By Brian Karl November 30, 2015

In this exhibition of ten new works (all 2015) of varying dimensions painted in acrylic on found wood, Chris Johanson represents a series of scenes imbued with psychologically charged if ambiguous atmospheres that depict alienation—with more than a few signs of human yearning—mostly in a small range of contemporary settings. Never showing as a technically “fine” painter, Johanson continues a sketchy pursuit of different genres that include abstraction, as with Reimagining the Square Trying to Make it Round Like a Circle; landscapes of sorts, as in I Am in My Body Again, an exterior view of a suburban ranch home, with gold clouds thickly painted above; interiors, both inside and outside in Infinity; and unrealistically rendered human figures, usually abject in posture or attitude and dwarfed by their surrounding milieu, populating the majority of the pieces here. Though set in apparently sunny climes, and moving through a shared landscape, these figures ultimately all seem to struggle—sometimes bowed singly, others marching in imprecise file—in conditions of great anomie if not outright isolation. Technology features in more than one of these paintings, but mostly as a tantalizing, failed possibility, or, worse, a breeder of even greater awareness of isolation.

Chris Johanson, Equations, Installation View. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel.

Given the cartoonlike basis of most of his portrayals, the slackerly compositions, and the seeming arbitrariness of the surface textures of the paint he uses so dynamically as a set of color choices (seemingly clumsy elements that have often been similarly deployed by other artists who might pass as “outsider,” however relative that term might be), the question arises as to why Johanson chooses to so often paint rather than draw. In these pieces Johanson doubles down on painting in several ways: first, through the large scale of several of the scenes, as with Lecture Series/Abstract Mass, and the bleak consumer composite suburbia of Los Angeles with Pills. Johanson paints on repurposed wood panels and displays most of his work in awkward, large, built wooden armatures to show off both fronts and backs equally (as he has done even more elaborately in installations elsewhere). This prominently shows off the wooden buttressing behind the panels, which he also highlights with “secondary” paintings on the reverse. These include what look like a series of painted geometric doodles mosaic’d on the back of one larger composition, a simple set of color fields of darker and lighter brown parceled out by the different wood elements themselves, and what looks like a beginning painted sketch of an abstract landscape not so dissimilar to what might show up elsewhere as just one among many background components in a “primary” or finished painting by Johanson on the front of one of his panels.

There are many familiar Johanson visual conceits here: the series of slight abstractions of those “backside” geometric doodles, alongside (or behind) the portrayal of a large number of loosely congregated figures. In this instance, a multitude of particularly generic or indistinct floating heads in The Self, heightening simultaneously those figures’ individual vulnerability as well as a sort of collective sameness through their anonymity.  There is also the strange toggling of perspective between these sorts of group portraits and complicated arrays of landscape; the spare interior of Infinity lies open and exposed to its larger outdoor setting and especially its threatening wash of dark, tendrily trees, while I Did Not Yet Know/Technology hints of a revealing first-person subjectivity in the close-up of an undetailed face/head floating prominently in fields of color, including an undergirding of rainbow.  

Chris Johanson, The Big Picture Escapes Me, 2015. Acrylic on found wood. 162.6 x 213.4 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel

Johanson has deployed some of the telling words and phrases lettered crudely into the painted imagery in previous bodies of work. They range from single-word, koan-like mantras casting their ambiguous auras over the images, to more than caption-like full-length sentences, where the comparison to Raymond Pettibon’s harder, darker textual illustration becomes unavoidable. The laying on of words occurs most chatteringly and spectacularly in The Big Picture Escapes Me, where the proliferation of wry and/or melancholic concerns or slogans are wedged in and around the multitude of human scenes of a lapsed San Francisco represented in imagery, as well as dripping multicolored swirls and cascades enveloping the scenes’ edges. The words almost cross-connect to create a sense of fragments adding up to more than the sum of their parts in semi-cryptic, semi-oracular phrases such as “Be in Your Way” and “Beauty Now Is.” These can and often do serve as a significant basis for the scenes portrayed or, even more strikingly, as echoes of the various figures’ states of mind.

For the most part, however, Johanson eschews in this set of paintings the strategy of inserting text directly into the worlds he creates. The titles of the pieces do some of that work, with many familiar references to attempted self-actualization of one kind or another—I Am in My Body Again, I Did Not Yet Know/Technology—but without the integration of such key phrases into the paintings themselves, or rather, their hovering insistence in the main fields of the paintings themselves, the effects of this intertextual play are markedly subdued. Again, committed to painting, he relies on an expressionist mode of channeling interior mood onto the external world by depicting multiple scenes on single panels, with shifts in scale and perspective, and through the wild dynamic of brash acrylic coloring these worlds.


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Equations by Chris Johanson is on view at Altman Siegel Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through December 19, 2015.

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