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Illusion as Reality



There were no military MREs or sacks of ice handed out at the opening, nor were any representatives of FEMA or the Red Cross present. Those were fixtures of the past, of September or even October, but not now. Here wine and party sandwiches once again held sway, and it was enough to cause a still-evacuated New Orleans artist visiting from Austin to exclaim, "My God, this is like a flashback to life before Katrina -- it's as if it never happened!" True enough, nothing on the walls suggested mortal struggle, just the buoyant orchestration of color, order and deftly controlled chaos in a strictly aesthetic context. It was time to relax once again, and that was a good thing.

The artist, Richard Johnson, had in fact evacuated last August, but ended up far away, in Vermont, where the most fearsome challenge he faced was shoveling out from an early New England snowfall. Once home, he found his downtown digs undamaged, and it comes as no surprise that his exhibition at Cole Pratt has everything to do art for its own sake. 7 Paintings, 4 Decades is a mini-retrospective that covers his evolution since he arrived in this city in the mid-1970s. And if you think it's mere escapism to focus on art at a time when we have a city to rebuild, it's really not, for reasons that will become clearer soon enough. Meanwhile, what we see says something about not just the evolution of an artist, but also the evolution of contemporary American art.

Johnson's 1975 opus, Ribonic Blue Slant, is a field of wavy blue ribbon-like bands punctuated with bright red rods floating in space. A period piece of sorts, it recalls the illusionist aspect of the pattern and decoration movement. Buoyantly minimal, it possesses such a sly sensuality that you might start to hallucinate those stylized female heads that so often popped up in the late Robert Gordy's paintings from the same period. So it's quite a transition from Ribonic to Lazy A, an acrylic on canvas composition dating from 1985. This is much more typical of what we associate with Johnson, a space of abstract gestures that have no substance but cast shadows, of glowing swatches of color that levitate amid a chaos of sprawling neon-tinted lines and marks that seem possessed by the wayward energy of poltergeists. Lazy A suggests an unholy melding of pop and abstract expressionism.

His 1993 canvas Vertical Free Fall still hints at abstract expressionist "action painting" as swatches of fat, juicy colors flail around in a polychrome tumult, but increasingly there are other forms that look more impersonal, as if brightly colored mass produced objects had gotten caught in a vortex. It's an evolution that continued in his 1998 acrylic and mixed media canvas, Dust Devil, where the unique, man made gesture, the expressive mark or brush stroke appears subsumed to robotic mechanical forces as bits of crumpled paper cohabit a zero gravity domain with glowing tubes, assorted colorful detritus and a flashback to streamers of blue ribbons. It's the painterly equivalent of pop electronic music, maybe something by Jan Hammer.

Similar allusions are seen in his 2005 collage painting, Prince Street. Here recognizable swatches of sea share space with glowing rods, a flash of sleek female torso, bits of chromed chain, red globs of color that seem to have a libidinous life of their own, an ambiguous bit of garment, and swatches of lush brush strokes that say nothing in particular but return the hand of man to the canvas, fleshing out the postmodern dialog between the human gesture and the robotic forces of mass production. And it's fair to ask how any of this is relevant to the most massive task of urban reconstruction ever faced by any city in America.

The answer is that engagement with art not only defines the level of civilization of our cities, it is also an aid to the kind of lateral, creative thinking that is required at times like these. Art stimulates the part of the brain that solves problems -- recent studies have shown that Alzheimer's patients show marked improvement after spending time in art museums -- and at a time like this we need all the help we can get!

In Richard Johnson's painting, Lazy A, swatches of - glowing color seem to levitate amid neon-tinted lines, - suggesting an unholy melding of pop and abstraction.
  • In Richard Johnson's painting, Lazy A, swatches of glowing color seem to levitate amid neon-tinted lines, suggesting an unholy melding of pop and abstraction.

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