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Face It: Paintings by Brad Miller and Scott Johnson
South of North Gallery
"Intensity can present its own problems if the painter pays too high a price for it. Each of us differs from his fellows, and if we wish to be entirely ourselves we have no basis for communication. Conceivably a painting can be too close to the artist, have too much of him, and too little of us. But we must not assume this..."
These words of art critic, Frederick S. Wight, serve as a measure for both the immediate strengths and the potential weak points in the works of gallery member, Brad Miller, and guest artist, Scott Johnson, now on display at the artists' cooperative, South of North Gallery, Chicago.
Scott Johnson's artist statement notes: "I like to create associations between images that only make sense visually, defying verbal analysis." This is right and proper. Art must be seen. Words can only direct our attention to it.
But, as poet W.H.Auden wrote: "...we cannot be content merely to experience but must seek to make sense of it, to know what is its cause and significance...."
Scott Johnson's exhibited works show his progression to this realization and this is what makes his successive pieces increasingly more interesting.
"Convention II" (1997) is representative of Scott Johnson's earlier approach. The artist stated: "When I walk down the street, I see little events going on around me, some of which I couldn't begin to understand. When I put together images for a painting, I don't try to make sense of every aspect of the composition anymore than I try to understand things going on outside of my own life." Perhaps it was initially true that this artist dealt only with spontaneous images. Johnson often begins with an acrylic underpainting of his general canvas areas and textures, sometimes transferring halftones and images from sources that caught his attention. He then paints smaller areas in oils and ultimately proceeds to draw linework images out of the composition and into a visual whole.
In "Convention II," the bright yellow, blue and red bands of the background bring together the smaller, specific images, and call to mind the national colors of some unknown republic. This sets a coherent tone fore its denizens: a tense assembly of ragtag soldiery in the back, upon which is superimposed a vignette of serene seamstresses a la Japonisme. Ironically, the tranquil producers are ordered geometrically, more disciplined in ranks than the armed militia drilled to destroy. To the upper right, painted in oils, a sophisticated, elite couple-le appear to hold watch. On the face of it, one feels it to be either a generic synopsis of some retrograde despotism; or an Orwellian campaign poster. Its spirit recalls the Sixties -- Peron, Mao Tse-Tung, Sukarno....
Johnson's works in this mode follow much art that owes its public acceptance to the prevalence of American-style cinema posters and advertising's multi-images. Which is not to deny a kindred tradition which traces back as far as early Byzantine icons. Scott Johnson's interest in the approach was in part sparked by the works of German collagistes, one of whom he recalls as one 'Sigmar Polke.' But Johnson instinctually possesses a feel for unifying focus and thematic resonance. Perhaps in his earlier work he has not deliberately drawn upon this, but it does frequently emerge and it is a saving resource.
"Two Beauties" harkens to the amulet art of the Tudor miniaturists and their conventions. But Johnson has made the genre contemporary by fully picturing the facial piercings and rings on the two models depicted.
Scott Johnson stated: "I believe in strong, finished technical quality. But ultimately the final construction should be free and alive, with a feeling for the spontaneous." "Two Beauties" approaches these criteria, although here one feels the free play of concept is a final, finishing touch to the technique. In earlier works, spontaneity seems a part of the execution. Subsequent works show a development toward starting with a free play of observation and maintaining the liveliness through to a finished and well integrated work of art.
In his two most recent works on display, "At The Table" and "Untitled" (1998), Johnson enters a new area of artistic expression, and one which may prove to be his most successful. These are works which communicate directly and forcefully to numerous viewers, and they display a free-spirited conception, executed in a synthesis of collage-inspired composition and finished figurative technique. They are desirable and very individual works of art. Here the artist is not just harmonizing images acquired from his environment, but allowing the sense, which human perception ultimately ascribes to objects and events, to emerge and have ordered expression on the canvas.
In "Untitled" (1998) the woman and man at the right constitute an immediate focus. Johnson believes that they form a private space, in contrast to the public images in the foreground. A viewer might also interpret the collagistic foreground as simulating the visualized thoughts of one of the two figures above. Or they may be contextual clues. Such work has a core that communicates, and allows for a viewer response.
