By CLARE GEMIMA, May 2023
Gretta Johnson’s Passing Through presents nine works on paper and canvas she has painted and constructed over the last five years. Even through a small glimpse into the artist’s wider interests, this succinctly curated installation unveils pivotal and personal moments from her studio that have been realized over a short duration of her on-going practice. Seeing these works chronologically hung blares special elements in which Johnson has continued to embrace, like her renderings of florals, organic shapes, and grids. It also calls attention to more nuanced, and subtle shifts, such as the painting’s interventional progressions from non-traditional formats, to multimedia sculptures, to watercolors, to painting on canvas. Across explorations of color, form, medium, and other naturally formed developments, Passing Through coalesces Johnson’s painterly trajectory into something certainly unexpected, and deliberately, and utterly un-destined.
I was fortunate to talk to Gretta Johnson about her recent solo trip to Mexico, the tensions that fester in her paintings, and her painterly resistance to any, and all predetermined outcomes.
Clare Gemima: Gretta, it was so nice to meet you at your opening at Picture Theory. I feel as though Rebekah Kim surveyed your watercolor, and acrylic paintings, and works on paper produced over a five year span so beautifully, and insightfully. We talked about your recent time in Oaxaca. Does your work pay any formal or conceptual reverence to Mexico?
It was nice meeting you too Clare, that opening was one of the more enjoyable openings I’ve had in a while. Shows hung in warm, domestic environments certainly charm me more than harsh, brightly lit galleries. I even think paintings, like people, tend to look better in warmer lights, and open up to each other more, sensitive to their environment. Coming back from my trip to Oaxaca and straight into this show made for such a celebratory return. That was my second time there, and much deeper than the first time I visited, as it was also the first time I’d traveled solo internationally. I only just learned of Rufino Tamayo, a Oaxacan painter whose work I gravitated to after a friend mentioned that I should go to The Tamayo Museum (which is sadly temporarily closed). There is one painting of his from 1941 called Carnival, depicting two figures in a threshold, the woman in front, tying a mask to her face. The whole composition is this natural rusty red with pops of bright red and blue, the people sort of look wooden or like dolls. I have begun to enjoy painting figures, and that play between real and imaginary bodies is something I relate to. His work seems distinctly Mexican, though it seems fairly cross pollinated with many modern painters of the same era. Each time I visit, I am reminded of Mexico’s affinity for surrealism, which is sort of a natural jumping off point for me in my own work.
Clare Gemima: I’d love to reference the show’s writer Clare Needham on their press release. She called you anti-resolution, and wrote that logic doesn’t interest you all that much. What’s your take on the logic of your work?
I think the way I relate to the idea of non resolution has a lot to do with the way I work. Whenever I approach a painting, I have to sort of drop down into it, to be in some physical relationship with it where I am going between conscious and unconscious thought. Sometimes it can feel daunting to start because there is no plan for each painting, only that the seed for it has probably been planted in the last painting or drawing, so I’ll take that seed and work with it until a body of work forms. Each painting has its own logic, and by that I mean everything exists in a physical space and has weight and movement, and I want that to be felt, but I’m more interested in keeping tension in the paintings, and evoking an ambient emotional state that a viewer would want to revisit because it isn’t overly determined, it’s a feeling state. It’s very hard to stay present while working, as the distractions are endless, but the experience of touching some kind of connected intuitive experience is the goal and ultimately what results from that should be an experience that triggers that in someone else.
Clare Gemima: Electra Cocoon is your earliest piece in the show, having been painted in 2018. It seems to speak in an entirely different dialect to your other larger works, like Clear Channel from 2019, and Passing Through from 2020. Could you speak a little bit to your sewing, textile, and soft sculpture background?
This painting is physically an outlier in comparison with the paintings that came after. It was sort of a transitional time for me in my studio and I was feeling the desire to break away from solely working in a drawing and collage manner with these shaped paper pieces I had been showing, and to move towards painting on canvas. The process of this painting was fairly physical and maybe has a spark of violence to it, because I worked with a drawing on paper first and grafted it onto canvas using sewing and glue and paint. I think I leaned into how overwrought the process had become, and enjoyed the battle. Making it almost felt to me like pinning a butterfly down, while at the same time evoking the feeling of escape. That sort of duality and tension is something that I’m interested in, and is hopefully a place that I can arrive at more succinctly in time, but becoming something or somebody is not always the most elegant experience.
For more information about Gretta Johnson, please visit the gallery’s website: Picture Theory
Passing Through will run until June 10 at Picture Theory, showing concurrently with ‘wandering with a place in mind’, which runs until June 4 at Marvin Gardens gallery. WM
Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.view all articles from this author