In Praise of Peaceful Art: A Chris Johanson Monograph
Originally published in ArtCritical. ◊◊
On the back cover of Phaidon’s new Chris Johanson monograph is a close-up of I AM CLEAR NOW (2004), a vignette featuring two reclining figures on a green expanse of urban lawn, painted with acrylic and latex painting on paper. One says to the other, “I AM REALLY GLAD THAT WE TOOK THE TIME TO COME AND BE TOGETHER HERE. I HOPE THAT YOU KNOW YOU ARE REALLY IMPORTANT TO ME. OH, I ALSO WANTED TO GIVE YOU THIS. OH BY THE WAY I AM ON THESE NEW MEDS AND I FEEL REALLY GOOD NOW. I HAVE COMPLETELY STOPPED OBSESSING ABOUT THE HOLE. I AM CLEAR NOW.” This little ramble, which spills out past its thin corral of a speech bubble, is the perfect window into Johanson’s career to date.
Chris Johanson first rose to prominence in the 1990s in the San Francisco Bay Area music scene, skateboarder circles, and underground art communities. His early visual output was influenced by the stimulation of living in San Francisco; leftover paint from jobs as a house painter and the fruits of dumpster diving provided his first art materials. Now in his 40s, Johanson has distinguished himself among contemporary artists, and accordingly has received increasing institutional attention, including recent participation in shows at P.S. 1 and a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2009, and two San Francisco Museum of Modern Art survey exhibitions in 2010 and 2011. His particular visual vocabulary is a mixture of text, simplified representational forms, geometric abstraction, and a Technicolor palette. Johanson describes his early works as fueled by dark moods, but declares in an interview found in these pages that recently, “I’m seriously into peaceful art. That’s it. I’m only doing that from now on.”
In keeping with the formula for Phaidon’s Contemporary Artists series, Chris Johanson presents the artist to us with a recent interview, a career overview, an essay on a specific subject in the artist’s oeuvre, and finally texts selected or written by the artist. This format is worthy of praise for keeping the texts closely tied to the artist’s own words and choices, but there is room for such a recipe to go awry. The opening interview with Hammer Museum curator Corrina Peipon, for example, served as a poor introduction; it was edited in a way that veraciously preserved Johanson’s trailing remarks and circumlocutions, but without necessarily bolstering a deep understanding of his practice. Critic Bob Nickas’s survey essay, on the other hand, was excellent in its breadth and provides a solid thematic foundation for the other writing in the volume. Nickas’s important feat was to wrest Johanson from the clutches of the Pop Art label and the bipartisanship of figuration and abstraction, finding instead that the artist’s “inspiration comes from […] vernacular ramblings and the pulse of his emotional life.” I only wish that Nickas could have addressed in greater length Johanson’s curatorial and critical ties with Outsider Art—due in equal parts to his self-education and his guileless aesthetic—a label the artist uncomfortably side steps, but continues to play a role in his reception.
Noticeably missing in Chris Johanson, and other Contemporary Artists volumes, is an introduction by the editors beyond the dust jacket copy. Though Phaidon succeeds in illustrating Johanson’s achievements and significance, it has not explained the publication’s timing—why is a critical perspective crucial at this point in Johanson’s career? A peaceable answer might be found in one of the excerpts selected by Johanson, from Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half-Life: “He felt resigned to the fact that the pattern of his days had already gone full circle, and that everything ahead of him was likely just a variation on what had come before. […] At times like this he actually believed he had achieved some wisdom in this knowledge and that some strength was to be found in his abiding passivity.”
Images courtesy of Altman Siegel, the artist, and Phaidon.