Chris Johanson – The sound of energy in space, the space of energy in life

22 May – 15 August 2010
Bongerd 18
6411 JM  Heerlen

We never met Chris Johanson but we bumped into his work while installing the New York Minute exhibition in Rome. Instead of him there was Chris Garret, his faithful assistant. In a way it was like dealing with the same Johanson obsession. And we freaked out about his art aptitude. In occasion of the new exhibition at Schunck, a publication will be released in the form of an LP. We have no idea about the audio contents, we just know that two artist’s images and an essay written by Sean Kennerly (the bass/guitar member of Samiam) will be included in it. At the end of this post you can read Kennerly’s text.

Press Release

Like a veteran of the northern Californian punk and skating scene: this is the way in which artist Chris Johanson has been described by Aaron Rose, the man who took the initiative for the first study of Johansons work. As a teenager, Johanson was already using waste wood and paper for his raw, figurative drawings. Since then, he has diversified his oeuvre with three-dimensional conceptual works and abstract images. In work that is simultaneously comical and sinister, Chris Johanson comments on the predicament we face from our modern-day consumer society, where perilous issues, such as ‘self help’, psychotherapy and the spiritual craze, are sweeping the world.

Johanson’s abstract work, often using geometric forms and images which resemble starbursts, can be interpreted as a light-hearted, but urbane and refined commentary on Modernism. Entirely in keeping with the multi-disciplinary nature of SCHUNCK*, in The sound of energy in space, the space of energy in life, the artist presents both three-dimensional works, as well as music and drawings. It is an exhibition with a character that can be described as serene, reflective and perhaps even Buddhist-like.

For years Chris Johanson has been transforming day-to-day subject matter into simple stories in paintings that make bright, flat reference to illustration or folk art: The New York Times called their look “a down-on-its-luck, cheerfully abject cartoon style… reminiscent of artists like William Wegman, Raymond Pettibon and Sue Williams.”

The artist was born in suburban San Jose, California in 1968. He has no formal training in art, learning some technique by painting skateboards and houses. He moved to San Francisco, California’s Mission District in 1989, where he became a member of the local art community, initially drawing cartoons on lampposts and bathroom walls. In 2004 he bought a home and moved to Portland Oregon.

‘Their activity embodies the myth of nonsuccess.’(1) Allan Krapow

by Sean Kennerly

Around the turn of the millennium, Chris Johanson’s work went through a broad florescence, as he greatly expanded his subject matter and use of color, and began experimenting with new mediums and techniques. In fits and starts, he gradually sublated the dystopian revelry that characterized his work in the 90s – stark black-and-white depictions of drug addicts, street criminals and the emotionally disturbed – to a broader engagement of contemporary subjectivity. The tension between his critique of corporate consumer culture and his own manufacturing of art-for-consumption became fore-grounded and suffused through all his work. And in a surprising turn, he delved into abstraction. At first, this engagement with a style that had fallen so far from the dominance and ubiquity it enjoyed in the mid-20th century seemed a post-modernist joke.(2) But as he continued to pursue abstraction, his entire work underwent a major semiotic shift. On their own, his flat, colorful abstractions – recalling the Color Field works of Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis – kaleidoscope out in refracted patterns, confining themselves to one distinct formal device in each particular work. They sometimes loosely suggest dislocated events – exploding stars, volcanic spew (Contemporary Lifestyle Painting, 2005; Mirror, 2003), but without context, they remain beneath the threshold of objectivity. By repeating his abstractions many times – with variants in color, tone, size, etc, but still formally consistent – he transforms them into motifs. He then (often) integrates them into figurative contexts. The facility and frequency with which Johanson moves between naïve figurativism and abstraction has little historical precedent or parallel.(3) Influencing and creating meaning for the other, often co-existing within the same piece, this cross-informing and co-extensiveness renders the abstract motifs legible while simultaneously unsettling the figurative narratives (This Is One of the Main Reasons Why, 2003; With Us Now, 2006). Relocated in figurative contexts, Johanson’s plastic abstract motifs serve as shopping isles, dwellings, products, personal philosophies, or sometimes allegories of head-trips or environmental events (The Next Master Will Not Know This Master’s Games, 2005, Modern Business, 2004). The referencing qua motifs of Johanson’s abstracts renders them legible as objects, while still retaining an indeterminancy in the valence of their meaning.

