Collector's Dossier: Tim Johnson - Art Collector

Issue 52, April - June 2010

Tim Johnson’s grandly mythopoeic paintings map human relations across cultural divides. From the buoyant colours of these canvases rises an indomitable sense of optimism, like a phoenix, writes Roger Benjamin.

With the close of the major retrospective Painting Ideas: Tim Johnson, the time is ripe to reflect on an artist whose position in Australian art is increasingly seminal. Tim Johnson’s work has a broad appeal and is selling more strongly than ever. It draws you in with its glowing, vaporous colours, often in a key of buoyant yellows, oranges and greens that are seldom seen in art galleries. His images are expansive and breezy, yet have an intellectual refinement that keeps you guessing. Perhaps this is because Johnson’s way of composing draws on great cultural precedents: ancient Chinese landscape painting, with its use of several points of view; and Aboriginal painting of the Central Desert, with its subtle ways of mapping human and divine presence in the landscape.

From intelligent engagement with such sources Johnson has developed a system that gives lasting value and power to his works. His paintings are beautiful, but they are also about something, and this content can be broadly specified: an optimistic dream of human relations, mediated by images from different cultures. As Ian Potter Museum of Art director Chris McAuliffe opined, Johnson “has a highly personal view of the spiritual equivalence between cultures … This is a survey showing an Australian artist grappling with mind, heart and soul on a global scale.”

Johnson is neither preachy nor over-earnest, despite such claims. To peer into the coloured mist in his works is to encounter surprises and visual jokes: motifs like flying saucers applied with a rubber stamp (as can be seen in the YouTube clip Tim Johnson in his Studio), the divine eye from Tibetan Buddhist pennants, cartoon teen heroes from Japanese anime cells.

Such intercultural borrowing is one pillar of the artist’s work, and the second is collaboration with others. For close to three decades, Johnson has invited artist friends to paint directly on his canvases. At first it was Papunya artists he admired like Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula or Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri; then his daughters and nephews, who were succeeded by semi-professional artists. For nearly two decades years Karma Phuntsok, a Tibetan resident in northern New South Wales, has painted a rainbow of Buddhist motifs on canvases posted to him. The American-based Daniel Bogunovic is best for flying saucers and cartoon characters, and most recently Nava Chapman draws the Hindu pantheon of which he is a devotee. From the mid-1990s one collaboration became more personal: the Vietnamese artist My Le Thi, who for a decade was Tim’s partner after his long first marriage to the sociologist and authority on Aboriginal art, Vivien Johnson.

Collaboration gives an unpredictable face to Johnson’s pictures. In his works with Michael Jagamarra Nelson for example, the Warlpiri man painted Dreaming-marks in brown paint on black canvases; Johnson responded freehand with finely brushed lotus motifs in gold and azure. In many sole-authored works between 1983 and 1993, he applied veils of dots, at first freehand, then in strict concentric rows. Misty effusions of colour have been the backgrounds of choice in the last decade and a half. Of this concatenation of sources the artist has said: “Like a poem, every part doesn’t have to be logical or located in the same time-space continuum. A painting can create a fragmented reality that is interpreted by the viewer. Everyone sees things differently anyway. I create a collage of imagery in the work – fragmented like life itself.”

Johnson’s painting has been exhibited regularly in eastern Australia since the mid-1980s, and although this artist of copious output (he is also a writer, photographer and occasional musician) has garnered many favourable reviews, his work had not been the subject of a book until last year. The initiative was taken by two curators of different generations: Queensland Art Gallery’s Julie Ewington, Johnson’s contemporary in the radical Sydney art scene of the early 1970s; and Wayne Tunnicliffe of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a toddler at that time and now a leading figure among younger art professionals.

There are ample signs that Johnson’s work connects with a younger audience of gallery-goers. While conservatives were predictably negative about the retrospective, blogging critics have been impressed. Thus Sophie Cunningham, who admitted not to seeing his art before: “I was just blown away by the breadth, the intellectual curiosity and the genuinely radical nature of his art. I don’t mean by this that I thought every painting was an aesthetic success – it wasn’t. But there was something exciting about the level of engagement in his work: the sense of genuine risk.”

