A Society Torn

Malin Wilson-Powell

During the late 1960s, between undergraduate art history classes, my life was busy with protests against the war in Vietnam and rallies demanding equal rights and treatment for women.  None of the art history textbooks then went beyond Picasso and Braque’s cubism, and there was literally no mention of the American Civil War, a gap that seemedinexplicable to those of us looking at great historical work by such artists as Giericault, Manet and Goya, whose masterpieces reacted to the brutalities of wars of their times.  At the time, there were no history of photography clases at my university, and I had not yet seen the devastating Civil War images published by the Mathew Brady studio where throngs of citizens came to identify dead family members. 
    By the early 1970s, Leon Golub painted his “Napalm and Vietnam” series, and the great abstract expressionist Philip Guston shifted to painting a cartoonish Klansmen.  The work of Bart Johnson partakes of a mixed legacy of such alienated, bad-news art relying on figurative representation, surrealism, grotesquerie and the comics.  There is also a notable disregard for mainstream New York that coalesced during the late 1960s in Chicago’s imagist artist groups “The Monster Roster” and “The Hairy Who,” as well as in Northern California’s funk art movement.
    “The Truth Hurts,” Johnson’s show of more than 50 pieces at Eight Modern, is replete with rough or adult content that retains the fierce anger of an indignant adolescent’s disenchantment with reality.  More than half the show is ceramics, and the rest are works on paper, including ink drawings and watercolor, along with a few oils.  At the root of all of Johnson’s art is a graphic art, in both senses:  Everything stems from drawing and the works—even when done in cheery bright colors or delicate pastels—are often too “graphic” or scatological to reproduce in a newspaper.  He has an absessive, nervous-system style of edginess common to artists who started drawing in their youth and can never stop.
    The ceramics are inventive and sometimes feel hurried, even sloppy, as if Johnson is being whipped along by a brisk wind that constantly changes direction.  Every surface is a surface for drawing his phantasmagorical hybrid creatures that are often piled on top of each other.  The mostly brightly colored ceramics might be glazed or slathered with matte paint, or they may combine shiny and matte finishes, while still others look like a magic marker was at hand when his muse struck.  The shapes are rarely symmetrical; they wobble in some way.  A terrific triangular vessel shape with feet and cornices on the top also has protruding noses as in “Peek a Boo” and “The Great Valerio.”  Many variations of canine and feline proboscis in 3-D also stick out from the surfaces of his pots and eye sockets are sometimes indented to great effect.  Many of the simpler ceramics like “The Eastside Boys” and “Melancholy,” as well as wall titles featuring single-figures in deep relief like “The Boss” really hit home.
    Johnson likes dogs.  Here, they can wear mismatched plaid trousers with spotty shirts and they often look like bemused witnesses to the artist’s jumbled, out-of-sync worlds.  Do they knowjust how out of whack things are?  As all of us who live with dogs know they are thouroughly expressive and impressivecreatures who feel every nuance, yet they must live without language within the parameters of their owners’ exisitence. 
    Johnson’s ink drawings show his fevered mind most clearly, unadorned by the distractions of color or shape.  His titles are telling, and they reinforce a long-standing dismay at the state of the world, such as “Among the Ruins,” “Forgive Them Father, They Know Not What They Do,” “Things Go Wrong” and “The Comedians”—a definitely NOT funny pugilistic beach scene.  Like 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, Johnson never dates his work, and he uses fantastic imagery in allegories that illustrate profound moral slippage.  They are impossible to decipher as fully as a Bosch painting would have been to a 15th century audience similarly steeped in biblical references promulgated by the medieval church.
    Without an iconographical guide book, Johnson is often inscrutable but rarely without broad laugh-out-loud humor bubbling to the surface of his mash-up of scenes within scenesand switches in dimension.  In “Hills I” country folklore-meets-science-fiction-meets-bawdiness-meets-violence with a pair of natty, pipe-smoking golfers strolling obliviously through the mayhem.
    Johnson grew up in northern Virginia.  When he got his driver’s license during the 1970’s he haunted Washington, D.C.’s, National Gallery to make studies of its old master paintings, along with the Phillips Collection for its now classic modernist paintings.  He attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and received a master’s in fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  In addition to Guston, Johnson names R. Crumb, Peter Saul, Picasso, and Dubuffet as artists he admires, and he credits both Milo Russel and Milton Resnick—two teachers from his Virginia years—as key influences.
    For all the complexity of Johnson’s idiosyncratic narratives, they present a consistent view of societal rupture.  Of his own student years during the Vietnam era, Johnson notes, “The cognitive dissonance between a Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse childhood and war footage of photographs like that of a running, naked, napalmed child spread far and wide through the media in those days.  Something of that dissonance is always present in how I continue to view the world since that time.”