Collector's Dossier: Michael Johnson - Big Fish - Art Collector

Issue 64, April - June 2013

Since his inclusion in the landmark exhibition Field in 1968, Michael Johnson has established himself as one of Australia's most renowned artists. Janet Hawley steps into his studio to discuss his latest work.

Michael Johnson, Hue Line, 2011. Oil on canvas, 183 x 153cm. Courtesy: the artist and Olsen Irwin Gallery, Sydney

You don’t just look at a Michael Johnson painting; you experience and explore it, like a symphony concert or a long journey. And a conversation with Johnson follows the same pattern. He quotes an old Chinese proverb: “If you don’t know where you’re going, go by the road you don’t know ... meaning the road full of discovery,” he expands.

So interviewing Michael Johnson about his distinctive abstract paintings becomes a magical mystery voyage. Ask him a question about his work, his sources of inspiration, and you’ll never get a straight answer, because there isn’t one.

His warm, gravelly voice will undulate, veer, dive and soar, like the intriguing lines and passages on his large canvasses, as he relates his intense feelings about things his artist’s eye sees; and then adds layers of emotion, intellect, memory.

An essentially private man, Johnson explains the random things – particularly his appreciation of nature – that can trigger an inspiration. “Rainbows, mirages, reflections in still water, the movement of the tides; volcanoes, cyclones, tsunamis, bushfires; the Milky Way, the path of the moon,” he begins. “Waking up on a new day; hearing a bird call, or noticing leaves unfurling. I love the camouflage colors on birds, mammals, reptiles, fish; I love shells, eggs, stones, the bones of fish or mutton birds ...”

Enter Johnson’s airy Sydney studio filled with works in various states of completion, and the whole space sings and dances with color. The wet paintings seem so alive you can almost hear them breathing.
He talks about them as living beings: “I always paint in pairs,” his arms wave. “This is the boy, this is the girl. I try to keep the girls light and soft, and the boys more mysterious and nocturnal. But often along the way they’ll swap identities and females will become males.” As if they’re pets, Johnson will say: “Today I fed her this color, and this is what she did, this is where she went...”

Hundreds of tubes of oil paints are lined on tables and the floor, along with piles of the small house paint brushes he favours. It takes Johnson three months to complete a large painting, and months, indeed years for it to dry as the intricate layering can be so thick. Often he draws in lines of paint squeezed straight from the tube, using an entire tube, or tubes, to make one line.

In Johnson’s best known work there’s an architectural structure of lines, and within this is a lyrical, gloriously passionate, sometimes turbulent, sometimes pensive, combustion of energy and colour ... like the mysteries inside his own complex mind.

“I like to do the big, impossibly difficult ones first, solve them, and then I feel more comfortable moving to smaller ones,” he explains. “I like taking risks: there’s both a fear and a love of diving into the blank canvas.

“Each painting is based on a different idea, but they all have climate change; there’s a warm one, a cool one; a wet one, a dry one. It’s about how you feel that day, and the next day when you start on it again, you may feel completely different, so you bury the previous day within itself ... but submerging the thing is what makes the magic. It’s like the big fish you don’t often see on the surface; they’re down below, keeping an eye on things,” he chortles.

When he paints, he says, “it’s like a mix between dance and music; the blood flow in my body is reacting to what’s happening in front of me. Colour is the energy my work vibrates on; once you get the melody and rhythm, you want to keep on playing...

“I meditate a lot, and watch the painting, but when I’m actually in the painting, it’s very quick. Someone timed (Willem) de Kooning’s brush stroke at 75 kms an hour!”

Sometimes Johnson leafs through the stacks of notebooks he’s kept over the decades on his regular travels with wife Margo. He seeks inspirational sparks in figurative sketches he’s made of mollusk patterns in the sand, his daughter Anna swimming; sketches of old master paintings or tribal masks.

Johnson also has a fiercely intellectual life, and frequently marshals up ideas he’s read, paintings he’s studied in the world’s great museums, to discuss the history of art, the use of mathematics and geometry in art. He quotes Pythagoras: “There is geometry in the humming of the string, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”

On the other hand, Johnson seems never happier than when he’s playing with his grandchildren, or baiting a rod to go fishing.

“We’re all fishing for something,” he says, his eyes gleaming.

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