By LEORA LUTZ, DEC. 2015
November 6 - December 19, 2015
Altman Siegel Gallery
49 Geary Street (4th floor)
San Francisco, CA 94108
It’s satisfying when things are not as they seem; when excess shines light on poverty, or when blankness makes presence more evident. Chris Johanson’s new solo exhibition Equations at Altman Siegel Gallery heightens the awareness of such dichotomies: free/incarcerated; smart/daft; fortune/unfortunate; ugly/beautiful. His simultaneous use of both figurative narratives and abstraction come across as almost reckless abandon if it weren’t for the extreme fortitude and attention given to each portrayal of people and the things they are doing. Johanson’s insightful view of everyday life comprises a continuation of his process, aptly titled Life Arts. The show is packed with over one dozen pieces, many of them large, arranged in hybrid sculpture/paintings throughout the room in an open layout that invites visitors to meander between pieces.
For many years, Johanson was heavily involved in the Mission School, yet the influences in this current work are less noticeable compared to work as late as just five years ago. The new work is complicated and detailed; more expressionistic than ever. Still working with geometric abstraction, the lines and circular shapes on the front of the pieces are now extracted from actual objects, such as the L-shaped angle of open laptops or the cent sign (¢); while the backs incorporate muted tones and spontaneous gestures. Johanson is also more fully revisiting his use of figures, and has boosted the storylines on each panel, emphasizing detailed vignettes with multiple people, doing an array of everyday things from shopping, to browsing the internet to reading in bed. Each piece features a complex set of characters that make up the narratives portrayed in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, and I can recognize the personalities of each locale immediately (as a transplant from LA to SF in 2011). Johanson, a Bay Area native, now lives in Los Angeles—the juxtaposition between the two places in the exhibition shows nostalgia for the past and keen observation of the present.
A large abstract piece faces the viewer at the front door upon entering the gallery. This is actually the back of Lecture Series/Abstract Mass (2015). It includes square and rectangle sections, each highlighting a particular scenario, such as a path of people walking in a line lead by a nude male. In another section with the words “lecture series room 4” below it includes a green panel with several people sitting at school desks, their laptops open. The L-shape is echoed in an array of colorful bands in the center of the piece. To the right, a lone figure sits in despair with his hands in his head against a vivid lavender rectangle. A tiny cluster of multi-colored shapes are arranged in a white square over a pale yellow blob. These clusters are echoed again in the piece Los Angeles with Pills. This piece feels quintessentially West Side to me, for those familiar with the 405 freeway delineation of LA neighborhoods. The ocean can be seen in the background of a globby green figure at his laptop, his body is fetid goo, seemingly from his work and inability to unplug. A man and woman shop nearby at a fancy market, their shopping carts filled to the brim with an assortment of colorful packages, presumably packaged foods—an oxymoron of expensive “health food” markets frequented by the yuppies who don’t have time, or never learned to cook yet pride themselves on being healthy. Meanwhile another character in the lower portion of the panel hides in a subterranean cave, his shopping cart made of blood red bricks and a giant yellow tablet cascades toward it—as if prescription pills will change anything, indeed addiction sometimes makes matter worse for some. These and other stories make the show a rewarding one, particularly because Johanson shows genuine reality with no attempt at romanticism or sensational vulgarity— he remarks on the signs of our times and of his heart.
Compounding the realistic aspects of the work is the use of found wood and panels as substrates. Large white structures made of wooden beams bisect the gallery space, with panels attached to them that can be viewed from all sides. Some panels are arranged on the floor, prompting viewers to kneel in front of the work, while others are hung on the wall, their backs obviously concealed. Moreover, color and texture is everywhere—applied without reserve. Within the vivid spectrum mire are pasty salmon pinks, bloody reds and putrid bile tones; there are also clear shades of cobalt and cerulean blues, lush moss and fresh grass greens. The use of paint conjures spontaneous and contemplative moods with smears and blending, while impasto blobs create unsettling textures. The compositions are two-dimensional, not following all the laws of perspective, but rather following rules of Cubism and mannerism of folk art. The blend of narrative and abstraction on a pure two-dimensional plane creates a patchwork quilt of various scenarios that narrate the lives of the people that Johanson features as protagonists in these complex arrangements. This combination of materials, color and texture lend a sense of the surreal—the scenes bizarre for their difficult hardship themes, and at once endearing with a dream-like quality. But the paintings are also pushing against notions of the hyperreal if one considers the point that the scenes are taken from real life. And real life is not always photo-perfect, but rather sometimes outrageous, political, ugly and hard. Yet there is always a small glimmer of beauty around, and it seems that this is the reason why Johanson paints. WM
Leora Lutz is an artist, writer and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her art practice stems from a conceptual framework with a desire to bring ritual and routine closer together. She is a regular art writer and critic for several national and global publications both online and in print as well as the author of published exhibition essays and research papers.
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