Axel Stohlberg’s Exhibition of Collage and Sculpture Examines Ideas of Home | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Axel Stohlberg’s Exhibition of Collage and Sculpture Examines Ideas of Home


Published November 30, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 30, 2022 at 11:19 a.m.

"Collage #1" - COURTESY
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  • "Collage #1"

Axel Stohlberg's latest exhibition, at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery in Montpelier, is titled "House." The single word conveys as reductively as possible what his selection of collages and assemblages is about, and it also exemplifies Stohlberg's characteristic frugality of form.

More to the point is that the Middlesex artist has, over a number of years, produced a stream of two- and three-dimensional works based on the complex concept of home using the most rudimentary geometry. Even young children recognize the stacked square and triangle as a house; Stohlberg's adult iterations differ from a kindergartner's drawing primarily in the omission of a diagonal chimney.

The house shape is appealing graphically, and Stohlberg reorders its angular mass in seemingly endless variants. The paper collages in this exhibition, in stark black and white, are crisp and sophisticated. Not all the pieces suggest Monopoly houses, though; in some designs Stohlberg has abstracted the silhouette into shards.

His assemblages, made of wood and found elements, are more playful. They call to mind a set of children's blocks, minus the cheerful primary colors.

"North South East West" - COURTESY
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  • "North South East West"

If the image of a house has visual immediacy, the construct of home is far more nuanced. To some it signifies shelter, security, family, belonging. For others, it might be aspirational, a dream. Home carries the weight of memory, history, the passage of a life.

In a phone interview, Stohlberg discussed his personal associations with home, the inexhaustible allure of its emblem and the stories he likes to tell with his art.

SEVEN DAYS: I looked through the Seven Days archives at articles we've written about you over the years, and every single one talks about the house shape. In one of them, you hint that you might be done with it. But you weren't, were you?

AXEL STOHLBERG: No, I keep going back to it.

SD: Though you've explored other themes, the house remains significant — perhaps even an identifier for you as an artist. I have to ask, why do you think it persists for you?

AS: I guess it has a lot of meaning to me personally, and I think it's so strong that people can have their own emotions about it.

SD: I wonder if the house imagery has grown or changed over time, either symbolically or as a geometric design element — or both?

AS: I guess it has grown, to the point where I'm finding so many variations on it. Actually, symbolically — that's a good word. Things have come up in my mind about that house shape that I never thought about [before].

SD: I would guess that the simplicity and strong graphic quality of the house shape is appealing to you.

AS: It is. I think it's wonderful that, even when I strip down that shape and the simplicity of it, it's still identifiable.

SD: I wonder if deconstructing the house shape also has meaning to you?

AS: There is a little bit of that. I guess, personally, I've thought about my childhood home. I had to let that go—

SD: Physically or emotionally?

AS: Physically. I had also built a house and had to let that go — I sold it. Also, I guess the deconstructing of homelessness — a few of the pieces in the Supreme Court show can refer to that. So, I guess I was thinking of all those things.

"Good Fit" - COURTESY
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  • "Good Fit"

SD: Overall, your work can be characterized as simplified — not only in shapes or mediums but in color. I can't help but relate this to the clean, uncomplicated design sensibility of Sweden. Your name suggests Scandinavian ancestry, no?

AS: Yes, I'm half Swedish.

SD: Do you think aesthetics can be genetic?

AS: That's interesting that you bring that up. My father was Swedish — named Axel, as well, so I'm junior. He had shown me Swedish design, and it is very simplistic. So maybe that influenced me. And, actually, all my work, because I feel like when I've gone away from the house shape into abstract or landscape or sculpture, I always have a feeling of making things simplistic. So, you might have a point there.

SD: There's an economy of materials, too — most evident in your use of found and repurposed objects.

AS: A lot of times I'll just use what I have on hand, instead of going out and spending a lot of money.

SD: What does your work space look like? I imagine a cache of found junk hanging out, waiting for a new life in one of your assemblages.

AS: I've been cutting back on my assemblages, actually. I think I'm going to have a swan song with [them] at some point. Anyway, I don't have a lot of things anymore. My studio is my studio apartment. When I had studios, I did collect a lot of things. It was a colossal mess. So, now, my studio space is minimal again.

SD: I remember a past exhibit at your former, namesake business [Axel's Frame Shop & Gallery in Waterbury] that featured drawings on brown paper coffee bags. Are you still making those?

AS: I am. That's an ongoing thing. I had started that when I lived in Maine. It was paper that I had on hand, and I really liked the brown kraft paper on the coffee bags. So, I started drawing on them.

SD: I noticed on your website that you categorically separate assemblage and sculpture. But I think observers could be forgiven for not discerning much difference between the two. What, to you, distinguishes an assemblage from a sculpture?

AS: Well, that's an awful question.

SD: [Laughing] Why is that?

AS: It's not awful; it's just a hard question. I think my sculptures, the material of them, they're not found objects, and my assemblages are. I also feel like sculptures can stand by themselves, and my assemblages, I feel that they can tell stories. I'm not a writer, but I like to create little stories.

SD: Do you mean the objects suggest something of a previous life? Is that the story?

AS: No, I think I create my own. I always have titles to my assemblages, and I don't always have titles or stories with my sculptures. Some of the pieces I make are serious; some have dark humor.

SD: You work in a number of mediums, with different materials. Do you have a favorite?

AS: No. I've never wanted to be a one-trick pony.

SD: Does anyone want that?

AS: I think so. I know people who want to be identified as just a painter or a sculptor. But there's so many ways to be creative as an artist, I can't stay with just one medium.

SD: I see what you mean. Are you constantly making art?

AS: Yes, I am. Every once in a while, I pick up a retirement job — what do they call that, supplemental income? But my art is my life.

"Memory Shadow" - COURTESY
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  • "Memory Shadow"

SD: Let me bounce back to the house again. Do you think you — or all of us — carry a sense of nostalgia for the physical places in which we have lived?

AS: Oh, absolutely, yes. I'll bring up my adolescence. My family was my brother and I, and my parents had bought a house in the '40s and they never moved. So, my brother and I lived in the house until [we were] 18. My mother at the time owned the house, so then she moved out.

But my brother and I had so many memories of the house that, years later, we'd just keep talking about [it]. We had so many stories in that house. Every time we would be in that neighborhood, we would talk to the new owners or to each other about the changes in the house.

SD: Where was that?

AS: That was in North Plainfield, N.J.

SD: Are both of your folks gone now?

AS: Yes, and my brother passed away a few months ago. That's why I dedicated the show at the Supreme Court to him, because he had always encouraged me with my art.

Also, the house my ex-wife and I built in Middlesex, where we raised two kids, we had a lot of memories. I think that's what I was getting at. Houses can bring a lot of memories.

SD: This conversation — and your work — makes me reflect on my own past homes and the attendant memories, good and bad.

AS: At the opening of the Supreme Court show, I walked around talking to people, and everybody mentioned that they had feelings or memories of their own when they saw a piece of my artwork. I found it really interesting — the house shape does have that power. It's iconic.

SD: You wield a lot of power, Axel!

AS: Oh, boy.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "House Work | Axel Stohlberg's exhibition of collage and sculpture examines ideas of home"