Who Knows?

Mark Murphy
02/20/2012

Born in DC in the 1950s Bart Johnson grew up with “can do” notions that employed him as a housepainter, dishwasher, security guard, warehouse worker, typesetter, telemarketer and social worker. Hard labor influenced Bart Johnson’s diverse range as an artist and schooled “outsider.” Often, Bart applies his socio-inventiveness to sculptural ceramics, painted canvas and drawn surfaces.

Bart Johnson recently created a series of drawings for an upcoming exhibition, “Explicit Content,” a visual and sensory pictorial of the carnal aspects of human sexuality. (Show opens April 14, 2012 at the Mindy Solomon Gallery, FL). Bart was kind enough to share his thoughts about the new work and points of inspiration.

mM: Is there a period in art history that you find inspiration from?

BART— I’ve been drawing and painting what could roughly be considered Dante’s Hell or the Divine Comedy since the 1980s. As the French say: The more things change the more they stay the same. My work hasn’t changed since I was in high school because my interest in Hell has stayed the same.

mM : Would you offer a genre comparison to your work or what genre of works do you feel like this series compliments?

BART—If there was any artist in mind while doing the drawings it was primarily Dürer. It's generally considered that Goya was the first "Modern" painter but a book that I was recently reading called Whatever Happened to Modernism by Gabriel Josipovici, the author proposes Dürer as the first Modernist by locating Modernist origins in Durer's etching Melancholia.

Another source of interest has long been Stanley Kubrick’s films, in particular in this case “Eyes Wide Shut.” Kubrick’s film is based on a novel written in Freud/Wittgenstein/Schiele Vienna as the Austro-Hungarian collapsed and the society was in a state of sexual decadence and running on the fumes of a fictional financial empire, the exposure of which triggered World War I.

The drawing “Eyes Wide Shuttered” resulted from situation my memory and imagination in that five minutes or so of film footage...

The drug addiction, social anomie, sexual addiction are all signs of collapse. I can't say why I've had a lifelong depiction of the disintegration of the society around me and apocalyptic imagery but I imagine it has to do with coming of age during the Vietnam war.

I wrote a statement in the early 90s that my work was about what I sensed as the oncoming Dark Ages, no doubt that’s why there are the same Medievalist elements of 7 Deadly Sins and Dantesque retributions.

mM : What is the title of this series? What were some of your personal inspirational moments during the evolution of these pieces?

BART—Who knows?

All artists seem able to do is look at reality. The paradox is that so often my work is seen as some kind of fevered imaginings, when I consider it pretty strict observation and reportage. I often think of what I do in comparison to an artist like James Ensor, whose work ranged from straight realism to the most phantasmagoric panoramas in a variety of mediums and experimental methods.

“The odd thing is that my ‘vision’ hasn’t changed since I was quite young, and my work as an undergraduate was ruthlessly disparaged by most of the faculty because it failed to remotely conform to the current trends of minimal, abstract expressionist, photo realist, etc.,” Johnson says. “In those old days, we weren’t even allowed a figure to draw in drawing fundamentals because the slogan of the time was, ‘The figure is dead.’”

Kind thanks to Bart Johnson for taking time out. Johnson’s work is widely held in public and private collections and has been exhibited—Art Institute of Chicago Gallery, De Young Museum in San Francisco, Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe and more. For additional information about Bart Johnson please visit Mindy Solomon Gallery and Eight Modern.