I make art to communicate what I cannot communicate with words: what I need to say about it all; what's going on in the world around us; what I cannot ﬁx; what I wish I could make different with my paint or clay, metal - or the sledge hammer my husband gave me. I work desperately hard at it all - hands ﬁrst: putting on - taking off, scraping, sanding, sawing, soldering, pounding. It takes a whole lot of passion and persistence when you are trying so desperately to trade ashes for beauty
Although I am working intuitively, somehow the paintings are deeply considered and elaborately realized. I am working with my hands - no brushes. The work consists of up to 30 layers of paint and glazes, including: oil, acrylic, graphite, charcoal, crayon, paper, silk, cotton and pigment transfers. Various ordinary objects that are a part of our lives in this space of time, are embedded in the paint: sometimes in part and sometimes as whole objects. Everything you see in the work is personal, meaningful and specific, including the various printed languages seen in the form of transfers. When closely viewed, the transfers can be seen through the various layers of paint and glazes. What may appear to be collage in photographs of the paintings - are actually transfers, excepting a few works done in 2009.
Personal Website: http://juliennejohnson.com
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> PETER FRANK ESSAY ON JOHNSON
Peter Frank is art critic for the Huffington Post, Associate Editor for Fabrik Magazine, and former Adjunct Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum. He is also former art critic for Angeleno Magazine, the LA Weekly, and the Village Voice, and has served as editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine LA. Frank has curated exhibitions for the Guggenheim Museum, dOCUMENTA, the Biennale di Venezia, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and numerous other institutions and galleries. He has published numerous books and catalogues. A cycle of poems, The Travelogues, was issued by Sun & Moon Press in 1982. Frank teaches and lectures extensively throughout North America and Europe.
Can abstraction be romantic? If vast expanses of a single color, modulated by shifts in tone and value and leavened with extraneous material, manifest an abstract sublime, can they also manifest a human-sized passion?
Vast as they might be, Julienne Johnson’s paintings maintain a disarming intimacy, confounding our sense of scale even as they launch themselves across the walls. Line, color and space seem to struggle for primacy in Johnson’s works; but, in its very insistence, their argument gradually turns into a coherent, often harmonious chorus. Some of her work relies on a calligraphic vigor, suggesting at once contemplative notation and expansive choreographic movement. Others embrace but (unlike the informel and abstract expressionist models they suggest) do not become the void. Indeed, in their dependence on the presence of non-painterly as well as painterly materials, they celebrate matter itself.
Sensuality offsets existential despair; tactile as well as optical stimulation charges what might have been spiritual as well as visual negative space. The frequent, if usually subtle, appearance of actual text, an ongoing infusion of reports from around the globe in a profusion of alphabets, lets the world in just enough to assert the visual pleasures of writing itself.
Johnson’s is a method, and a world view, both eruptive and lyrical, delighting in its own textures even as it responds urgently to the world and the soul.
> EZRHA JEAN BLACK ESSAY ON JOHNSON
Ezrha Jean Black, art critic and staff writer for Artillery Magazine, is also an investigative researcher and blogger based in Los Angeles. She has written widely on all the arts and has contributed essays and chapters to books and exhibition catalogs, including Richard Hertz's oral history of the the Los Angeles art world, The Beat and the Buzz. Black freelances for numerous publications on-line and off-line, including The Daily Beast and also writes a fashion blog on Examiner.com.
The impression of color comes first – rich, saturated, frequently in vivid, fire-bright or jewel-like colors, which are modulated through the multiple layers that gradually reveal themselves beneath the surface glazes. “The color is always there,” Johnson says, almost matter-of-factly. It’s not necessarily the focus of the work, although its effects are inescapable. The under painting is complicated by its multiple layers, movements, and digressions. Johnson’s work is clearly impacted by environmental and sheerly informational elements, as well as culturally identifiable or aesthetic motives, that filter free-associatively into what appears to be a very fluid process. It would be easy to imagine Johnson going about her work as if she were reconstructing a complex message of images (and words) by Ouija board.
The cacophony of the information-saturated urban and suburban environment clearly inflects Johnson’s motives. But there is also a more recondite message-making – cursive scrawls that ebb and flow beneath swirls of paint, words and phrases that can barely be discerned yet alternately convey urgency and alienation. Themes (occasionally referencing the political environment) emerge, but are never defining or determinative of the work as a whole. The viewer’s eye scans the surface ruminatively, but not entirely randomly, controlled by Johnson’s orchestration of shape and color, the scrum of macerated messages and asynchronous calligraphic detail. Shape, as it turns out, is what anchors Johnson’s composition. The composition begins even as the canvas is being gessoed, though, through cumulative layers and details, it may be utterly transformed.
Johnson doesn’t shy away from big issues, whether public or political, or personal and emotional. So it makes sense that she seems to focus on shapes that are strong and resilient enough to hold them through the rigor of her process, yet just ambiguous enough to keep the viewer looking and asking questions.
> WILLIAM MORENO ESSAY ON JOHNSON
William Moreno is Curator and Director of William Moreno Contemporary – Los Angeles. Prior to his current post, he was the Founding Director of the Claremont Museum of Art and Director of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. Moreno has served as the Associate Director of ArtPadSF, an art fair that launched at the famed Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, and directed a commercial gallery in Silicon Valley. Moreno has been a featured speaker at the Commonwealth Club and American Institute of Architecture and has appeared on KCET’s series California’s Gold hosted by Huell Howser, in addition to other television and radio programs. He has served on a number of portfolio review panels including the City of Los Angeles' (C.O.L.A.) Individual Artist Fellowships and PhotoAlliance. He has been a participant and moderator for a number of arts panels dealing with contemporary art practices and issues. Moreno currently serves on advisory committees for Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), the California Association of Museums (as Board Vice President), and Make Music LA, as one of the founding Board members.
