Death of a Coworker: visual dialogue through artistic collaboration

Drawing on his experience working in environments that are ripe with psychological tension, Swedish artist Benjamin Bjorklund creates palpable, emotional portrayals of people he encounters in his day-to-day life. With a background working as a psychiatric nurse, the inner turmoil he sees influences his stylized painting technique. The expressive quality in his brushstrokes creates a movement in his work that seems to mirror the anxiety felt in his subjects. His portraits are neither realistic nor abstract, but instead form a unique, surreal vision that blurs facial features to an almost unrecognizable state, creating an opaque obscurity that alters his subject’s identity. 

Also influenced by the mental health system, Colorado based artist Blake Paul Neubert paints portraits that embody a similar darkness, but personify this psychological tension through emphasizing specific facial characteristics. Rather than blurring these features, elements like mouths and eyes are amplified to the point of exaggeration, confronting the viewer with their intensity. Neubert paints his faces entirely blackened out before scraping away the material to reveal the features underneath, forcing what is exposed to us to become even more striking. While Bjorklund uses the subtlety of soft brushstrokes to convey a cloud of emotion, Neubert utilizes alarming features that articulate the extremities of human emotion. 

Coming together in solidarity through their shared experiences of working in the fields of criminal justice and mental health, Neubert and Bjorklund have formed a tight, cross-continental bond in their project “Death of a Coworker”. In this project, different artists create self-portraits of other artists involved, and trade their works within the group. Although the works of the artists involved vary in approach and style, a common disposition is shared amongst the group. Weaving visual dialogue through artistic collaboration, “Death of a Coworker” forms a unique community for artists to experiment and grow amongst like-minded thinkers. (text by Christina Nafziger)

We’ve been delighted to speak to Blake Neubert about the vision for the project, its inspiration and future plans. Enjoy the interview!

AMM: Hi Blake, could you introduce yourself and give us a glimpse into your work and life? What led you and Ben down the route of becoming artists and what brought you together?

BN: Ben and I have similar backgrounds working in the criminal justice and mental health fields. When I first saw his paintings, I felt like he was someone who had seen the same things that I had and I loved them immediately. I emailed him and bought as many available paintings as I could. Over the following months we continued to talk and I invited him to Colorado during his first trip to the United States. From our first time hanging out together we got along like old friends.

Painting by Jeremy Lipking, portrait of Blake Neubert

AMM: When did you found ‘Death of a Coworker’ and how has it evolved since its creation? 

BN: It evolved around the time of his first visit. We were discussing music, specifically Sufjan Stevens’ “Fourth of July” from the Carrie and Lowell album. We talked about how that song looked to us. We discussed it would be interesting if artists would each paint what that song looked like and trade it to each other. As we discussed, we changed the idea to portraits since it seemed to be a more equitable trade to the respective artists.

AMM: ‘Death of a Coworker’ is a dark and mysterious name, how did it come about? 

BN: The day I was coming up with all the names, I had gotten the news that a former work mentor had committed suicide.

AMM: We are very sorry to hear about your colleague… would you like to share some more memories?

BN: He died under very unfortunately specific circumstances. I guess I’m a little concerned if any of his family ever read this that I might be making light of his death. That’s very kind of you to offer though.

AMM: How many artists are involved in the project? What are the main qualities an artist should have in order to enter or get invited to be part of the venture?

BN: I think it’s in the 30s who have participated in some form or another. Artists have to have a strong technique and a unique style or approach. Artists are invited. If I see an artist I like, I see how many artists we have in common. It sounds narcissistic, but if they aren’t following me, they’re out. Not because of my fragile ego, but more about, if they don’t like my work or the other artists involved, it’s not going to go well. As much as I like to think artists can work together well and work up to their abilities to meet the standard of their counterpart, it’s not always the case. Unfortunately, there tends to be drama with all things of this nature. So, I need to be mindful of the right fit; not only technique, but personality.

Painting by Wendelin Wohlgemuth, portrait of Benjamin Björklund

AMM: How many portraits have artists created for ‘Death of a Coworker’ so far? Could you name some of the most memorable pieces?

BN: It’s over 100 at this point. There are so many amazing pieces!