That sense of risk was already apparent in Johnson’s early work, when he was a performance and conceptual artist who had abandoned painting. In 1970 he founded, along with Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy, one of the original artist-run spaces in Sydney, Inhibodress. A serious painter at high school, Johnson took an arts degree at the University of New South Wales between 1966 and 1970. Those four years were key to the history of the counterculture in Australia – opposition to the Vietnam War, the advent of rock music, of psychotropic drugs, and the turn to the East for spiritual values. A whimsical oppositional spirit played out in Johnson’s early performances, where he would parody social mores by undressing invited members of the audience while lying on the gallery floor, or redeploy technology by whirling light-globes on their cords.

When Johnson returned to painting in 1974 he did so in the spirit of conceptual art: in a flat documentary style that avoided the lush aesthetics of the current lyrical abstraction. Snapshot photography often provided a source, as from his study trip to India, Nepal and Thailand with Vivien (1975-76). The next phase of his work was brief but provocative: his series of paintings and prints on punk music (1979-1983). In acid-bright colours or crude black on white he documented the birth of the local punk scene, while Vivien kept notes on the cult band they followed (she published Radio Birdman in 1990).

Johnson’s first trip to Papunya in remote Central Australia was a more decisive turning point. In 1980, having admired some of the first Pintupi and Arrernte paintings in magazines and Sydney galleries, he flew west to sit of the feet of senior law men whose works seemed to answer his dream of an art that might speak to the spirit, and give a conceptual rendering of the world. To support his new friends (whose business, Papunya Tula, had struggled since its foundation in 1972), he and Vivien also began collecting. This became a passion with its own momentum, so that by the late 1980s the Johnsons owned one of the great Papunya collections in private hands.

What is more, in the decade from 1983 he made some 60 collaborative works with Aboriginal artists. This provoked criticism from some white academics and Koori curators concerned with cultural exploitation. Once it became known that Johnson had the cultural sensitivity to only paint Indigenous motifs when given permission, and shared the proceeds of his joint works with the other painter, this criticism largely fell away.

By 1986 and 1987, he had arrived at his mature pictorial construction, in which small figures – desert artists, children, flying apsaras, Chinese travellers – are arrayed at seemingly random intervals across vast open spaces. Nodes of individual focus had replaced single-point perspective to create an open and mythopeoic space in which the eye was free to roam and speculate. Important parts of this idea were derived from Johnson’s study of the Buddhist murals in the Thousand-Temple Caves at Dunhuang, on the edge of the Gobi desert (which Johnson had studied in the library at the University of Sydney).
By this time Johnson’s second career as a painter had begun to flourish. He began exhibiting with Stephen Mori in Sydney, with whom he shared radical views. Johnson was known for keeping the price of his works low so that not just the elite could buy them.

Into the late 1990s, small Johnsons could still be bought for under $1,000. In the same era, full-size single canvases were capped at around $8,000 (although multi-panel works cost more). His work continues to be inexpensive, compared to painters of similar
vintage such as Dale Frank or Tony Clark. A large Johnson
canvas of 183 by 185 centimetres retails for $18,000 today, while
a Frank of 200 by 200 centimetres is $42,000, and a Clark of 182
by 91 centimetres is $24,000. Johnson’s prices today range from $2,500 to around $60,000 for a multi-panel mural. There is an active dealer’s secondary market, and at auction, bargain-priced early works can sometimes be found.

Johnson is now represented in Sydney by Dominik Mersch Gallery. Since 1987 he has been represented in Melbourne by Tolarno Galleries and in Brisbane by Peter Bellas (now Milani Gallery), and since 2003 he has been represented by Lister Gallery. In Canberra the National Gallery of Australia bought Johnson solidly in the late 1980s, focusing on graphic work; the Art Gallery of New South Wales began collecting in 1986. However, although most state galleries have at least one major Johnson on display, none has a comprehensive holding. Many major works are held tightly by enthusiastic private collectors: Tim Johnson’s is an art which lasts.

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