Volcanic Rock & The Visual Language of Bob Landström

By Noah Sonnenburg- WhiteHot Magazine

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Artist Bob Landström isn’t interested in meaning. When his work is displayed on gallery walls, he’s curious when people approach them with great intent, looking for something to decipher.

“They try to read the paintings,” Landström says with a chuckle. “They see these portions of words, phrases or mathematical formulas. They sit there and try to piece it together like they’re going to discover something specific that’s never in the painting.”

Replete with a sporadic array of words, glyphs, signs and the occasional sardonic animal subject, the Atlanta-based artist’s work is understandably engaging and equally puzzling. At first glance, they demand investigation, only to offer no concrete solutions

Take, for instance, Spicy Melodrama, a 36”x48” piece of Landström’s. In the upper, right-hand quadrant of the image, a kingfisher peers over its left shoulder, perched on a small fragment of a circuit diagram. Fashioned like a cybernetic Ohara Koson print, this small vignette of the piece lays on top of a warm orange glow,slowly dissipating over the expanse of the canvas.

As the eye travels to the further reaches of this luminescence, glyphs and phonemes make themselves appear in shades of gray and black. Finally, reaching the bottom left of the image, a circle appears, dripping with green ooze, giving off a carnal aura. A wound or a portal to somewhere beyond our world?

To those unfamiliar with Landström’s approach, a painting may seem layered with exhaustively considered symbolism. Maybe the kingfisher is a cyber-philosophical statement. Does Bob want me to consider anarcho-primitivism? To Landström, however, that’s absurd. In his view, his work is a quick glimpse into his mind on a given day.

“With everything that I paint,” Landström notes. “Each painting is kind of like a snapshot, a moment in time of what I was thinking about or hearing or saying at that moment.”

Regarding the symbolism of the glyphs and lettering of his work, Landström develops each with a distinct philosophy. It’s all about universality and shared perception.

“I’ve got this working theory that any symbol has the same meaning to us, regardless of our culture, our sex, our religion, or nationality, or even the period of time when we lived,” Landström says. “If I make a plus sign, it’s going to trigger the same neurons in whoever looks at it. In that sense, I’m using these things not really to write a script, but more for the graphical qualities of that symbol.”

Interestingly enough however, the shapes in Landström’s work aren’t the start and end of his oeuvre’s mercurial imagery. Viewers will immediately see that each image has an overwhelming graininess to it—almost three dimensional in its texture. Some may say it even appears sandy. Those viewers would be correct.

Landström paints with volcanic rock.

When Landström was a young artist, he jumped between media. In different phases he would settle into the use of one medium or another, viewing it as an absolute of artistic philosophy—an aesthetic positivist’s perspective of sorts.

“There was a long period of time where I was trying to identify whether I was a ‘drawer’ or a ‘painter’ or a ‘sculptor,’” Landström recalls. “I had this personal philosophy at the time that everything is drawing, whether it’s in any, any kind of medium. Then I thought, ‘Well, no. Everything is painting.’ But in terms of the medium I was actually working in, it kind of ebbed and flowed.”

For a while it was painting, then it was drawing and then it was steel sculpture. Landström truly hit his material stride after a period spent researching metaphysics and ancient spirituality. After immersing himself in that world, he began thinking that an artist’s medium shouldn’t be an absolute. Rather, it should closely align with the subject matter at hand; some things demand being painted and others should be drawn and so on.

Delving deeper into this ideological exploration, and after having traveled to the American Southwest to study petroglyphs, Landström recognized his connection to Earth both in a spiritual sense and for his fascination with its “alchemical properties” as he puts it. With this connection motivating, he began to explore how he could affix crushed volcanic rock to a flat surface.

“I just started trying it,” Landström explains. “For a long time, I was taking rock in different degrees of granularity and just mixing it with paint using oil paint as the binder for it. It would go on the canvas as wet, sticky gravel.”

As Landström continued to explore his newfound medium, he did away with the notion of using pre-pigmented oil paints to simply bind the rock. He developed a way to have the rock accept raw pigment and later bind it together with an acrylic polymer emulsion.

“It still goes on as a sticky gravel,” Landström says. “But there’s no blending of colors because there’s no liquid paint in the emulsion. So it goes on like that but I can’t use a brush for that sort of thing. So it goes on with trowels and spatulas and nails and sticks.”

Years on, Landström has continued to practice his innovative techniques. As someone motivated by and obsessed with visual language, every waking hour is filled with art and the perfection of his method—sometimes at great personal cost.

“Art is the reason I get up and it’s running through my head the entire day,” Landström says. “There’s a high price to pay for being that kind of an individual. I’ve lost a marriage over art, you know, I’m sure I’ve lost friends over art, because it consumes so much of your emotional energy. Art is a beast that demands to be fed. It’s my beast and I live to feed it.”

Today, Landström’s large body of work has been collected and displayed internationally as his mesmerizing creations capture the imaginations of buyers and patrons in galleries worldwide. And with a recent reinvigoration of his artistic sensibilities, Landström sees a bright future ahead.

“I’m optimistic because, for quite a long time, I had just occasional or minimal interest in my work,” Landström says. “But over the past few years, that’s completely turned around. I want to step on the gas pedal. What I’m really hoping is that my audience grows and I can have conversations like we’re having today and make the most honest work I can create.”

Bob Landström will have work featured at The Sagamore Hotel for Miami Art Week this December.