PERSISTENCE OF BEAUTY
Painting is just another way of keeping a diary. – Pablo Picasso
Julienne Johnson is the Michigan-born descendant of Lebanese immigrants who “made things.” That creative impulse is an enduring familial hallmark. A natural draftswoman from an early age, Johnson has always rendered images as a part of her creative repertoire, and that early self-awareness later manifested in a variety of ways.
Though never far from the visual arts, Johnson’s earlier career included a period as a musician. The great Russian abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky wrote that "music is the ultimate teacher." Composer, poet and visual artist Lera Auerbach has also noted that “art can relate to the most difficult subjects… it can be on a completely abstract level. And it has the potential of reaching people’s emotions, of making them cry even without them realizing why.” Johnson’s artworks, studies in energy and controlled chaos, draw inspiration from such perspectives. Her works from 2009 are lyrical, nuanced ballets of color and light. In paintings from the following year a stronger, more determined hand seems present, infused with gestural energy that nearly leaps from the canvas.
One wonders how Johnson’s works can create such a complex range of impressions, from apprehension and a sense of pending cataclysm to overwhelming serenity. The very nature of her process may account in part for this response. Sheer physicality plays a large role in the way Johnson works, moving paint and found materials as she does directly on canvas with glove-sheathed hands. She clearly relishes working intuitively and viscerally with paint. Her paintings often incorporate found textural elements such as paper clippings, swatches of cloth, and bits of wood. In their grace, however, the resulting pictures as much belie as bespeak Johnson’s vigorous effort. Earthy and gutsy, they possess a determined beauty that seems lost in much of today’s contemporary art.
Make no mistake, there is underlying tension and conflict in these paintings, something unsaid that needs to be said. It’s clear that the paintings, like buried time capsules, contain complex narratives and incalculable elements, yet they hold the persistent promise of assurance and resolve. In a civilization that relentlessly exposes us to cascades of images, Johnson’s art provides contemplative sustenance. In some of the works, hints of photo transfer just beneath the surface painting act as physical and psychological foundation, a proving ground for what lies atop.
Johnson’s interest in contemporary issues shapes her understanding of painting itself, a compromise between self-expression and the turmoil of the unconscious. In the 2009-2010 Blue series the lyrical miasma is palpable; and in works such as Green Study (2010) and Purple Study (2009), the images, loose, open and explosive, border on figuration. Johnson’s process is to a great extent organic, as her painting’s final resolution is neither clearly planned nor predetermined. She often refers to her works as having a “European sensibility,” but “world view” seems more appropriate. Taking cues from the humanity around her, Johnson views every life experience as her muse.
In more recent work, such as the Lavender series and Todi (all 2011), color and balance shift and a sense of control and scale takes on increasing importance. The underlying messaging is resolute, akin to finding one’s pitch. Complex interplays of form and materials provide solutions to ongoing problems she poses herself. Yet Johnson approaches her work with a determination to resolve each painting completely, whether or not she has proceeded to other works. “When a painting is done,” she observes, “I detach from it… and feel the need to move on to something new.” Yet Johnson’s fascination with the “the spaces between” provides the possibility of multiple, and malleable, interpretations. She is not interested in providing a fully revelatory experience but, rather, invites viewers to “fill in your own story.”
> JAMES BAE ESSAY ON JOHNSON
James Bae is a Contributing Editor for Paper Monument Magazine - A Journal of Contemporary Art, independent curator and past interim curator at the Riverside Art Museum in Riverside California.
There is a sense of an inward dialogue, however tacitly embedded, underneath the abstract gestures in the paintings of Julienne Johnson.
In her series, Ashes for Beauty, we see these paintings as an ongoing variation of a familiar theme; a conversation taking place between the curves and flow of each other’s surfaces, mediated by bands and pockets of colors - often lithe, sometimes strident - in semaphore.
The title of the series is a clue to what may have driven Johnson to produce these works. “To give unto them beauty for ashes,” Isaiah 61:3 imparts: “the oil of joy for mourning.” These are, then, paintings of the most personal of sort: of love and loss, and the ardor of memory. They are visual reminders of the processes one is engaged in, by our being here left to remember, in finding reasons to move on.
What gives these works their poetic and numinous qualities is the abstraction of their appearance, wedded and arising from a uniquely humanistic concern. The passages of colors infer moods: bursts of colors hover over a ground of melancholic greys; a fog of violets pool upon a base of light blues; the radiance of yellow floods a canvas like a rush of morning sun. In other works, a figment of a letter is an intimate address to an impenetrable past.
Looking at her work is appreciating the type of work that understands that less can be more. Perhaps the hardest thing to do in art is to make an abstract work mean something, and not render it simply an exercise in cleverness, arranging shapes and colors into a perfunctory, graphic order. Johnson’s work, in its dedication to find a unified form of the senses, speaks of a further, more meaningful conversation that is taking place.
> SELECTED MUSEUM COLLECTIONS & EXHIBITIONS
2011 Arab American National Museum / Dearborn, Michigan - affiliate of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C.
2009 Pacific Asian Museum - Contemporary Gallery / Pasadena, California