There's something deeply wrong in Simon Stålenhag's sci-fi artworks. Even by the usual dark standards of dystopian futures, things have fallen apart. Perhaps aliens have invaded – but whatever new world order they've established has surely crumbled into puporseless disarray.
As his new books appear on Amazon, I spoke to Simon to learn more about his art – and him as an artist – and between summer breaks I asked him about his influences, his approach to art and just what the hell is going on in his paintings.
This last question is one of the biggest draws of Simon's art. When you see them on his site, or on social media – or in my earlier story for that matter – they exist with almost no context. Clearly this world is not our own. Futuristic, or perhaps alien, technology has become part of suburban and rural landscapes. It's been there long enough to create a new normal, and long enough to degrade, to fail, even to become redundant.
Making up your own narratives about what's happening in his painting is part of the appeal. But if you really must know what's in Simon's head when he's paintings, you can read his books. Things from the Flood is out today, Tales of the Loop is out next month and there's a third called The Electric State coming later. In these you get the story behind the wonderfully rendered visuals (though not the whole story).
"My images have two kind of lives," he says. "One is in my books where they work together with the text and you get my version of it, but online – where I don't publish any of my texts – they have a life of their own."
Personally I prefer to imagine my own world of an alien invasion gone wrong for the same mundane reasons large buerocracies often fall apart under their own weigh – but I did want to know about how Simon came to paint these uncanny visions that are funny, frightening or both. First off I asked him how he came to be a painter.
"I don't have a formal education – [but] I've been drawing and painting since I was a kid," he says. "My grandfather was a commercial illustrator and he would let sit at his desk and use up all his supplies. He didn't give me any pointers or training, he just let me explore [creating art].
"My formal training is in music and game design, none of which I practice today – at least not professionally. But it was through studying game design in Stockholm that I got my start in the games industry and that's where I learned all the tricks of modern digital painting. It was also during this time that I started to work on the Tales From The Loop universe on my spare time."
Neil Bennett: Who are the artists that inspired you most?
Simon Stålenhag: "When I was a kid I was in love with nature and wildlife. I grew up in the rural countryside outside of Stockholm and we spent all summers in a cabin in the woods of Bergslagen. That's where I discovered Swedish wildlife artists like Bruno Liljefors, Lars Jonsson and Gunnar Brusewitz.
"I guess that's how I discovered art. I wanted to mimic them, so at around the age of eight, I started to do watercolours of Swedish animals and landscapes. Then in my late teens I discovered [Pink Floyd cover artist] Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, which really influenced me into doing more surreal stuff.
"But it was even later that I discovered science fiction artists like Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead – I must have been around 25 when I first started to draw robots and futuristic vehicles." [Simon is now 32, Ed]
NB: What else inspires you?
SS: "I love poetry. Poems are like paintings, but they are painted inside your head when you read, and they might change when you re-read them. Right now I'm into the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, Harry Martinson and Sten Selander." [All poets whose work is associated with the Swedish countryside, Ed]
NB: What do you paint with?
SS: "I work almost exclusively in Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq Companion, with a small set of custom brushes made to mimic the way I gouache feels to work with. I started doing landscapes in watercolour and gouache, and I think that's a workflow I'm comfortable with.
"I don't like filters and photo textures – although I do use them when I'm sketching digitally, when it's just about ideation. When I go into 'render-mode', I treat everything as if it was physical medium where everything is paint, canvas and brushstrokes."
NB: Why do you paint the subjects that you do? And what emotions do you like to provoke in the viewer?
SS: "I love a good mystery. I like to make a visual riddle, using mostly stuff that are familiar to us. And I love pop-culture iconography and nostalgia: advertising, cars, buses, street signs and architecture - specific stuff that tells us about a time and place. And then I try to use the sci-fi elements to tie it all up into a kind of WTF moment."
NB: How much detail do you put into the backstory behind your paintings?
SS: "I really try to build a real consistent universe before I start a project. Maybe not on a Tolkien-level, but enough so that the texts and images in my books are consistent and hopefully makes you feel like you're peeping through the keyhole into a bigger place.
"But I try not to explain it in detail or give any answers.I think the most important piece of art is the stuff that happens between the images."
NB: Alongside the strangeness and the terror, there are humorous elements in your work that contrast with (and enhance) the uncanny feeling that they invoke in the viewer. What's your approach to this?
SS: "I love when you're drawing with your friends and you try to make each other laugh. I have a childhood friend with whom I can sit for hours and we draw idiotic things – with the sole purpose of getting the other person to pee in his pants. We have done this since we were 11.
"I think that has rubbed of into my digital paintings a bit. I actually did the cyber-troll thing in Procession with that same friend sitting next to me, urging me to make it more weird so that he could get a laugh out of it. I kept refining the design and until he was screaming with this kind of horror-infused laughing."
NB: The Procession seems to be your most popular painting. Why do you think it's captured the imagination of so many people?
SS: "It's part from the upcoming book, The Electric State. I don't want to ruin it by telling exactly what's going on but it's safe to say something weird is happening with people when they wear that helmet.
"Why it became popular I cannot say. It's quite clear in the composition, and it works very well in small sizes as well as a full screen thing. Maybe the composition has a good social-media-compatibility.
"But [having] my friend sitting next to me, pushing me to make him laugh harder I think might have been important. I was like 'to hell with it - I'm giving the robot a big nose'."
NB: Tell us about The Electric State.
SS: "It's about a weird road trip through a alternate version of late-90s America. Or something with the feel of late-90s America. It's not really clear if it actually is the late 90s or if things in this particular timeline went south around that time and halted things a bit.
"It's a world where among other things, this kind of VR helmet fad seems to have gone off in a slightly creepy tangent.
"I'm writing the story and painting the picture at once I guess. It's supposed to be a mix between a coffee table art book and a graphic novel, much like my other two books in the Tales From The Loop-universe, and I'm aiming at having it done by next summer or thereabouts."
NB: Mound (from The Electric State) reminds me of the stacked slums from Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One (soon to be a film directed by Stephen Spielberg). Was that a direct inspiration?
SS: “That is interesting. I was only vaguely aware of Ready Player One when I did that, and I knew nothing about the stacked slum concept. I was inspired by a real place that I passed in north-western Nevada - but also a picture I saw of a theatre set for a Dutch production of Chekhov's Ivanov where they had stacked a bunch of trailers on top of each other. Maybe that's where the author of Ready Player One got the idea as well."