Bart Johnson compares his working habits to Camus’s Sisyphus endlessly rolling his rock up a hill. Often sly or humorous in expression, with a certain playfulness and eroticism, the Albuquerque-area artist’s drawings and ceramics would seem to refute the grinding laboriousness implied by the metaphor; however Johnson’s diligence and all-encompassing engagement with art and the creative process cannot be denied.
A lifelong student of art history with a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth and a MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Johnson makes short shrift of his significant formal education, noting that “My work should be more properly seen as autobiography deriving from my life experience than as a reflection of my formal education. I have largely discarded the theoretical and formal issues that were the primary content of my education.”
That result leaves Johnson and his significant technical skill and educational background with a great deal of freedom and imagination. He may have discarded theory and form, but his knowledge and consumption of it still stir his creative cauldron. His home studio, his sketchbooks, and indeed his mind, are private places but always full to the brim with ideas, projects and internal dialogues.
“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.’”
When discussing his artistic idols and inspirations, Johnson largely eschews the latter half of the twentieth century. “My work has the same kind of mythic (and inexplicable) vocabulary as [Max] Beckmann’s, and a lot of [George] Grosz’s specificity.” His method, which is based on the observation and transformation of his surroundings, he feels compares more to Pieter Bruegel or James Ensor, who worked from realistic observation, or Picasso: “Not his work, but his methodology, which is all about the image metamorphosing instantaneously as he seizes it.”
Johnson’s omnivorous approach to art results in works that continue to bring forth new associations and details long after the initial viewing. Figure after figure, line after line, the webs of Johnson’s remarkably artistic mind feather to the surface. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, he knows no other way but to keep pushing his burden up the hill daily, and he does so gladly.
“I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember – it is like breathing,” Johnson says. “It has to be done or you die.”
Forgive Johnson, then, a little bit of gallows humor in his show title, The Truth Hurts, which he describes as a corollary to a quote from David Foster Wallace: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”
“My wife and I were throwing show titles back and forth and the ones that made us laugh for a bit were the ones I seized on. Kafka wanted all his work burnt upon his death. He used to read the stories and bits of the unfinished novels to his close friends and they'd all be laughing until they split their sides. I was listening to an audio tape of Edmund White's biography of Proust and he described Proust's eccentric bouts of laughing away like a madman,” Johnson says. “The title has something to do with that. Explaining jokes is a lot like trying to explain art. Impossible.”
Johnson’s work is widely held in public and private collections and has been exhibited at The School Art Institute of Chicago Gallery, the De Young Museum in San Francisco, St. John’s College, The Queens Museum, the University of New Mexico, the Albuquerque Museum of Art, El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art and numerous private galleries.
(Images: Bart Johnson, Storm Clouds Over St. Thomas, Ink; The Eastside Boys, Ceramic, 5 x 4 x 2 in; Warlord, 2003, Oil on Paper Mounted on Panel, 14 x 10 in ; Courtesy of the Artist and Eight Modern)
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