Bladee and Varg2 Bring Drain Gang Lore To The New York Art World

bladee-art-show bladee-art-show.jpg - Credit: Gus Reichwald*
bladee-art-show bladee-art-show.jpg - Credit: Gus Reichwald*

Ten years ago, a photo of Stefan Burnett — more widely known by his pseudonym MC Ride, as one-third of the hardcore rap project Death Grips — went viral on the group’s Facebook page. Burnett, whose face is obscured by his upturned hoodie, sits crouched on the floor while he paints a black-swathed canvas, accompanied by an orange tabby cat sitting perched on his shoulder. A small ashtray containing a few stubbed-out cigarettes rests at his side, within arm’s reach. The picture, beyond its undeniably eccentric charm and instant meme-ability, was culturally significant—an intimate and rare glimpse into Burnett’s notoriously arcane personal life, allowing the group’s cultish devotees a look at the Delphic artist’s creative lore (he raps, and he paints).

In 2017, Burnett went on to have a solo exhibit of his haunted Americana paintings at Slow Culture Gallery in Los Angeles, a show that was as critically revered as it was adored by his fans. At the opening, a line of enthusiastic attendees wrapped around the block, restlessly waiting for a rare chance to peer into this unknown side of Burnett. And with good reason, too: the striking works, enchanting and spectral, are painted in monochromatic blues and whites and depict rearticulated scenes from macabre 19th-century daguerreotypes, products of the spirit photography genre. In turn, these paintings served to deepen the ominous contours of Burnett’s creative world writ large.

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 And now, Benjamin Reichwald and Jonas Rönnberg — two contemporary artists who have held a parallel trajectory of internet lore, self-perpetuated mystery, and dedicated fandom — find themselves in a similar moment. Also known as rapper Bladee and producer Varg2™, the duo are currently exhibiting their series of collaborative paintings for the first time in their wryly-titled show, Fucked for Life, at The Hole Gallery in New York.

Much like the duo’s music, the energy at the FFL opening was staticky with playful, lighthearted vigor. Even the weather, heavy with rain and the slick humidity of late spring, couldn’t dampen the tangibly triumphal mood — fellow Drain Gang member Ecco2K showed up in support, as did a bevy of other New York-based artists, musicians, designers, and writers. And of course, no Drain Gang-affiliated event would be without the requisite presence of their fans: Drainers (as their excitable Gen-Z audience is colloquially known) were also in abundance, taking thorough measures to document the evening via selfies with the artists and their vibrant paintings. Surprisingly, however, the atmosphere was effortless and light: drifting between friendly conversation to solitudinous observance, one felt as if they were almost floating above the throng, and into the effervescent dreamscapes depicted in the very works themselves.

Since their Soundcloud-driven debuts in the early 2010s, both Reichwald and Rönnberg have risen to renown as artists of their own idiosyncratic repute. Largely, this ascent has taken place within the expanse of the Swedish music collective Drain Gang (though, it should be noted, Rönnberg is not a founding member but remains a consistent collaborator for the group). Their sounds — undefinable in any fixed genre, ranging from the amorphous lyrical spill of Mumble Rap to dreamy, Hyperpop-inflected ballads and ultra-processed Digicore-style vocals — have struck an evocative chord across strata of youth all over the world. In turn, Drainers have developed an impressively rhizomatic online community around the group’s music, establishing an entire subculture of memes, sartorial aesthetics, and a trove of Discord threads focused on DG’s mythos.

Last spring, Bladee, alongside his musical constituents and close friends Thaiboy Digital, Ecco2K, and producer Whitearmor, came together in the joint creation of their album Crest, which they debuted in a sprawling North American tour across eighteen cities. It was also during this time that I first met the group to discuss their musical output. They were here to perform their sold-out Brooklyn show over the course of two evenings, in what turned out to be a joyous and raucous explosion attended by thousands. Drain Gang has retained its unshakeable grasp on the city.

Benjamin Reichwald & Jonas Rönnberg
Benjamin Reichwald & Jonas Rönnberg

 There is a balanced duality in the creative pairing of Reichwald and Rönnberg, feeling markedly different (if not directly complimentary) in the impressions they give. Possessing an imposing stature and a face full of tattoos — spindly tree branches crawl up his cheekbones, almost as if emerging from his beard, with “I Miss You” written in gothic font across his throat — Rönnberg’s demeanor is unexpectedly warm, if not convivial. Reichwald, wearing his long hair in braided pigtails and an unassuming black hoodie, sits across from me and is demure and introspective during our conversation. Online, his fans have often likened him to an angel.

