Troels Carlsen is first a painter, and second, a collector. For the better part of the last decade, he’s gathered vintage charts, maps, engravings, posters, and medical drawings of bones, veins, and ligaments—anything that relates to human anatomy. At times he finds the ephemera, other times he buys it at auction; and for a recent solo show, “The Remains of Disappearance,” at Fondazione Aldega in Amelia, Italy, he was endowed a generous gift of twenty original 18th- and 19th-century Italian and French master drawings.
These works on paper are the foundation for provocative figurative paintings that Carlsen meshes with natural motifs. Sometimes he repetitively paints expressive hands and cartoonish red explosions over candidates’ faces on old political posters. Sometimes he breathes new life into 200-year-old vintage landscapes by appropriating the works of Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons in a bold layer of acrylic. Sometimes he animates the clothing of royalty with fire. And sometimes he collages the found drawings with his own or creates installations pairing these two-dimensional images with sculptural works.
But the Copenhagen-based artist insists he doesn’t have a political agenda with his incendiary work (“there’s a saying that ‘all good art is political, but not all political art is good,’” he notes with a laugh). Nor is Carlsen’s work aligned with the art interventionism seen in the street styles of Banksy and others, even though its subversive aesthetic may suggest otherwise. It would be easy to group him in with modern art theosophy if it weren’t for his reluctance to use the “loaded term” of spirituality in his work, and to track his evolution as an artist with the skateboarding culture that sparked his interest in self-expression if he still felt a kinship to it.
In conversation with Carlsen, my initial assumptions of his art are carefully laid to rest: his work is something much more esoteric, something more akin to Leonardo Da Vinci’s theory that a single human body can be an analogy for the entire universe.
“For a long time I felt like I was doing something similar to what people in Italian churches were doing 400 or 500 years ago, developing philosophy and psychology and promoting political change without being overtly political."
— TROELS CARLSEN
If compared to a movement, Carlsen’s style most resembles the dramatic and controlled nuances and themes of Neoclassical painting. His use of found materials—from a collection recently expanded to include original Renaissance drawings—can be acknowledged as an expression of respect. Rather than, “me commenting on ‘this old bullshit,’ I’m actually collaborating with someone I don’t know,” he says. With this attitude, he’s not motivated to destroy the original work, but rather engage with it in a delicate and personal manner, and to draw a line through art’s history with the use of an acrylic paint medium that gives the final piece a synthetic and “cartoon-like” quality evocative of contemporary American art.
If Carlsen’s work is a bit of an enigma, so are his beginnings. He and twin brother Asger—who is largely recognized for photo-based works in which the human body morphs into surreal, sculptural forms—have a similar fascination with anatomy, the physicality of flesh, and collected material when met with the mediums of, respectively, paint and Photoshop. Like the artists he gravitates toward, including the self-taught Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon, Carlsen and his brother both eschewed pedagogy in their development with no formal training. “We were not brought into an art environment as kids, so when we discovered it ourselves growing up, we found our own way into it and we weren’t tied up in rules,” says Carlsen of their Danish upbringing. “I think that’s actually pretty liberating.”
Instead the two were influenced early on by skateboarding culture, and later, “taking things into our own hands and taking responsibility for teaching ourselves what we needed to learn in order to be who we are today: okay artists,” he says with a laugh.
Carlsen, 42, began traveling through Europe after graduating from high school, eventually spending three years in France, studying the master painters. There he became interested not only in art history but in philosophy and psychoanalysis—and the cycle of life that courses through man and nature—ultimately uniting these thoughts in his work. “When I paint on top of these anatomy drawings,” he says, “I see them very much as a neutral start because it’s basically just what we all look like on the exterior.”
It’s then that he builds layers of material and thought onto the works: about the duality of man and nature; life and death; and often, simply, a curiosity for how paint behaves on old paper, as in his series, “One Rank.” Here, Carlsen is interested in the temporal nature of the paint and the beauty of the way a corner of a shirt, for example, could catch fire, he says. “It’s not [about] somebody being burned to death, but [rather about] time running out, or not fulfilling dreams or ambitions.”
Another theme that emerged early in his work is that of the duplicity between primate and man. Today monkeys are entering back into his consciousness and have found a way into new works, this time taking on the divine. “[In my paintings] the monkey almost starts to act out as somewhat of a saint,” he explains. “For a long time I felt like I was doing something similar to what people in Italian churches were doing 400 or 500 years ago—developing philosophy and psychology and promoting political change without being overtly political.”
His time spent traveling, Carlsen says, “got me ready for painting, and for living a life isolated in that way.” Back in Copenhagen, he toiled away for most of his 20s, monk-like in his studio, solitarily studying the work of other artists, making sense of their processes, and, more importantly, exploring how an idea can go from brain to hand to form. He didn’t solicit the guidance of mentors. He didn’t obsess over precision. But he did set out to emulate the inner life of the artist, matching ambition to talent and love for art with the intensity he admired in the work of both classical painters and modern artists.
And then, at 30, he lived briefly in New York, which “flipped the coin” again for him as an artist. There Carlsen recognized the contrast between the “heavy burden” of history that permeated the European culture he grew up in and the dynamic and impulsive American way of living. Juxtaposing these two realities—the development of an “often brutal” American society and a contemporary art steeped in innovation, with the history and tradition of European art—became a major counterpoint in his work. “[Americans] have been very successful at creating their own visual language,” he explains. “It’s very different, and it doesn’t have the same sense of mythology [as European painting]... It doesn’t have the same interest in small, detailed corners of figurative works and the narrative style of European painting.”
While his work has been included in shows in New York over the past decade (including group shows at The Hole in 2013 and Munch Gallery in 2014, and a solo show at Y Gallery last year), his primary collector base still resides in Europe. Represented by V1 Gallery in Copenhagen, Carlsen has shown in Germany, Italy and Spain, and was recently honored with a mid-career retrospective at the Krydsfelt Skive museum in Denmark.
“If there’s one headline for all the work I do,” he says, “I want to do something that’s really intense, something that connects with the importance of being alive for the short time that we’re actually here.”