’t try for that. I did a painting of Christ on the cross smoking a cigarette like in an execution scenario. Very disturbing to a local guy I know. I feel sorta bad for him, but also am really happy it at least had an effect on someone. His sleepless night is my high-five.
CM: A lot of the work we have here comes across as sort of deconstructed city scenes or architectural spaces. Can you talk about those for a bit? What was the impetus for that? What do you find in that work that propels you to keep playing with those ideas?
KH: In my head, I wanted to go back a few steps. Take away some of the recognizable shapes and deconstruct a city just like you said. That’s exactly what it is. I was watching Barney with my daughter about six years ago. They had an episode about art where some guy in a fake French accent (Artists are all French on the inside) said “Artists use lots of shapes and colors.” I think he was even wearing the black and white striped artist “uniform.” I legit said out loud to myself and my four year old daughter, “How can I use more circles and triangles?” (laughs)
Seriously though, my idea was to break down normal everyday things into nothing but shapes and colors. I don’t know if I have gotten to a place with that work where I am comfortable and happy. It is a process of tearing apart what I see. Like taking a photo of a city or neighborhood, crumbling it up and then just throwing it at the canvas.
CM: I love that impulse. In this issue we’re circling around the idea of disruption, and I wonder if we could spend a little time thinking about that very impulse and action: to take something apart, to subject it to scrutiny and interrogation. To disrupt the ways in which we are used to experiencing the world. Why do it? What do you think we gain? If we drive down the street and see an office building next to a gas station and an apartment complex, we think, “office building, gas station, apartments” – or, we sort of subliminally understand those shapes—and then we move on. The act of deconstruction, however asks us to pause and focus our attention, to scratch at the surface, pull these ideas down and examine what’s inside, exposing, perhaps, other layers of meaning. In Dissemination, Derrida says, “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.” If we think of the world around us as Derrida’s “text,” and take him at his premise, we understand that there is much to find beneath the surface of things. He seems to say that we have to disrupt and disturb those easily packaged ideas and images in order to … understand? Discover? Does this play into your circles and triangles at all? What, for you, is the work of disruption and deconstruction about?
KH: Interesting. I am not familiar with Derrida at all. But, I think one thing I have noticed is this quiet and easy slip into what I call Milquetoast America. I see it in the way that otherwise interesting people present themselves as very uninteresting. Blending in, with the same haircut, same sparkly jeans – the Midwest Mom syndrome. I think in general, the places we live are much more interesting than how they are being represented. We don’t seem to build interesting houses anymore. It all seems to want to become suburban “I want to look like my neighbor” shit. If you visit one suburb, you have visited them all. No need to leave home to travel the suburbs. I think traveling the “unsafe” areas becomes more interesting. Comfort zones are becoming way too comfortable. It is good to tear those apart and expose the bones. It is good to try to peek behind the curtain. Hopefully my art at least tries to do that. I try to make it try to do that.
CM: Are you ever surprised by your art? Can you talk about a specific moment you remember?
KH: Being surprised is the best. Early on, when I first started getting back into painting around 2008, I would finish a piece and then keep going to my studio and looking at it, like, “How the fuck did I do that?” I look back now and mostly hate that stuff, but back then it was cool.
Lately I go through surprise and discouragement almost uniformly. Trying to find my mojo. Like driving a car towards a cliff, you hope the bridge gets built before you get there. Sometimes it gets built, sometimes not. It’s always my fault. I am going through a change right now with my art, so I am struggling to find my voice. Some of the recent work has surprised me. It can get super depressing thinking about the ones that did not.
CM: Let’s talk a bit about the piece that we’ve chosen as the cover art for this issue. You’ve titled it, “Product: Ögon Täckt Stad” (Eyes Covered City) [40”(w)x56”(h)]. You created this mixed media piece last year, in 2018. Can you tell us a bit about it?
KH: That is one of my personal favorites. Its in The Gilded Pear Gallery in Cedar Rapids right now and I kind of miss it. Like a loved one. It was a struggle. Physically, I mean. Maybe mentally as well. Just to get that idea out of my head and onto canvas. Art, for me, is a conversation with the canvas; sometimes I don’t read back and interpret well. I get lost or sidetracked. I kept at this one and ended up with what is one of my favorite pieces. I lived in St Louis for ten years and while I loved the city, I also hated it. I am not a big city type of guy. I like quiet streets and calm neighborhoods. I miss the music and restaurant options, ha, but I don’t miss the crowds and traffic. I get anxiety traveling to large cities. There’s just so much going on it becomes hard for me to focus. It’s important to still travel to those places, it’s just not my favorite thing. I think that anxiety is represented in this piece; the disruption of my quiet. This piece is – in my mind - held together by cheap tape and thin strings.
CM: I love the title, “Eyes Covered City.” To me it carries that sort of Derridian feel of all that is imperceptible; all that “hides from the first comer” that we must investigate to find.
KH: I am a people watcher. I feel like there are a lot of eyes in a city. Lol. When I first moved to St Louis, I would ask for “pop” and people would say “You’re not from here, are you?” In St. Louis, they say “soda.” Anyway, I say soda now, even though I am back in Iowa. Nobody seems to care here. Cities seem to tie their identity to strange things at times. I suppose every place has little idioms that make them who they are, and if you step outside of that you become suspect.
I feel those neighborhood eyes in this piece.
CM: This piece for me, seems to deal a lot with intersections, with adjustments, with palimpsest, and with – and this is where the title of our issue comes from – disruption. The colors are disrupted by lines, the lines are disrupted by other lines, shapes are covered over, whited out, imposed upon, again and again. This seems to me to speak very honestly about how we live our lives. One thing turns into another, as we adjust and adapt and change and choose and then choose again. Both individually and as a species. Almost as if the canvas were a timeline, where all the moments happened vertically, one on top of the next, rather than horizontally in a straight line. Can you speak to that a bit?
