Bob Landström: The Balance of Art and Science
Bob Landström, a surrealist artist born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, is focused on tapping into the core of human existence through his art. His academic background in Electrical Engineering gives a new meaning to collaboration within the scientific and art world. He uses the iconography of ancient languages, religions, science, and mysticism in the hopes to not only reconsider how we create meaning but also our relationship with the universe. In his latest series Multiverse, you can see all of these ideas and themes come together into colourful pieces of artwork. Each of these pieces acts like a “map” for the viewer to contemplate, get lost in, and, where symbols, formulae, and words offer rest stops along the way.
You have a very interesting academic background. Do you think your education in engineering has influenced your art?
It’s curious for me that people sometimes think that these might conflict with one another. People who know me from an engineering role and discover that I’m an artist are initially taken aback. “You don’t look like an artist,” is a comment I often get. People who know me from my studio practice and then discover my scientific background are confused as well. We somehow want these things to be separate and apart from one another. I’m a very balanced left brain, right brain thinker. Whether I’m working on an engineering problem or whether I’m working on a painting, for me, the approach is very much the same. Things begin as very fuzzy but gradually come into focus as I work through them.
My scientific background does influence my art in that so much of my subject matter has to do with the intersection of metaphysics with physics. This is my exploration to understand who we are and what exactly is this physical reality. Science does inform my art from a conceptual perspective. I think it also helps in a more utilitarian way because there are a lot of technical problems to be solved to paint the way I do, with volcanic rock.
Growing up and living on the East Coast of the United States, you don’t encounter many volcanoes. What drew you to working with volcanic rock?
I came upon the material through a series of happy accidents. At one time, I painted with conventional materials, like liquid paint. I was once deep into studies of metaphysics and esoterica. The idea came to me that if my painting medium aligned with the things I was painting about, the work would be more naturally reinforced and there would be a stronger energy to the pieces. There was a lot of trial and error. Mostly mixed media attempts and experiments with matter painting. Coincidently, while all this was going on, I was studying Native American petroglyphs in the American Southwest. The relevance of the connection to Earth occurred to me during those expeditions. I’m an Earth sign myself. The Earth is profound evidence of physical manifestation. Molten earth adds an alchemical character as what was once liquid within the earth is now solid in my hand. There are so many synchronicities. I’ve been painting with earth ever since.
Throughout your work you have this beautiful array of colours. How do you achieve that?
I’ve developed a way to get the volcanic rock to accept pigment. If you were to visit my studio, you’d see dozens and dozens of plastic bins, each with a different colour and size of granulated rock. This is my painting material. I mix different colours of this dry gravel in a bowl to get the composite colour that I’m looking for. Since the gravel is dry, the pigment doesn’t mix between grains adjacent to one another. Each grain is individually coloured. This allows me to mix colours together and tease the eye in ways you just can’t do with liquid paint. It’s fun. It’s interesting, too, that some pigments seem to be amplified by the rock itself.
In your series, Multiverse, I see you have a focus on birds as a subject. Is there a meaning behind them?
Birds appear quite often in my work. Not just in Multiverse but in other series as well. In my own life, birds help me to be closer to my spirit guides. They do have a lot to say if you sit patiently and watch. Their form, their weight, their gestures. My guides speak to me through the birds. They’re a totem. I don’t actually know a lot about birds. The birds that appear in my paintings may or may not really exist in nature. That’s ok. It’s not about the bird specifically. It’s a graphical element that happens to be a totem. They are a familiar doorway for my audience to enter the painting. It gives the viewer a place to pause while taking in the rest of the piece.
I also love the nod to scientific references in your titles for your works like Shrodinger’s Surprise. Do the titles of pieces like these come to you before or after you start working on them?
Titles are the most difficult thing about making a painting. There are lots of scientific references in my pieces and depending on how literally they emerge in the painting, sometimes that leaks into the title. Titles mostly happen after the piece is done. There are several scientists and philosophers who, for me, are mental giants of humanity. I’ll often make a nod to them out of respect and gratitude, like the piece you mentioned.
If readers could take one thing away from your work, what would you like that to be?
Each piece is a page torn from my mental notebook, a snapshot in time from one person’s stream of consciousness. There’s nothing really to understand, and nothing specific to figure out. The titles are all made up. I just hope you find a visual experience that brings peace and some new thoughts that you hadn’t considered before.