In Conversation with: Bob Landström

Bob Landström is an artist who primarily works with crushed, pigmented volcanic rock. His abstract paintings, with their highly granulated texture and color combinations, only achieved through such a medium, reconsider our relationship with meaning by eliciting the iconography of ancient languages, science, religions, and mysticism.  Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Landström studied fine art by invitation at Carnegie-Mellon University. He later continued his fine art education at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. Landström also earned a Bachelor and Master of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering. Landström’s work has exhibited extensively and can be found in public, private, and corporate collections around the world. He is the winner of the 1993 SOHO International Competition in New York, the 1994 and 2002 Open Studios National Competition, and other awards. When not in the studio, Landström spends considerable time abroad and has visited archeological sites across the world, which inform his studies and artistic practice.  Landström currently lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia.

Emerald Arguelles: Can you talk about your exploration of volcanic rock and how you decided to include that in your work?

Bob Landström: I’ve always well, for a long time, had sort of a focus on metaphysics, you know, and some kind of exploring our place in the universe from being a human being that sort of thing. So the things I was painting had that kind of context and that sort of subject matter for a long time. And I just got to thinking of, maybe there’s something I can do to push this further, you know because it’s one thing for me to think about these things and paint this way. Many artists are doing that same sort of thing, trying to tap into that same energy in their work. So, about the same time, I spent some time in the American Southwest, studying petroglyphs, Native American petroglyphs. And it is interesting how they were putting their art and their marks on these rocks. And a lot of them were volcanic, pumice and basalt just out in the desert. When I came back, I got this got to think, is there some way I can apply that in my work? And I thought about making petroglyphs of my own. And I thought, well, that’s sort of trite. You know, what, why would I really do that? What would that accomplish? By thinking more and recognizing that I’m also an earth sign, I got the idea of “why don’t I try painting with the earth as a painting.” Hence, I began doing that trying many different things for a really long time. Everything from just the soil itself, like making mud out of paint, and then other types of Earth materials. Then I came across this volcanic rock. Because of my association with the southwest and mines I had become familiar with, they mine for industrial purposes. It’s a consistent and stable form of the earth I could use long-term in my work. So when I first started doing this, it was the approach that I had was literally grinding it up and mixing it in with the paint. So it’s like sticky painted gravel, and I painted like that for quite a while. And just by always trying to push the material a little farther, I came up with some processes that allow me to attach the pigment to the rock as a dry medium. Now, every grain of the rock is individually colored. So what I do is I paint is I mixed this dry gravel, just the way somebody might mix different tubes of paint on a wet palette, right? And then that gets attached to the canvas. So the resulting painting, if you look at close-ups of my paintings that I have online, you’ll see that each individual grain has its own pigmentation. That lets me do some really cool things that you can’t do with liquid paint. For example, I could take two complementary colors; I could take a red and green and put them right next to one another without turning into the mud. 

EA: I wanted to ask you what inspired you to include ancient languages in your work, and then your own personal connection to them?

BL: Well, in that sort of being an amateur student of metaphysics and ancient cultures and lost knowledge. I’ve kind of been fascinated by what we call primitive cultures that really aren’t primitive at all, that we are actually primitive in comparison to what those cultures developed; we were just too primitive to realize it. In doing that, I paid attention to evidence there was of language from those cultures and mathematics and belief systems and things like that. And in my work, I use alphanumeric characters and symbols, and I use those more for their graphical content rather than their phonetics. And, or anything like that. So looking at those ancient cultures and their language and this kind of symbols they used and how they communicated. I’d like to bring that into the work because I think that amplifies that energy in the work.

EA: So just kind of out of curiosity. I really enjoy Babylonian astronomy and astrology, and that lost knowledge, because it’s something that you really can’t be taught. So how did you get into finding this information? Because even though you do deep Google searches at a certain point, it kind of gets to theories of things, conspiracy theorists, and reading the threads. How’d you find that knowledge?

BL: Well, it’s interesting, you say that, because you’re right now the internet is an excellent tool for that kind of research. But you have to be so careful to make sure you’re getting real information. So you have to be able to trust your source. But when I started looking at these things, it was before the internet was first started down this exploration in the late 1980s, early 1980s. And I met some people, and I met some people who had books, hard to find books, right. It really was just serendipitous that I managed to be friends with some people studying that sort of thing, and really much farther along than me and, and knew where to find this information and show me where to go. 

EA: My friends and I always go back and forth about being extremely direct. And then kind of having those bread crumbs of knowledge where it’s like you have to go a little bit deeper into it. I enjoy that so much because you get so much more out of it, I think. You can have your own interpretations, and you can learn something beyond the world beyond the art; you can learn something for yourself, which I think is great. I wanted to ask you, who or what are your inspirations?