CRYSTAL BLOB The multicolored crystalline blob recurs in numerous paintings on its own from 2002 on. It has no consistent referent. Most often it is entirely abstract, at most suggesting a dizzying vortex or an imaginary asteroid. In an installation for the Beautiful Losers show(4) in 2004, it served as a hill with a cave entrance hosting a circle of televisions playing a drum circle; in a painting from 2005 it vaguely suggests the artist’s dog.(5) In Harmony Incorporated (2003), rows of bottles, boxes, cans and tubes recede into the background until they blend into the aforementioned blob, which here suggests a colorful mountain. Johanson’s deployment of this motific integration opens a critique of corporate consumer culture. Harmony Incorporated can be read as an ironic valorization of the overproduction of consumer products and the accelerating obsolescence of goods that have no substantial relation to their marketing (the clunky, oblique products have names like ‘Big,’ ‘Know’ and ‘Self God’), and to the futility of consumption itself – the abstraction of the blob in this instance representing ‘pointlessness’. Conversely, it can also be read as beautiful pile of promising choices, joyfully celebrating the diverse spectrum of merchandise. Johanson’s engagement with this critique extends to both the materials he uses for making art and his method of working. Producing fine art out of discarded materials, pulling wood for his canvases and sculptures from construction site dumpsters, using leftover paint (despite which he retains a remarkably consistent palate), the materials of production become themselves an irreducible part of the his overall work. ‘I can’t create art on new wood,’ he said in an interview from 2007. ‘It makes me sick.’(6)

MIND CONTROL There is no clear semantic line between Johanson’s installations and his paintings. They inhabit the same universe, the installations becoming three dimensional, ephemeral realizations of the subjects and concerns that exist in his paintings. The difference is that one has to spatially negotiate within his installations, crouching down to look inside a hill at a televised drum circle, ducking beneath the chaotic roadways of connectivity, staring in mute awe at a poorly constructed fake rock; the installations force the participants to acknowledge the stark elemental worlds of Johanson’s paintings as actually realized environments. The ephemeral nature of Johanson’s installations contrasts sharply with the durability of the objects that he often portrays – stars, mountains, caves – refolding the architectural into the geological with a remarkable economy of design and material. In this, Johanson seems to mock the frailty and transience of the man-made. The paintings and installations often appear in conjunction. Rather than compliment each other, Johanson uses his installations to obscure his paintings. In the epic, sprawling 2008 Totalities show,(7) the main part of which took place inside an enormous ungainly recycled plywood mountain – his paintings were presented directly behind one another, radiating out on crude wooden scaffolding, preventing a direct view of the paintings behind the first one. But the root of this discord and ambivalence over consumerist practices could be Johanson’s distinctly non-academic ‘style’, which, one could argue, is so simplistic it sometimes seems too easy to be art. The romantic archetypal ideal of the artist laboriously crafting a distinctive and refined technique, working with the finest available materials for the masterpiece that will stand for ages, a marriage of the depths of emotions and the heights of intellect (think Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is flagrantly disappointed in Johanson’s crude everyman figures, which sometimes suggest a bored child’s doodle, painted literally on trash. The apotheosis of this artistic disappointment resides in Johanson’s installations. Rather than create monolithic edifices designed to endure into perpetuity, or objects modeled on hegemonic consumption ideals, Johanson builds unwieldy temporal-specific pieces, as undigestible as they are transient. At the center of Johanson’s Totalities show, inside the huge mountain, at the focal point of the radiating, obscured canvases, a bogus gray mirrored ‘crystal’ rotated slowly on a metal prong, as though a majestic jewel crowning a shoddy Disney display. As the spiritual and geographical center of the installation, Johanson’s gesture exemplifies this central dehiscence through his work: the joyful failure, a pushing and pulling that loves and believes in art even as it dares the viewer not to.

1 Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Allan Krapow, 1993.

2 Johanson’s work up to this point often employed an oblique humor that traded on the destitution of its subject, which could have been ‘abstraction’ itself.

3 Matta? Pierre Alechinsky? Andrei Molotiu? I would argue that none of them actually develop their abstractions into motifs and then reposition the motifs within a figurative context. Their might be someone somewhere, though, who knows, the world’s pretty big.

4 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2004.

5 Raisin.

6 Interview with Maria Kjær Themsen, July, 2007, Kopenhagen, Statens Kunstrad Danish Arts Council

7 Deitch Gallery, New York, notes 2008