September 2008. Chris Johanson @ Deitch Projects

Totalities poster, courtesy Deitch Projects

Chris Johanson, Totalities
Deitch Projects
September 4th through October 18th

Totalities, the first New York solo show in six years of painter/street artist Chris Johanson, does not fail to captivate and beguile its audiences with vivid colors, whimsical imagery, dynamic spaces, and light-hearted antics. One of a handful of artists emerging from the San Francisco skate/punk scene of the 1990s, Chris Johanson time and again successfully creates something out of nothing – the catch phrase of the indie film “Beautiful Losers” which traces the movement of these creative ne’er-do-wells into stardom. Totalities is more than a multi-media installation – it is a participatory environment of exchange, interaction, and exuberance. It is a fanciful adventure into an eco-friendly wonderland examining the effects of the past and questioning the social responsibilities of the present and future.

View of exterior of Space-cave

In his own tree-hugging way, Johanson extends the environmentalist theme of the exhibit to further examine the interconnectedness of humans and nature through time and space. With such a sweeping title, this three-part exhibit fittingly relies on audience participation to realize its totality. This is where Johanson really sets off running. His dumpster diving certainly paid off, as he spares no recycled 2x4 in his construction of a maze-like installation, liberating his large paintings from passive roles on gallery walls by juxtaposing them seemingly haphazardly into our space with wooden supports and frames.

The adventure begins the moment you walk passed the large double-storied windowed façade of 18 Wooster Street. Through the rectangular window frames, a large pastel checkerboard wall with a single entry point gives little implication of what awaits on the other side. During the opening, crowds of people formed on the sidewalk, into the street and into the lobby, and one by one they disappeared through the small rabbit hole entrance into the inner workings of Chris Johanson’s mind. Immediately through that hole, as I was soon to discover, is a futuristic space-cave filled with imagery from the past (such as allusions to Egyptian wall paintings) and nature. In the middle of the cave is a large rotating meteor, and beneath the floorboards resounds the thumping of music recorded specifically for this show. The themes of time and continuation resonate throughout the space as several images of clocks and an air of infinity abound. “CAN YOU HEAR ME?” one semi-hidden, black panel reads.

18 Wooster crowd

crowd with Chris Johanson in the foreground

Upon exiting the futuristic cave is a much more uncongested space. Certainly the most intriguing part of this second “room” is that the exterior supports of the cave and the checkerboard wall are completely visible and dominate the space. The wood used for this project is all recycled—pulled from dumpsters and scrap piles—and this is where its degradation and imperfections somehow turn into something beautiful and enchanting.

Finally, the third room holds the real meat of the patty in this save-the-planet, hippie-themed show. Strange figures and creatures jump out from their frames to ask questions and offer advice. A man offers up ripples of water saying, “This is free.” A couple sitting serenely in an underground hole say, “I’m really glad we took the time to come out here.” And a little green seed-like creature, in a field of blue, questions the viewer, “Can you see my totality?”

Installation view

Chris Johanson

Installation view of rotating meteor

Johanson’s non-rigid, multifaceted installation encourages participation and exchange from every angle. In the swirling colors of chunky paint on recycled wooden panels is a world of non-specificity where we are all invited to find our own color. His paintings are abstract enough to encourage and invite the participants to make their own decisions not only about content and message, but also about how to experience it and from what angle to view it. The layering, maze-like juxtaposition of the paintings allows for conversations and interactions among the images themselves, between the viewers and the images, and between the viewers and other viewers. It is a collaborative effort for sure, not only in the execution – including help from several musicians and long-time collaborator and wife, artist Jo Jackson – but also in the realization – with the help of the viewers. With all these conversations going on a once, it is hard not to see why this off the wall environment lives up to its totality. Chris Johanson has channeled his creative spirit and thoughts on contemporary living into a visually stimulating, thought provoking, smile-inducing wonderland that tickles your funny bone and your recycling can.

Totalities can be experienced at Deitch Projects on 18 Wooster Street through October 18th.

Lindsay Harris

Lindsay Harris is an artist and writer currently residing in New York City.

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