James Bonnici’s portrait of Felipe Alonso

Kenichi Hoshine’s portrait of Lou Ros

Wendelin Wolgemuth’s portrait of Benjamin Bjorklund

Nicolás Uribe’s portrait of Kenichi Hoshine

Lou Ros’ portrait of Alex Beck

Daniel Segrove’s portrait of Nicolás Uribe

Emilio Villalba’s portrait of Wendelin Wolgemuth

Mia Bergeron’s portrait of Blake Neubert

Benjamin Bjorklund’s portrait of Colin Chillag

Benjamin Bjorklund’s portrait of Nicolas Uribe

Nicolás Uribe’s portrait of Benjamin Bjorklund

Michael Reeder’s portrait of Benjamin Bjorklund

Michael Reeder’s portrait of Wendelin Wolgemuth

And my personal favorite is Jeremy Lipking’s portrait of me. This was such an incredible experience for me to work with him since he has been such an influence on me. Sean Cheetham is my trade this month, and I am honored to be doing this trade. Both of these guys are the ones who got me into painting about 12 years ago. I never would have guessed that I would know them let alone be trading paintings with them.

AMM: Where does the artwork go after it’s finished? Do you only showcase it online, particularly on Instagram, and do the artists exchange their portraits? 

BN: The idea is that the artists send their work to each other. I made sure I get mine out to people. It’s a fun project, but when you receive your paintings in the mail, it’s a whole other experience.

AMM: How does ‘Death of a Coworker’ invigorate your own work and that of the artists participating in the venture?

BN: When I first started working on the project, I hadn’t experimented much with portraits. When I did Emilio’s portrait, I decided to do several versions of him and experiment each time. When I did the black headed portrait of him, I hit a new level and just took off from there. After that, the project almost hinders me a little. My current work is fairly subversive and not everyone wants that, so I need to be mindful of my partner in the trade. So, it’s definitely a different side to my art.

AMM: In particular about your own art: there is a sense of darkness but also of joyful rebellion and sarcasm. What does your work represent to you and what do you hope the viewer takes away?

BN: Thank you — those are the elements I want people to see. The world is all of those things. You can still be a passionate caring person and still have an irreverent sense of humor and it doesn’t negate any sincerity. The world is mostly a cruel, horrible place. Find the people that give you energy and laugh at it all.

AMM: You tend to paint two-layered portraits and then create a video of how the top layer is scraped off to uncover the hidden ‘mask/emotion’ of the character you painted in the first place. Could you tell us more about your approach to creating such artworks?

BN: I wanted a very quick, analog way to tell two stories. I wanted something that people look at, the technique, but also just to be curious about what is about to happen. Art for anyone. It just seemed like the perfect style to combine all the things I wanted to say and do with art.

Painting by Michael Reeder, portrait of Emilio Villalba

AMM: How would you like to see the project evolve in the near future? It sounds like a sort of new intricate ‘social media’ for artists in particular, with only the language of painting. Do you envisage a bigger network of participants? 

BN: In the current format, I see it fizzling out. I can see it going another two cycles possibly. More artists keep inspiring me, but soon, I’m sure those numbers will get smaller and smaller. I have another idea with getting more people on board. More of a community.

AMM: Why do you think ‘those numbers will get smaller and smaller’? And could you share more thoughts on the expansion to a community? It sounds really interesting.

BN: I’m very specific for the artists that I’m looking for. There are just a few more that I want to work with. There are some other artists that might be nice to work with, but our personalities would clash. That’s always a big issue with getting groups of people together. I have regretted getting some artists involved because of ego or them trying to direct how the project should go.

My hope is to have more people pairing up and doing portraits of each other and featuring more on the page. I think it would be fun and potentially good exposure for people. Sometimes I’m very concerned with the future of the project, but mostly I’m not. I don’t really have an agenda with it. It’s fun, but if it disappeared tomorrow, I would be ok with that too.

AMM: Would you like to see an exhibition of ‘Death of a Coworker’ in future?

BN: I do like the idea of that, but I’m not sure how that looks. Any gallery will want to make money on any show they have. I’m not sure what to do with the portraits since they are (ideally) being traded. I suppose I’m more excited about a book highlighting the work.

Find out more: www.instagram.com/death_of_a_coworker

Introduction text by Christina Nafziger, interview by Maria Zemtsova for ArtMaze Mag.

Painting by Emilio Villalba, portrait of Blake Neubert