Bart Johnson wants to give people something they can’t see in the real world. His small-scale compositions consist of fluid, undulating, and seemingly infinite arrangements of imagined figures. Upon each new look, the viewer is bound to discover additional bodies, forms, and features at first unseen. As he paints each piece, Johnson illustrates a labyrinth of both life and fancy.
Born in Washington, DC in 1954, Johnson spent his teen years among the collections of city’s major museums, where he felt a connection to early American painters and European masterworks. Despite attending art school in the 1970s, Johnson does not consider himself to be a contemporary abstract artist. “I found 70s pop, photorealism, minimalist movements, and conceptual art to be cold and detached, lacking the deep feeling of painting of the past,” he notes. Johnson continues to feel the strongest connection with the Old Masters well-loved in his early years, and their explorations of the human figure—the figure likewise being the basis of his own work. “I feel little to no connection to most current contemporary art…The only work I find real inspiration in is that which was made prior to the 1960s, [the 60s being] when the commercialism connected with Pop replaced the seriousness—by which I mean the spiritual purpose—of earlier American painters such as the Abstract Expressionists,” Johnson explains.
As to color palette, his research and use of historical pigments also corresponds with Old Master tradition, including Bosch and Ensor. “Somehow, the notion that everything has to be new and that things which look and feel old are stale has taken hold, which makes me see the art world as topsy-turvy; my values are the reverse,” Johnson says. The excitement of painting, for this artist, is the rich involvement and depth possible on an intimate scale through the presence and texture of his medium: “My deepest feelings about art are connected to the experience of the paint itself.”
What else makes this artist tick? Johnson sees two poles of art: the visceral (Picasso), and the cerebral (Duchamp), and places himself solidly in the former. He states, “I see images occurring fluently in my mind’s eye, as I work from abstract shapes and patterns on the paper or canvas.” Johnson believes the purpose of art is not to be pedantic or instructive, but to reach the inner consciousness of artist and viewer, and to represent social participation and vitality. His artwork is “a pictorial language derived from an intense observation of life.”
To that end, Johnson says he never works in his studio: “Observation is essential to me, just as it was to painters as diverse as Bruegel, Rembrandt, and Watteau.” He spends time in pubic settings as often as possible, where he sees and draws people. He makes his rounds of half a dozen coffee shops in and around Albuquerque, drawing, writing, and observing. Much of the feel and ferment of his work comes from listening and responding to social climate and world events, fueled by these excursions.
Johnson attributes working as an artist who is tuned into the social beat with a certain level of cultural premonition. Historically, he notes the colonization of the Belgian Congo, particularly during the 1870s and 1880s, as a prolific period of military imagery. He cites the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetic skeletons, angels, demons, and weapons (1830s and 1840s) as a foreshadowing of, as well as response to, the growing zeitgeist of unrest leading up to this violent moment in history. Johnson feels the same about his own work as a response to present collective unconscious regarding war, global warming, and violence; he sees his art as a method of witnessing, and himself as “the artist acting as a medium between the terrestrial plane and the spiritual plane.”
Johnson also notes the impact of his “Dionysian” coming-of-age experience, now a memory which also feeds his artwork: “I was in Richmond during the Vietnam war, surrounded by anarchy, radical politics, and hallucinogenic drug use. I think a lot of what I’m doing now, my sensitivity to current calamity, is affected by that formative period.” Johnson was also in grade school in Washington, DC, during the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King’s murder, and the race riots, and grew up during American music’s movement away from the light mood of the Beatles toward darker times with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Today, Johnson sees a connection between contemporary trends in technology, isolation, and toxins and a widespread fascination with zombies and vampires—American society becoming “the living dead.” He views these popular obsessions as harbingers of “the death throes of a materialistic culture.”
In addition to its social component, discovery of the inner self is a key element of Johnson’s work, following the school of thought that all painting is essentially autobiographical. Inspired by Turner (a favorite since childhood), Goya, and Pollock, he works from memories—using remembrances as amorphous inspirations and jumping off points, like Rorschach blots. Each of Johnson’s drawings and paintings grows itself over the course of time, months in many cases, with shapes and colors built up slowly as he works, rather than beginning with a preconceived plan for its composition. Illusion, paradox, and nonsensical light sources are themes found throughout Johnson’s works, an effect of his compounded memories and dreamscapes. Elements are anthropomorphic and referential of surrealism, and as each drawing progresses, Johnson produces increasingly numerous layers of hidden figures and faces, grotesque images from life and imagination, his own “night world” that viewers can enter.
With the heft of his subject matter and weight of his thought process in mind, one might wonder if Johnson has a dark and foreboding perspective of the art world and the future itself. Perhaps surprisingly, he is a warm and happy conversationalist, personable and encyclopedic. His view of art and its purpose is refreshingly bright as well: “Making art is a way of trying to regain childhood. We all lose it, judge it, and learn ourselves out of it. Then, we try to un-learn and journey back to that place. Art is a magical practice; it’s a deep belief in man’s spiritual nature, despite his long fall from grace.”
About the artist:
Bart Johnson studied painting at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received a BFA. He earned an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, then lived in New York City for the next 18 years. Johnson’s art is derived from life experiences in various working class jobs as a housepainter, dishwasher, security guard, warehouse worker, janitor, typesetter, telemarketer, and social worker. For the last ten years, he has lived “at the end of the earth” near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Johnson’s work is in private collections in the US and Europe, as well as the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
New Mexico artist Bart Johnson brings his intricate, fevered illustrations to Mindy Solomon Gallery from November 10-December 15, 2012, ‘The Work of Bart Johnson: Inside the Labyrinth,’ with an Opening Night Reception Saturday, November 10th, from 6-8:30pm. Mindy Solomon Gallery is located at 124 2nd Ave. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. The gallery is open Wednesday-Saturday from 11am-5pm. For more information, please contact the gallery at email@example.com or 727-502-0852, or visit the website at www.mindysolomon.com.