Bart Johnson

The Santa Fe New Mexican, Pasatiempo
By Rob DeWalt
Published Friday, June 17th, 2011

“I live in a culture that insists on infantile commercial products aimed at never letting in any bad news,” New Mexico artist Bart Johnson told Pasatiempo.  Surrealism, eroticism, a sense of mythology, and, at times, a whimsical, almost Boschian view of human and animal physical forms accent much of Johnson’s work.  Bart Johnson: The Truth Hurts, an exhibit of his paintings, drawings, and ceramics, opens at Eight Modern on Friday, June 17th.

“The title of the exhibit is black humor, which is how I view what I do,” he said.  “I recall a bit in the [Robert] Crumb film where he described his LSD experiences, which liberated his way of working.  He had drawn what he considered this grotesque dance of death with funny animals cavorting, and it was viewed by his audience as “whimsical” or “clever” or words to that effect.  I guess I feel a bit like Crumb does when my work is seen as whimsical and lighthearted.

Although, it’s perfectly fine with me however people see my work.  By the standards of what you view spinning through the horror story of the televised universe, my work is indeed lighthearted and whimsical.”

Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, although his interest in art—his “internal arts education”—took shape much earlier.

“My mother reports that I told her I wanted to be an artist soon after I learned to speak,” Johnson said.  “Early on I began to draw comics and continued to do that through grade school.  In that sense, I was on the path to arts education before I’d practiced any real ‘adult’ decision making about a career.  And I’d developed a contact with the world inside my head during those years that began to assert itself on paper.  In a sense, everything I’m doing now is no more than an adult version of what I was compelled to do beginning in early childhood.”

Johnson found the formal arts-education system to be hostile toward his artistic leanings, with the exception of a few people, including instructor Milo Russel and Abstract Expressionist painter Milton Resnick (1917-2004), who taught at VCU for one semester, according to Johnson.  “It was either my good luck or sound intuition to just block out what the faculty was promoting and what was in the art magazines and to pay attention to [Russel and Resnick].”

Although Johnson didn’t hew to or emulate Resnick’s Abstract Expressionist ways on paper or canvas (he wasn’t working with ceramics at the time), he said he was profoundly influenced by Resnick’s artistic idealism.  “Resnick was committed to painting as a form of spiritual investigation or investigation of consciousness.” He said.  “I was a figurative artist from the get-go, and that hasn’t changed.  For me the issue isn’t in what way one paints or draws; it’s the adherence to an internal vision that’s informed by observing the world directly.  I rejected not only Abstract Expressionism but all the other isms because they had nothing whatsoever to do with me or how I saw the world.  I wanted to examine my own interior world, not take the next step into the future of painting by creating a single-color canvas.”

Undergraduate faculty members at VCU had their own ideas about what constituted art, and Johnson could not embrace them.  “As Jackson Pollock said about Thomas Hart Benton,” Johnson said, arts education gave Johnson “something solid to react against.  And so I view ti as a good thing, not a bad thing.”

Johnson took art lessons in grade school and art classes in high school, but living in suburban northern Virginia in the 1970’s played a key role in his exposure to the Old Masters.  When he got his driver’s license, he began to travel frequently to Washington, D.C., to view the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection.  “In those days, the National Gallery was open until 9 p.m., and it was also pre-King Tut exhibit, so very few people were in the museum in the evening.  I was extremely fortunate in where I grew up, as far as having access to Old Master painting as well as the great 20th-century collection at the Phillips.”

Johnson finds little inspiration in artwork created during the latter half of the 20th century; he cites a sense of artistic disassociation in the work.  “All around me I saw painting becoming something crabbed and finished, cold and detached,” he said.  “Graphic –design-type work in L.A.; Warholian Pop copying mass-media banality; photorealism copying photographs; and photographs that were bland and detached from what was happening.  The Vietnam War was happening at the time, while photorealists made work that explicitly avoided that reality.  I was conditioned by that reality.  The cognitive dissonance between a Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse childhood and war footage photographs like that of the running, naked, napalmed child spread far and wide through the media in those days.  Something of that dissonance is always present in how I continue to view the world since that time.”

Johnson mentions with admiration the work of New York School/neo-Expressionist Philip Guston, as well as Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, and in terms of political and social and pop commentary, the work of Peter Saul and Crumb.  “Guston rejected his Abstract Expressionist work in favor of a personal figurative vocabulary that communicated itself directly,” Johnson said.  “In my work, I’m taking my insides out, as singer-songwriter Elliot Smith put it.  Whether it’s grotesque, comic, melancholic, joyful—all those things—it’s a part of my reaction on that particular day to what I see as well as hear around me.  I don’t think the work is about me.  It’s not about my own neuroses or psychological problems, except tot the extent that my neuroses and psychological problems are also those of the society I live in.”