When he was seven, artist Tom Cullberg attempted to scale a bookshelf at his family home in Stockholm, Sweden. ‘It didn’t take long before the whole thing began to topple and I was under an avalanche of books,’ wrote Cullberg in 2009. ‘A literal lesson in appreciation of the weight and power of literature.’ By age 14, the bookshelf had lost its acrobatic appeal; instead, he was riveted by the ‘evocative potential’ of the books it held, objects with determined forms, colours and typographical treatments. This fascination with the formal appearance of things purposefully arranged on a shelf endures in Cullberg’s engrossing cabinet installations presented in his exhibition Local Stories.
Started in 2020, Cullberg’s cabinet installations number ten completed works. Each cabinet installation was worked on discretely, until completion, before the next was begun. Each cabinet installation is the outcome of a twofold process.The individual paintings are executed on birch plywood, which the artist sands and primes with gesso. The hard, smooth surface quality of the substrate means that paint is absorbed differently and produces a crisper image. Cullberg’s cabinet installations also contain sculpted objects, a new depar ture for the artist, albeit based on an old habit and love going back to his youth.
Organising follows making. “After the paintings are produced I spend weeks moving things around until the individual works settle,” says Cullberg.“I think a lot more about colour, because each element exists in relation to other paintings. Each cabinet has a special hum of colours.”
The glass-fronted shelf cabinets created by Cullberg to house his patiently constructed images and objects reiterate a familiar form in art history: the cabinet of curiosity.Whether housed in dedicated cabinets or occupying whole rooms, these spaces traditionally offered their aristocratic benefactors a way to order and display disparate organic and synthetic objects, from animal residue (horns, feathers, shells, carapaces) to paintings and busts.
Cullberg’s cabinet installations hew to a more contemporary and impressionistic tradition of cabinets created by private individuals to enshrine personal experience. And yet, Cullberg’s large displays are not wholly or singularly explicable as biographical statements.“Their meaning is not easily fixed,” Cullberg insists.“I am creating a set where things are happening.These works are about a painter looking out at the world, not inward. I am interested in how objects like books and albums can act as portals to stories, memories and associations for the viewer.”*
* Excerpt from Time, memory and experience: An interview between Sean O’Toole and Tom Cullberg published in the book Local Stories available to order here or in the gallery.