Benjamin Reichwald and Jonas Rönnberg, who currently have their first collaborative exhibit, Fucked for Life, on view at The Hole, have the insouciant air of accidentally successful artists. Better known as Bladee, member of the Swedish “Drain Gang” art collective since 2013 (and de facto leader of its fan cult) and Swedish electronic producer Varg2™, the two have recently floated to TikTok and Reddit fame on the casual sadness of their alt-rap lyrics and the drowsy voices that deliver them. Their visual art in Fucked for Life pulls inspiration from the same cough syrup cloud as their music, but the paintings on their own, standing apart from the internet monks that created their fame, are not nearly as impressive.
I enter The Hole behind a group of fans (collectively known as drainers) in their typical uniform: baggy black t-shirts and wrinkled cargo pants—how Reichwald dresses even when he’s modeling for Marc Jacobs. They’re giddy but reserved, barrelling into the gallery and immediately lifting their phones for shy selfies before dropping their hands down and speedwalking to each new painting after they’ve snapped a picture. I suspect they don’t realize that they’re in the Leo Park exhibit.
“Did he, like, paint these?” one of the boys asks, before realizing that he, Reichwald, only has art downstairs, in a stuffy, low-ceilinged basement with painted brick walls.
Half of Reichwald and Rönnberg’s art hangs in gold frames over a white foundation of drain pipes. The other half appears on bedsheets tacked over electrical boxes that provide all the atmosphere of a doomsday bunker. But the collected works—some of which have already sold—feel more intimate in the windowless room, like something I found after sidestepping the owner’s warning to shut the door.
Rich spots of spraypaint, acrylic and penciled-in color bleat from each piece, but the exhibit is dominated by thick white lines smeared with something else (purple, red, the corner of a heart-shaped rhinestone). Pensive blues and pinks, like a reflective ocean during a candied sunset, form amniotic backgrounds, and big-eyed mascots with blank expressions stare from pieces like MBK STE, OCB dinitrol and Antti, which is also engulfed by harlequin blobs.
These heads, which appear in many of the duo’s paintings, have a somewhat occult quality, like demons pushing to the surface of the canvas. This is more apparent in abstract pieces like Anti Cimex, with its snarling jack-o’-lanterns scratched into a sweep of black like they were subconsciously summoned.
Bladee and Varg2™’s paintings “call back to the painters of Sweden’s past, from the Rosicrucian-affiliated polymath Johannes Bureus to the mystical abstract painter Hilma Af Klint,” according to The Hole. But while the surreal automatic quality of the musicians’ artworks is exciting to look at, Reichwald and Rönnberg’s monsters aren’t intimidating or enlightening. Unlike af Klint’s precise patterns and organic shapes, their symbols—messy split hearts and chains and… other stuff—are not united by any theme. At its worst, it looks like a series of mistakes or a child’s fingerpaintings.
I expected this. Reichwald and Rönnberg finalized some of the pieces only a few days before the show opened, and the bedsheets are stiff with rushed acrylic smears and arbitrary spraypaint puffs. On one side of the room, a hot pink checkered sheet’s designs are almost completely hidden by Solvalla Pusher, a scribbled caterpillar-looking thing floating underneath blue bubbles and shurikens, and other framed paintings, which the gallery presumably decided looked more presentable.
It’s strange to see art pieces essentially hidden in a packed room where no one really seems to care. The boys from upstairs have since moved on to taking group photos in front of some other bedsheets, now satisfied not necessarily with the content of the art but certainly with those who made it.
It’s not good taste; it’s being a good fan. As Bladee and Varg2™, Reichwald and Rönnberg dictate to some degree what their fans wear, listen to and look for in art. There’s a sense of ease carried on an adorable synth loop’s wings… the willingness to be a disheveled and uninterested white boy rapper seriously singing lyrics like “I’m smoking cabbage, you’re smoking on that garbage.”
Like other modern musicians—for example, shapeshifter Taylor Swift who is lauded as a storyteller despite writing “Hey kids, spelling is fun!” into a song—Reichwald and Rönnberg use the “outsider artist” narrative to become their fans’ makeshift messiahs. And because they are not at all outsiders, this is extra effective. The pair has a loyal fanbase of outcasts who look to them for guidance, convinced that everything they do (no matter how rushed or thoughtless or mundane) is the perfect example of uninhibited artistic expression. They reap the benefits of hardship without enduring any actual hardship.
At the end of the day, however, fame can’t replace skill. Separated from Reichwald and Rönnberg’s hulking reputation, the art on display at The Hole is obviously amateurish and sloppy. That likely won’t stop the Drain Gang from ponying up for pieces from the show, but exhibition sales numbers only matter if you believe money is what makes a painting valuable. I personally feel the value of a given piece of art stems from the dedication, intention and heart observable by the viewer.
Imbuing a painting with that and more takes skill, and Fucked for Life demonstrates that virality is no replacement for it. In 1914, Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian wrote in a letter that “By not wishing to say anything human, by completely ignoring oneself, the artwork becomes a monument to Beauty.” Writing today, Mondrian might have referenced, for better or for worse, a monument to popularity. It’s not clear whether Reichwald and Rönnberg had anything human to say, but it’s abundantly obvious is that they didn’t want to put in the work it takes to actually make meaningful art.
Fucked for Life is on view at The Hole through June 2.