Featured Artist: Karl Fjelstrom

Looking at Karl Fjelstrom’s realistic oil paintings is like flipping through a stranger’s intimate photos: each image offers a hint of a story, a glimpse into someone else’s life.

 Image courtesy of Karl Fjelstrom
Image courtesy of Karl Fjelstrom

Karl’s studio is a designated bedroom corner within a sleek, modern San Francisco apartment north of the Panhandle. As we sit in his living room with Lily, his spunky Maltese pooch darting between us, Karl explains how photorealism became his style of choice:

“When I was younger I thought the goal of an artist was just to be a human camera. Like, in the Renaissance days they would paint stuff so it was looking real, so they were cameras kind of. But, apparently you can paint however style you want. I’m more inspired, image wise, by movies and photography. So, I like recreating those things in paint. I have no idea why. It drives me crazy! It stresses me out! But, I don’t like seeing a painting where it’s unfinished or it doesn’t look real, and it’s not pretty in my head… I have to get out of my head I think.”

Karl’s compositions emerge from photographic sources, typically a dramatically lit image or a screenshot of a film scene that appeals to his visual senses. These shots then undergo “extreme cropping,” as Karl puts it, effectively eliminating elements that give away specifics—e.g. identity, place, action, etc.—to focus the viewer’s gaze on a specific, ambiguous moment. Negative space is intentionally incorporated into the composition and underscored by a stark white or deep black layer of paint, an affect reminiscent of TV letterboxes.

 photo provided by the artist 
photo provided by the artist 

Glancing at the pieces decorating his apartment, Karl tells me the blank spaces are intended “to add to the mystery.” He gestures to Untitled 026, an elongated composition hanging next to his TV. The painting features a shirtless, hunched over man who appears to be looking down at someone or something:

“That one is 72 inches by 23 inches and a majority of it is just totally white. Which some people would say is a complete waste of canvas, and [ask] why didn’t I just do a thin strip. I mean, it goes back to the extreme cropping. You don’t know what he’s doing. Is he getting out of bed? Did he fall over? Is he making out with someone?”

Depth of focus is an area of fascination for Karl, and he uses his treasured 99¢ bristle brushes to emulate the play between delicate blurriness and crisp sharpness in a single image.

 photo provided by artist
photo provided by artist

Karl is one of several gay, contemporary portraiture artists exhibiting in This Swarthy Face, a group exhibition admiring man in his various states of beauty and masculinity. When asked how relevant his sexuality is to his art, Karl becomes reflective. After giving it some thought, he responds:

“Back in the day when I was becoming an artist, most of the gay art I saw… I don’t want to sound mean but, it was stupid, clichéd, overdone, or badly executed. So, my goal was to kinda make gay imagery but not hardcore where you know it’s gay, but definitely homoerotic. [. . .] I try to always have a gay element in it, like a voyeuristic, homoerotic feel to them.”


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This Swarthy Face is curated by Midway Gallery artist-in-resident, Travis Ridlehuber, and will be hosting an opening reception Friday, July 15th from 6pm to 10pm in the Midway’s Gods and Monsters Gallery.


To RSVP, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/606610259508509/

To learn more about Karl Fjelstrom, please visit: http://www.karlfjelstrom.com/

Follow him on Instagram, at: https://www.instagram.com/karlfjelstrom/


Written by: Vanessa Wilson