For more, please visit his website: https://artofboblandstrom.com/



A Foreword On the Paintings of Bob Landstrom

By Dr. Jerry Cullum for the 2019 Conjuring Secrets exhibition catalog

August 20, 2020

Bob Landstrom’s paintings have always had a feel of incommensurate archaeology, an awareness of past and present that refuses to fit into settled boundaries, of a world in which the evidence of the past and the tools of the present seldom yield unambiguous results. Words, when they appear, only seem to make sense until translation is attempted. Mathematical formulas, on the other hand, may be recognizable to the cognoscenti even when the quotation is fragmentary. As he commented in a recent interview, “I just like the math associated with electromagnetics.”

Meditational practice of the type that Landstrom practices furthers the goal of placing potent texts, numbers and images next to one another on a surface rendered grainy by volcanic sand. The result is unique, provocatively pleasurable intellectual association with a sizable dose of aesthetic delight thrown in, or is it the other way around?

The slippage between the various components of a Landstrom painting are what gives them their unique quality, but Landstrom is quite aware of what he’s doing, so the insertions are neither unconscious nor arbitrary. He commented in the interview I just quoted, “Space exploration, physics and metaphysics are something that I think about a lot, actually.  Math can be very abstract, and explores that same conceptual space that we artists do.  You’ll find lots of references to formulae, theories and anti-theories in my work.  Coming up with a formula to describe something fires the same neurons as making a painting.  Why not make a salad out of the two?”

“And yet, and yet,” if I may quote one of my favorite Japanese poems about the world being what it is, and yet not quite what it seems to be.  A Landstrom painting possesses a sense of depth that goes beyond a thought-out program, even as it suggests multiple avenues of approach that clearly have been thought about, and thought about brilliantly.

That whimsical tension is what makes his paintings the fascinating aesthetic objects that they are.

Jerry Cullum

August 20, 2020

Dr. Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic who has written about art in Atlanta and the world for a wide variety of publications over the course of nearly forty years.




By Jerry Cullum for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Friday, Oct. 24, 1997

Bob Landström’s new paintings have the sandy texture and color of the West, with geometric drawings that somehow combine Native American petroglyphs with patterns invented by Wassily Kandinsky.

Symbols of transcendence and escape to other spiritual realms — such as the spiral and ladder — recur in understated color patterns.

Landström knows what he is doing both theoretically and technically: His mixture of crushed volcanic rock into the surface of the painting, for example, lends the work its unique texture. He isn’t afraid to combine spiritual references that at first blush might seem not to belong together, and his dexterity of inner composition carries him through moments when the outer composition might seem a little facile. The combination of meaning and style is fairly impressive.

Landström’s symbols suffer a little from familiarity, but they suggest a level of depth.


By Lyn Allgood for 30305 Magazine

November, 1997

Aaron Baldwin and Bob Landström are bonded by a quest to stir the emotions of their audience through art.

Trinity Gallery in Buckhead has wed the work of the two emerging Southern artists in a tour-de-force, promising collectors rare exposure to pieces massive in scale and import.

Both artists produce iconic imagery.  Bob uses crushed volcanic rock in his primitive paintings of human forms to emphasize earthiness, and Aaron works in salvaged wood so that the viewer can “be seduced by the silhouette and surface of the object” and “question, perhaps at an intuitive level, its origin,” he says.

Aaron devotes hours to sketching and thinking about images in their simplest form before creating them.  Later he sifts through mounds of hoarded wood to find just the right piece for the image he wants to capture.  He constructs his pieces like boats, with skeletal frames that have thin strips or planks over them.  “It’s important to me that they be hollow vessels, as a metaphor for human beings, i.e. a skin or covering over an unknown inside,” he says.

While nautical images come naturally to him from his coastal roots – his dad was a shrimper – his “vessels” are more metaphorical than replicas of actual boats.   “I gather images from simp0le forms around me, fruits, vegetables, shell, and the human figure,” Aaron says.  “I ask myself what is interesting, seductive, about them.  It may be just a gentle curve or twist.”

Like Aaron’s, Bob Landström’s pieces play well against each other.  Many of the glyphs and symbols in his paintings are also used in his five- and six-foot-tall totem sculptures.  He, too, uses simple patterns and symbols in his work.  “I am after the elemental piece of humanness we all share.  I’m trying to touch that life energy, particularly drawing from Native American and African aboriginal mythology.   They have a stronger spiritual connection than our contemporary culture.  I react and build as I go,” he says.

He gets his material, crushed volcanic rock, from Navajo mines in Santa Fe, NM.   “The material is a key component.  I couldn’t just paint with paint,” Bob says.  He combines the rock with oil, which gives it color and acts as an adhesive on canvas.  All the elements in his structures are welded and forged from steel and then painted with naval vessel paint.  “Working in steel is a real rush,” he says.  “But it’s hard work.  You have to want it bad to do it.”

Bob, 38, knows what it’s like to want something that much.  He grew up in a Pittsburgh housing project.  But neither the chiding of his peers nor his parents’ indifference to his pursuit of art deterred him.  A prodigy at age 10, he was selected for a special program for gifted young people, consequently had the opportunity to attend Carnegie Mellon University and took courses in fine arts at night throughout High School.

After a few years he attended the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where his own personal aesthetic began to emerge.  While in Boston, Bob studied other religions and cultures and began to realize that he was seeing things differently than he had before and began expressing himself in his own vocabulary of symbols and signs.  He discovered his own glyphs existed in ancient alphabets:  Ogam, preceding the Druids; and Punic, a language that originated in the fertile crescent of the Middle East.  He says he chose art and painting because spoken language tethers and constricts the flow of creative energy he is attempting to harness.

Bob has remained true to his personal drive to understand and interpret the spiritual yearnings he feels and shares with others that are intuitively and introspectively driven.