KH: I think you are reading exactly what I am putting down on that one. I started working in acrylic about eight or so years ago because I needed to finish a painting within a day or two. Maybe I will switch back to oil and force myself to take more “breathers” in a work. But for now, I get an idea in my head or a thought pattern like use, reuse, place, replace. And I need to keep going or I cant function doing anything else.
Product, to me is my way of trying to slap art in the face. Maybe its insecurity or bitterness, but at times I feel like I am chasing my own tail. Making a Product and not Art. It’s also why I sometimes will draw upc codes on paintings. Art is a lot about self-marketing. If you want to make any money anyway. To get into a gallery you have to sell yourself, sell your work. That is a disruption of the creative process for me. The act of art marketing. I also see celebrities who paint shit and instantly sell all their work. I saw a video of a pig that paints once. That fucking pig sells a lot of work. Or look at how we clammer to an artist who is verified as mentally ill. What the fuck are we buying in these instances? Art becomes like any other commodity in these instances: Products of marketing. It creates a need for artists to play up some sort of false identity, but we lose any aspect of what is real. Who we are and what we are expressing.
I am who I am. I sometimes wear khaki cargo shorts – dad level: Expert. I can be completely uninteresting at the store. I want my ideas to sell, I’m not interested in being something others want. Like the French artist actor on Barney. I should carry around a pallet. Ha.
I don’t actually use pallets though… “pro tip” – I buy small plastic tubs. I use the tubs to organize my paints and the lids I use as pallets. Plastic, the paint peels right off when it dries. That’s my best artist advice.. lol… buy smallish plastic tubs.
CM: Let’s talk briefly about figure in your work. In this painting, there are shapes that we can interpret in various ways. I, for example, can see a figure – a man perhaps – with a long yellow nose, maybe he’s wearing a hat, maybe smoking a cigarette. I see an elephant, a street, directions, words that seem like notes or thoughts or the ghosts of thoughts. I see a pipe shape – recalling, for me, René Magritte’s Treachery of Images,” There is a sketch of an eye and of the fingers of a hand, these isolated body parts sort of floating off to one side. I also see or can imagine in this piece, buildings, architectural lines, wires, rays, and then of course there is the use of print – the torn collage pieces where one thing becomes something else. The pages and words no longer carrying the meaning they had originally, but now have become something new. Something that is made of words, but not verbal. How do you approach the creation of meaning in this piece? Were you intending for any one specific image to come to mind? Your title calls out “City” and “Eyes” and “Product.” Are these things you are hoping your audience keeps in mind as they sit with this piece?
KH: I worked and reworked this piece. I really like the look and the idea that the stripes are like cheap masking tape. Like it’s being held together by something so frail. That’s an idea applies to myself, but also how I see my work lately. It’s always being fixed and tinkered with, repaired. I used actual tape on that one too, masking off parts and then painting white over it, leaving the blue at the bottom exposed in parts. Then fixing it with my acrylic “masking tape.”
Yes, I often will draw something on a painting – either a word or body part knowing full well that I will paint over it later. I like the idea that someone needs to get their nose right up to a canvas to see everything. Like making them physically get closer to a canvas helps pull them in a bit.
If you stop and stare at a painting, I want there to be a reward.
CM: Can you talk a bit about how you interact with color in your work? Looking at different pieces such as, “Product: Bananas are Lies,” we see it has a very different color feel from, say, “I Fell In Love With The Apocalypse: Root In Relation To Place.” What role does color play in your art making?
KH: I think it plays a very big part. In composition and contrast and getting a mood across for the work. Sometimes that can be very simple like in “Apocolypse,” and other times a bit more complex. I have color addictions that I deal with. Right now I am a bit obsessed with white and orange. I cant seem to paint anything I like unless it has a white or off-white background, or edges. A problem with the brain, I assume; safe colors, safe places… maybe.
CM: Finally, can you talk a little bit about what excites and inspires you at the moment? Is there something on the edges that you’ve been thinking about, or some risk you’ve been wanting to take? Whose work are you captivated by currently?
KH: I am inspired by art that uses very little color right now. I mean like RIGHT NOW as we talk. Could be different tomorrow. I may start trying more black and white stuff. Like three or four tubes of paint tops for an entire piece. Or just pencil. Or charcoal. I have been thinking about a large scale work with nothing but charcoal sketches. Maybe the same thing over and over top to bottom left to right. Across a huge canvas.
But, also thinking about doing small scale work.. 8x10ish. Paper. Draw, use colored pencils and charcoal. The hardest thing for me is going small. Hard to get my ideas out at that scale. I have done a few lately and its been a real challenge, but that might be worth pursuing.
I recently became Internet friends with Frank Hansen from Des Moines. His work is awe inspiring. Very cool raunchy stuff.
My friend Will from Austin, TX is an artist and musician. His work is inspiring: southern folk art baseball paintings. Folk roots music. He was just on Stephen Colbert playing drums for Strands of Oak. He will be through here in April on a living room tour playing a show in my living room.
I am inspired by books and poems. I took a literature class my senior year at UNI taught by Dr. Swope… John, I think? (my brain dies slowly of the aging processes) I remember he asked, “Why bother with this poem? Why should we bother to read it?” That impacted me. I think about that a lot. Why should I paint this? Why should I bother with this idea?
I don’t think I have that figured out yet, so I keep working.
Karl Haglund is a US based artist and photographer. His work can be found at https://www.karlhaglund.com/.
A number of his pieces, including the cover art for this issue, “Product: Ögon Täckt Stad” (Eyes Covered City) which we spoke about in this interview, are currently on display at the Gilded Pear Art Gallery.