The gesture of the highlighted woman echoes the pose of the foreground's public image -- a woman on the telephone. That the man is turned toward his companion and away from the viewer adds tension and ambiguity to the situation, but heightens a sense for the viewer that he is intruding on a situation. A telling detail, subtle, but highly effective, is the juxtaposition of windows in the background. At the left, the view is from inside a confining, long room. One is inside and looking out. But, at the right, one clearly sees a window on the exterior of a wall and is given the sensation of being outside, on the street. Thus the viewer is at once privately inside and a distanced outside observer.
And finally one notices the nightmarish, thin face emergent from the foreground below the man. In this work it seems a clear link to the situation in the focus. If this is merely free spontaneity in the artist, then he is getting consistently lucky or his subliminal mind has shrewd insights into composition and toying with him unawares.
"At The Table" also displays a well-integrated melding of multi-image and strong focus; and a play between personal and public arenas. Several figures, perhaps monastics, reach out toward an indistinctly-set table. A first reaction was... clerics seduced into alchemy? The image of an old woman in the shadows abets this response. The ominous figure to the upper right, however, is a samurai. The tone seems a bit reminiscent of Gustave Dore. But it does communicate. Here is an artist evolving from a now widespread, idiosyncratic convention into an original art that elicits viewer dialogue. And it leaves a viewer actually wishing to see more of Scott Johnson's ongoing work.
The other artist featured in FACE IT! at South of North Gallery is Brad Miller. As a member of the cooperative gallery, Brad Miller has an ongoing exhibition of his paintings and many of his previous works may be viewed in the lower level, as well in this showcase presentation.
Brad Miller has produced a number of impressive works. His earlier pieces have impressed gallery visitors by virtue of an imposing technical execution and a distinctive point of view. He has shown great skill in capturing evocative moments in unorthodox scenes -- dramatic cloud patterns hovering just beyond the view of water tower peaks: scenes where, like Degas, the focus of attention is often off-sides and framed as to set the eye off balance. His work, while hovering at the brink of objective realism, seems mentored by Degas and Edward Hopper. Often he has forced the viewer to regard familiar objects from unorthodox and revealing perspectives; or chosen scenes one would rarely otherwise stop to absorb. But it has been an individual achievement.
His most recent work, now on display at South of North Gallery's upper level, is a strong departure from what has been shown up until now. And it appears to be veering away from an art which is communicative and into a much more idiosyncratic, personal and arcane performance: the kind of 'gimmickry' the ModArt establishment loves to market. Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, quotes N.Y.Times art critic Hilton Kramer as writing: "to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial." And Wolfe concludes "the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text." Without a manifesto or artist's statement, these new works are not as engaging as previous work. The three pieces on the East wall are relatively large (41 inch by 53 inch) panels, each of which features a large facial close-up painted in a monochrome. Each is predictably named after the prevailing color: "Jon Leguizamo" is here "Red Man." The work is overt. Brad Miller did show in October at Chicago's "Around The Coyote" exhibition, where he brought one of his earlier pieces and a number of smaller portraits similar to the larger works on display here. This showing now further includes miniature reworkings of some of Miller's earlier paintings, painted here onto small building blocks and in deep-set wooden frames. The artist stated that, after working on the larger scale, he felt a desire to set some things into a small format and differently. Again, artist Frank Stella did have a point: "What you see is what you see." In these pieces the viewer will see monochrome faces in close-up on large canvases, It is up to the viewer to decide if he wishes to read more into it. The canvases seem mute.
It will be of interest to see where this direction will lead. But his work is ongoing at South of North Gallery. And Brad Miller has a web-site for those wishing to investigate further: It is home.earthlink.net~hoodmiller.
This two-man show runs until December 27, 1998. If leasing arrangements work out for the gallery, it may run until the end of month, so one can phone to learn more. The South of North Gallery artists expect to have future showings in selected venues. All of the cooperative's members have work on display in the lower level and at the back of the space, and there are several who have excellent work for sale.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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