Jack Lewis reviews MK Gallery’s exhibition Soft City by the Norwegian pop artist and graphic novel creator Hariton Pushwagner


The playful, salacious ruby red tongue and pearly molars that welcome you through the doors are an ironic entrance to what can only be described as a ‘grown up’ exhibition. It is also a grand greeting to Terje Brofos’s mind: Welcome, enter at your own will, open your eyes, your mind, and, finally, prepare yourself for a journey.


Brofos, or Pushwagner to use his artistic pseudonym, entertains celebrity – almost mythical –  status in his home country of Norway and, at the age of seventy-two-years-old, he invites you enter his colourful world. Relatively new to the stage, this, his first exhibition outside of his homeland’s shores, is a serious statement of intent. Having only been discovered in the last four years, here is a man who can instantly draw on a expansive back-catalogue of work, who can tell a story through stunning visuals, and who himself has his own apologue to share. Having led a life of hedonism and homelessness, Brofos is well equipped to detail the highs and lows of life – the daily struggle along the path of society. His work speaks of cultural commentary as much as artistic endeavours, and his haunting creations begin to let your mind wander off into infinite tangents centred round your own future predictions for planet Earth.


Self-portrait, Hariton Pushwagner, Pushwagner Collection. Image courtesy and copyright the artist


Pushwagner’s MK Gallery exhibition showcases a series of bodies of work, incorporating drawing, painting and prints, centred round the theme of disenchantment and struggle, but it is Soft City that I have chosen to focus on for the purpose of this review.

Soft City is a graphic novel – shown beautifully and in its 156-page entirety here through a snaking serpentine of vitrines – that is the main focus of the show. Completed in 1972, Soft City tells the turgid tale of a dystopian, draconian state, and the unravelling of an over-populated, over-polluted city of the future, a place where people exist as drones, factories moonlight as death camps, and daily life is led through dilated pupils with medication prescribed to maintain motivation. The inhabitants pace a treadmill of routine under the iron fist of ‘The Boss’, living the life of sentient beings; cold, calculated, unemotional and ultimately trapped on a conveyer belt of routine and eventual apocalypse, while the city’s ruler controls their every move from his ivory tower. Here is a city of greed, glamour and gloom. Clocking-in machines punch the city’s workforce through a day at Soft Inc., while the daily commute is aurally-fuelled by optimistic songs such as Over The Rainbow, masking the icy malevolence of the soaring tower blocks.


Hariton Pushwagner From Soft City: page97drawing158_161 Image courtesy and copyright the artistFrom Soft City by Hariton Pushwagner. Image courtesy and copyright the artist.


Soft City could be seen as a future century social satire, almost Pushwagner’s Gin Lane-meets-Blade Runner opus. In the stark black and white sketches that fill the vitrines, through to the more colourful, large-scale pink paintings that close the novel’s journey, Soft City is a moving tale of power and struggle, the divide between rich and poor, and the rise and continued rise of the super rich and powerful.


Hariton Pushwagner From Soft City: page78drawing118_119 Image courtesy and copyright the artistFrom Soft City by Hariton Pushwagner. Image courtesy and copyright the artist.


There is a strong sense of Clockwork Orange present, not only in the sense of dystopian downturn that pervades the exhibition, but also in the aesthetics themselves, with the protagonist’s eye not dissimilar to the one in David Pelham’s design for Burgess’s Penguin paperback cover, and viewing rooms in ‘The Boss’s’ skyscraper looking similar to where Alex endures Aversion Therapy.


(View of visitors looking at Jobkill).  Photo: Derek Wales PhotographyMK Gallery visitors with Jobkill by Hariton Pushwagner. Photo, Derek Wales


Burgess is not the only point of contact. Completed sporadically over a seven-year period, Soft City is gathered from the vault of culture that has gone before. Referencing a nefarious mix of influences; the visual sheen of Warhol’s Factory, the language of Philip K. Dick with the futurist actions of JG Ballard, the anti-materials of Kerouac and the Beats Poets with the Absinthe haze of Van Gogh under a starry night – Pushwagner coagulates these thoughts to speak of capitalism, destruction and financial turmoil. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis also spring to mind, while the most overriding reference is Orwell’s 1984. Often referred to as the modern day Munch, for his close ties existentialism, Pushwagner is clearly no slouch in the literary department.


Hariton Pushwagner From Soft City: page111drawing177 Image courtesy and copyright the artistFrom Soft City by Hariton Pushwagner. Image courtesy and copyright the artist.


I opened with describing Pushwagner as a ‘grown up’ exhibition but its appeal is universal. While comments on the visitor board speak of nods to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and David Harvey’s smouldering Neo-Liberalism lectures, gallery staff I spoke to also talked about how children have been captivated by the cartoon-esque characters and colour palette, enjoying the vibrancy oblivious to the subject matter.


Hariton Pushwagner From Apokalypse: Klaxton Image courtesy and copyright the artistFrom Apokalypse: Klaxton by Hariton Pushwagner. Image courtesy and copyright the artist


This exhibition is as much social commentary as it is art. While we continue to struggle through a global recession and economic downturn, Pushwagner has brought a visual FT to Milton Keynes – no pink pages, simply pink drawings.  Everyone can take something from this exhibition, and it goes some way to proving that conceptual art is human, approachable and understandable. Each and every one of us can imagine what life would be like in Soft City. It is socially responsible art.


Soft City by Pushwagner, MK Gallery 28 June 2012 – 2 September 2012