Early on Håkon Gullvåg found a unique figurative expression, which to a large degree reflects aspects of his well-developed talent for drawing. He has a supple and lively brush-stroke, and a rare ability to communicate the motif’s distinctive character.

In this period a large portion of his paintings have unmistakeable references to his own childhood, a series of motifs that come to hold great significance for the entire oeuvre. Family photographs receive a central role. Pictures from childhood often become the basis for motifs, frequently combined in sequences reminiscent of cartoon-series aesthetics. The way motifs are framed, and thus separated, underscores the painting’s lonely, heroic character. Gullvåg uses photographs as a sort of “developer”, in order to reawaken the perceptual world of childhood. The motifs are rendered in weak ochre tones, and create associations with bleached dreams and the filter of years. Their diffuse, light character engenders a poetic mood.

In his post-academy years, Gullvåg to a large degree is affected by the strong Trondheim-tradition for abstract and non-figurative art. He had role models such as the Trønder-painters Lars Tiller, Roar Wold and Jacob Weidemann, something we descry in his efforts to hold all pictorial elements in one flat plane.

Purchase and breakthrough

A typical example from this period is the painting purchased by the Norwegian National Gallery from the annual Autumn Exhibition, 1981: Wooden Horse. Based upon a photo of himself sitting on a toy horse, the motif is surrounded by stylised portraits of himself as an adult. Characteristic for this time is the over-focus on certain details, while others appear more washed out and melt into the background. As such, the picture is a visualization of the way the subjective memory functions.

His artistic breakthrough happened when he was 23 years old, at his Oslo-debut in Gallery Dobloug in 1983, and several key institutions purchased his works. The critics were positive, several deemed him a postmodern painter, given how he elegantly amalgamated elements from art historical styles with different types of symbols, and refigured them into things with a new, distinctive character.

Also in these years Gullvåg created his first commissioned portraits. These are held in the same light pallet as the rest of his production, and already here we see his unique ability to capture the person’s character in just a few brush strokes.

During the ‘80s disturbing elements appear in the paintings – in the form of strange, dreamlike components, perhaps fossils or fragments of animals. These surreal passages complicate attempts at simple interpretation. The paintings become increasingly pastos; he lays the paint on in thick layers that create relief with their own materiality. In fact, in several works taxidermic animal-parts or bits of wood are fastened to the pictorial plane, something that creates a dialectic between different levels of reality.

After the London sojourn in 1983-84 it is also possible to register more depth in Gullvåg’s paintings. In other words, he turns away from exploring the pictorial surface (a preoccupation of his academy years) and opens up the picture’s possibility for depicting space.