“I’m not educated in art,” Jóhann tells us at his home in Vesturbær. “At a very early age, when the French New Wave came, the Icelandic cinemas didn’t want to show it. But a theatre in Kópavogur, where I lived, regularly showed these films in the early 60s. I think that’s what turned me to drawing and painting.”
Jóhann’s art defies immediate categorisation. You could call it Abstract Expressionism, but that really doesn’t do it justice. Whether in oil, markers, or ink, the common thread that runs through all his work is a series of images that change ever so slightly with each iteration. Although he started drawing and painting at the age of twelve, he dove headfirst into art full time much more recently.
Spectrums and fractals
“It wasn’t until about five years ago, during a depression evaluation, that I got a letter at home saying that I was on the autism spectrum,” Jóhann tells us. “I didn’t know much about autism, except in the extreme, so I decided to do some reading online, and then everything became clear to me, such as why I was walking on my toes until I was four or five, why I didn’t use cutlery until I was twelve, and why I had always played alone, and always with books. I didn’t have any toys. It also explains why I do fractals.”
Jóhann also likes to make use of asemic writing: script that looks like language but isn’t. The inspiration for this came from a visit to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris, listening to the intonations of the clergy. “The sound in the air at Sacre-Coeur was so amazing, yet I didn’t understand a single word,” he remembers
Jóhann’s apartment is a testament to his level of productivity. The walls are nearly entirely covered with his work, and where wall space ends, even more works are stacked against the walls.
Works elbowing their way forward
“Sometimes I think I’m possessed,” he explains. “I have stacks of works yet to do in my head. One of the things that stops me from finishing this trilogy about my recently passed brother is that there are other works trying to elbow their way forward in my head.”
While many artists will commonly contend that their finished works often look utterly different from their original intent, this is far from the case for Jóhann.
“I think the picture completely through before I start,” he says. “It’s already here in my head. It has to be the same as it is in my head.”
Despite his prodigious output, it wasn’t until Jóhann’s son posted some of his photos on Facebook that people overseas began to pay attention to him. But as yet, he has had no exhibitions in Iceland.
Inspiration can come from literally anywhere. Some of his works were inspired by his mother’s knitting. Others are reinterpreted memories of his travels in Turkey and Poland. Meditation has also been helpful for his creative process—engaging in a mindfulness exercise in which, as he puts it, “I am the painting.”
Spectrums and rainbows
Jóhann also combines poetry with his art. Like his paintings, they are reflections of deeply personal moments in his life; some of them painful, some of them joyful. A wonderful example of this is a series of works involving rainbows and asemic script. These are no ordinary rainbows, though, but reference Bífröst, the famed rainbow bridge of Norse mythology. There is, though, much more to it than that.
“You can see Bífröst here as a rainbow,” Jóhann says. “But if you go to one side a step and say, ‘If it’s your rainbow, what does it look like?’ Do you have the spectrum of light? Not necessarily. You have good days, bad days, happy days. So this would be your spectrum, your rainbow.”
Until Jóhann has a major exhibition, he advises that people interested in his work visit his Facebook. “Or if they just want to stop by, they can,” he says. “I’m here most of the time.”