BL: Well, I read a lot about physics. Because I actually have an engineering background in addition to an art background. Most people find that to be very unusual. Still, I noticed reading some of your articles you stumbled across a couple of us is great to see that process is great. So, you know, I’ve got that sort of left-brain side of me. So I understand math—mathematics in the science of things like that, to at least a certain extent. I have been reading a lot about physics and metaphysics because, in the past 10 or 20 years, new theories in quantum mechanics and string theory, physics, and the metaphysic are a great source of brain food for me. At the same time, I’m also sort of an amateur student of Buddhism. And that ties into it really well, too. Over this past year, I think I’ve started to drive myself a little crazy with some of these thoughts. Because I see the confluence of so many of these different things. It’s beginning to blow my mind, and trying to get my head around it and reach a comfortable place where it makes sense to me how all these things fit together at the moment. I’ve got a few piles on my desk of these bodies of knowledge, right, that are all interrelated. But I need to make one pile out of them someday. Now, in 1999, I did a series of work called Conjuring Secrets. That was actually for a solo exhibition at Alan Avery art company in Atlanta that I had. And that whole thing was about the, just the essence of that discovery process. You know, there’s kind of the lifecycle of a secret, it’s out there, there are all kinds of secrets around us, but nobody knows them, because they are secrets. And then, somehow, you stumble upon the secret. And it’s not a secret anymore, because you know, something about that. And I started to think about well, what does that mean to the secret itself? You know, if you were a secret discovered, what does that do to you, you know, change, you know, that sort of thing. So the exhibition was really about that whole. It’s a lot of work about discovery, you know, the notion of discovery. Last year, I did a series of work that I called, What If We Were Wrong, which is the whole notion about how robust a belief is; you believe something. You program it into your firewall, and that’s the lens, you see the entire world through, and then something happens, and you realize, oh, that wasn’t right at all. You know what and how that changes things. This year, the latest series is about multi versus parallel universes and multiple universes that I’ve been reading a lot through the studies I’ve mentioned a couple of times already. Trying to bring that into my work, the idea of multiple dimensions simultaneously, also trying to apply calm and peace to the work and kind of show it out.

EA: What is your process of creating? Are there steps? Is it linear? How do you kind of go into making a series?

BL: Hmm? Well, I’m not sure there’s really a stream of consciousness that’s linear. I try really hard to sort of be an open-ended radio tuner. You know, I’ve got my antennas out there. And I tried to notice even the faint signals and stop, and what is that? What I’m hearing? What’s that idea about? And I have notebooks with me always—notebooks in every room of the house. So I try to write down an idea whenever I have it. Now, eventually, I’ve got to actually do something. Most of the imagination that I do is on my iPad. For about three years now, I rarely sketch in a sketchbook at all; it’s always on the iPad; it iPad has transformed my life. It’s just so spontaneous. It can happen anywhere. You don’t have to learn tools, you know, it’s just incredible. I don’t know how I lived without it before. So my iPad is where I collect a lot of my sketches, right? The sketches are ideas for paintings, and when I’m ready to do a new painting, I’ll just scroll through all my ideas and find one that is really burning for me. And that’s what I’ll use to start a painting. That’s what happens most of the time. Sometimes, I just start out with a blank canvas and just start painting 80% of the time; it’s from an iPad sketch. 

EA: That is amazing. I guess this kind of goes in as well with your sketches. But I noticed in your work, you include a lot of rabbits, birds, and fishes. What is the purpose of that?

BL: So I’ve gone on several journeys to get closer to my spirit guides. And through those journeys just been presented to me, I should pay attention closely to certain animals, in particular birds. So birds serve several different purposes in my paintings; from my point of view, producing the paintings, they’re a metaphor for that a direct metaphor for that direct connection with my spirit guide. It links directly into the context of the energies on painting from the viewer’s point of view because my work is abstract that they encounter. This very real thing that’s very recognizable to them, or they encounter these characters that they will try to read because they think there are words they read to understand what the painting is about and find the title or something. So it provides that; I think it gives the viewer something familiar to pause on and be able to absorb the painting as a whole because they’ll stop and spend the time to look at it. Because rather than being something very abstract and hard to look at, they find something familiar and fun. I think that’s one reason they’re successful, not to be too formulaic about the whole thing, but I think that helps.

EA: I remember when I was in, I don’t even think this was art history. I think it was just a random art class that I took. And I saw the study of Basquiat study that he did for The Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta. Still, it was all of these words in Basquiat he paints in grand scale. And I think that seeing it kind of condensed down to a smaller size, I can see all of these words. Like how he planned everything out was like in a very linear way, kind of like a journey with this random text that you can really connect to that also went with the image. And it was the first time I’ve ever seen that. But I think language is so powerful. And again, imagery is so powerful. Because of that, you find these small connections that kind of bring you to a broader idea. And I love seeing that in your work.  Lastly, what do you want people to take away from your work?

BL: The most frequent feedback I get about my paintings is people say it just makes me feel good. And I don’t think I could ask for anything more significant than that. When I make a painting and offer it out there in the world, I’m not really expecting anything back. I’m not trying to give a message that I need people to hear. It’s really just sort of like a snapshot of a moment in my stream of consciousness. So here it is, right. But when people seem to be positively moved by that, I think that’s great. And that’s, that’s really flattering for me when I hear that.

To view more of Bob Landström’s work please visit their website.