The two have been working on their paintings, side-by-side, in Reichwald’s Stockholm studio for the past year. Though they had initially discussed embarking on a new music project, the duo — who first met through the graffiti scene years prior, in addition to each having established distinct visual practices of their own — started to experiment with paint and canvases instead.

“[Working together] comes very naturally. It’s nice because we never get angry or upset with each other. So it’s a very humbling experience,” Rönnberg says, discussing their creative dynamic.

Reichwald and Rönnberg have opted to exhibit their works under their birth names, versus the musical noms de plume they have become known for. “When I started signing paintings with my [given] name, that made me feel something. It just made sense,” Reichwald says, explaining that “when you work with your hands, [it feels] so personal and revealing…and [these are] our very personal images.” For both artists, visual mark-making has always felt like their most organic creative language, a kind of primordial impulse toward inner transcendence, as well as a greater connection with the world around them. Here, we are intimately privy to Reichwald and Rönnberg’s rich interior worlds, bearing witness to a deepened and honest articulation by means of their artistic output.

Their process resembles a feedback loop or dynamic flow. Blasting music, they would take turns “destroying” canvases, wordlessly communicating with one another’s mark-making in an intricate call-and-response choreography. Over the past few months, their output has become prodigious, with the duo creating four or five paintings in a single session. “It’s very hardcore. [Reichwald] would put the canvases up and then I’d take a spray can with a fat cap and make a shape,” Rönnberg explains. Reichwald jumps in: “Then I would notice something in what he made, and I’d make something out of that, and try to find these characters’ faces.”

The characters Reichwald is referring to — impish, grinning phantoms and jesters that land somewhere between nefarious and playful — figure as prominent motifs throughout the work. Both artists cite heavy influence by an obscure, vagabond graffiti writer who went by the moniker “The Pencil” (in Swedish, “Pennan”) before his untimely passing. Pennan occupied a mythical status on the street, becoming known for his crude, smiley-face characters, and the salacious poems he would write all over Stockholm, as well as for his eccentric style (he could often be spotted sporting alien antennas and 80s-style sweatbands). Rönnberg and Reichwald, who each became personally acquainted with Pennan, developed a fascination with the fervent, frenetic energy of his work. In turn, they sought to channel this vitality in their own practices, viewing it as a conduit to emotional release.

“We want to destroy the canvas in the best way possible and make [something] true,” Reichwald says. “A smiling face that smiles through the pain.”

For them, this series is about “embracing that whole vibe of raw expression and not having a filter, where we walk up to a wall or whatever material and feel that we can say something, no matter how crass or unintellectual it may seem,” Rönnberg adds. “[Even] if it’s a low-vocabulary type of expression, it still translates to a lot of raw, real emotions.”

At the exhibition, housed in the basement of the Hole’s Tribeca location, the collection of sixteen paintings has been augmented by the addition of hand-painted fabric tarps: in an impulsive flurry of inspiration, Reichwald and Rönnberg decided to create new work for the show days before it was slated to open, which they executed in a borrowed studio across from their Chinatown hotel. “We want to take away as much white as possible in the gallery space and cover it all because the paintings look best when they’re all together and really messy,” Reichwald tells me, a curatorial decision attempting to evoke the vibe of a city street corner. He sees this approach as an admonishment of the cultivated white cube mentality. And later, upon my arrival at the Fucked for Life opening, I could faintly detect the metallic scent of the still-drying paint.

Viewed together, these works carry a distinctly childlike sense of play, accompanied by a kind of urgent primacy. The paintings, rendered in heavy layers of acrylic, resin, and spray paint, have been mounted in baroque antique frames, creating a tongue-in-cheek disjunction between high and lowbrow. The aural connection to their music is evident, too: evading the strict confines of genre or definition, the series serves to distill an earnestly raw amalgamation of influences (employed with an almost Postmodern sensibility) of the artists’ idiosyncratic languages. It is this very expansive quality that has made Reichwald and Rönnberg’s work — sonic or otherwise — so impactful for so many. And as they further their fervent, creative world-building, I imagine their resonance will only continue to withstand.

As I make my way through the space, taking a pause to strike up a conversation with the occasional Drainer, I find myself continually drawn to one piece in particular: a tall, narrow canvas, depicting a kind of Rorschach Inkblot doubling that runs down the length of the work, almost like a disembodied spinal cord. The work — titled Snösätra Blomster, roughly translating to “Snow Eater Flower” — is imbued with brilliantly-pigmented magenta and royal blue hues and includes Pennan-style smiley jesters that have been painted in the shape of the cross. A young painter in attendance turns to me, remarking that the work looks like a uterus or a butterfly.

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