Glorious Discord:
The Paintings of Mats Pehrson

by Suzanne Ramljak

Part poet, part journalist, Mats Pehrson looks at the world with an eye towards life’s contradictions. While he can paint sublimely lovely scenes, he sets out instead to capture the tensions that teem all around us. “Every day there is a struggle for life,” states Pehrson, “and that contention is reflected in my work.”

Accordingly, the artist has enlisted collage as his medium of choice. Pehrson uses collage to its best advantage, to stage a range of startling juxtapositions. Whereas collage usually entails “found” imagery, Pehrson
makes his found images, personally taking all the photographs that populate his work. Having captured the ripe moment or telling fragment, he then composes these photos into a visual crescendo. Transferred onto canvas or aluminum, the layered images are further vitalized through various other media, including oil, acrylic, charcoal, gesso, cement, shellac, and sand.

Pehrson’s evolution toward such pictorial complexity was gradual. Born in Sweden, he has remained responsive to his changing surroundings, absorbing and reflecting his environs. The Nordic Light of Pehrson’s native land no doubt illuminates the radiant passages within his paintings. A residency in Spain in the late 1990s resulted in the “Signs and Symbols” series, which reflects the influence of Catalan art, especially the boldly suggestive work of Antoni Tàpies. The artist‘s various travels continue to feed his art, but since 1986, when he moved to New York City, this urban landscape has been his key inspiration and graphic source.
After 2000, Pehrson shifted from largely abstract paintings to increasingly photo-based works. Arranging multiple images like a visual symphony, he develops inharmonious, even cacophonous, effects. Billboards and Buddhas, hookers and Hasids, guns and young girls, all jostle together in his paintings, just as they do on the city streets. Beholding his work is like watching a surreal documentary, as you are confronted with the raw facts of life’s strange splendor.

Pehrson has a distinct iconographic language with his own recurring motifs. His talent as a painter imbues his works with a lush fullness and rich color tonality. And Pehrson’s understanding of pictorial space allows him to produce a striking sense of depth.

While Pehrson may have strong social views, these are not message paintings; they are more riddles than aphorisms. This lack of resolve is by design. By granting room for individual interpretation, Pehrson seeks to “provide viewers with the opportunity to deepen their response” to a given subject. Seducing with cinematic splendor and painterly delight, Pehrson lures us towards a new appreciation of life’s complexity. His paintings remind us that experience itself is a collage of shifting fragments, held together by our own sense of beauty and order.

Suzanne Ramljak is an art historian, writer, and curator.