Matthew Johnson: Circles of Light - Art Collector

Issue 40, April - June 2007

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Matthew Johnson's work has been preoccupied with little things like the interplay between two greens or the way light can fudge tones, writes Ingrid Periz. Now, with a number of architectural commissions underway, his little things are getting bigger.

Looking at Matthew Johnson’s paintings from the past couple of years, something happens to the eye. With his variations of shimmer, blur, and fuzz, it’s as if Johnson is withholding the possibility of focus, teasing viewers in a finely crafted display of colour and pigment. Small orbs arranged over a grid dance and pulse, shifting in and out of sharpness, sometimes in striated smears that refuse any kind of viewing fixity – the Merge and Side series (2003) – sometimes in an all-over pattern that quietly hums – the Soliloquy series (2003) – and more recently in works like Reflexion II (Blue) and Pelagus (both 2005) where a horizontal haze fades into soft tumescence.

In talking of a painting’s blur or its being out of focus, we are in the language of photography, not painting, and Johnson’s most recent work has prompted comparisons with Gerhard Richter, the German painter whose entire practice is staked on the possibilities of painting after photography. For Johnson, the comparison is beside the point, but for anyone new to Johnson’s work, the differences it reveals are telling. Richter’s mastery of photographic similitude comes freighted with doubt; each work subsumed by his project’s grand ambition. Johnson works in the opposite way. Doubts about painting are not part of the picture and there is no great project beyond continuing to paint, abstractly. He laughs: “I carry little things around and make them big.”

These little things might be the recollection of colours glimpsed on a bush walk, or, closer to home, two leaves on the ground in Brunswick in Melbourne. Johnson’s earlier work was prompted by excursions to remote places – Finland, Torres Strait, Gabo Island – and observations of elemental relations in situ. Increasingly however, his focus is, by his own admission, myopic, and the resolutely abstract paintings now generate their own logic, working intrinsically within similar groups. While the paintings might begin with a sense of place, recollected some time later in the studio, what Johnson works with is equations of colour. He avoids the word landscape – “it’s too loaded a word in Australia. We fall back on it too many times” – preferring the more encompassing sense of “environment.”

At times it’s difficult to avoid the landscape connotations of his paintings. Between a reflected line conjures up a Nordic winterscape with its deep indigo band serving as a mirroring body of water; Reflexion II (Blue) suggests a pool filled by falling sunlight; and thanks to its swath of glowing orange, the vibrantly hued Cantos begs to be read as a late afternoon haze in spite of its portrait format (all 2005). (Here, and in other works, Johnson can look like a pixilated post-impressionist.) Johnson likes his work to butt up against the limits of language, as his occasionally archaic titles suggest. It may be that when confronted by his devotion to light, colour, and atmospherics, landscape is simply the term in which we think. Even a work like A Verdant Void (Scarlatti) (2005), where Johnson scatters yellow and lime circles on top of an all-over, and resolutely flat, sequence of colours, can read as an aerial topographic view.

At its simplest, Johnson’s formal vocabulary consists of nothing more than circles and squares. His canvas is gridded up in pencil and in each tiny square he paints a round glob of colour, a procedure he has been using since 2000. Johnson sets up a large palette, laying out colour in a very ordered way, and while he works with a sense of the colouration he wants to use, in the process of painting, this can change. One successful painting establishes the setup of subsequent ones, so that within a single exhibition, there are often three or four distinct groups of variations.

Johnson’s respect for painting’s craft traditions is clear when he talks about his working method. “I use stand oil, which is an old fashioned medium. It’s a refined linseed oil that was used by Rembrandt. It gives a depth to the pigment. Stand oil is like a natural glaze and painters love that wet look. It’s quite seductive.” Johnson’s studio is designed expressly for painting. He insists: “There are no rugs, no flowers.” The perspex ceiling screens UV light while fluorescent lights with daylight filters supplement cloudy days. On sunny days, Johnson jokes, “I have to pull out sunglasses.” For him, there’s no paradox producing work that takes its inspiration from observations of the environment in such a controlled studio setting. It’s in that very separation that he functions as a painter. As Johnson puts it: “It’s like what Hans Hofmann said: ‘Do you bring nature to the studio or the studio to nature?’ I don’t need to have a studio full of bloody gum leaves. I remember. I live surrounded by brick buildings. I don’t use photography or books on artists.”

This avoidance of photography or art historical reference – two of the hallmarks of contemporary art-making – indicates Johnson’s dedication to abstraction as well as his comfort with painting as a self-sufficient practice. Here, family history comes into play. Johnson’s father is well known abstract painter Michael Johnson. Johnson junior was born in London in 1963 and spent some of his formative years in New York where his father showed at Greene Street Gallery. He recalls leading Barnett Newman around his father’s exhibitions and hanging out at Max’s Kansas City while a teenager, but being brought up in the art world left him with a dedication to craft rather than passing whim and fashion. Like his father, he calls himself a colourist and, again like Johnson senior, he works abstractly but he disclaims any formal relationship to the history of abstraction, even a familial one. “I’ve had to make my own way,” he says.

Johnson’s use of the grid illustrates his point. In the 90s, he made paintings comprising a rectangular arrangement of CD boxes, each box painted a brilliant jewel tone. Cheaper than canvas, the blank CD box was a perfect vehicle for his orchestrations of colour, and the grid was simply an after-effect of his arrangement. The grid, of course, has a well documented history in modernism but Johnson is less interested in its historical weight than in what it allows him to do. As a template for marking up the canvas in his current work it resolves questions of form, line, and composition, concentrating Johnson’s aesthetic choices on colour.

Of all painting’s components, colour is the most subjective and mutable. Johnson works intuitively here, although he acknowledges reading colour theory when he was younger and books by colour scholar John Gage jostle for space on his bookshelves amid old dictionaries and Ovid. Johnson can use colour in a way that puts legibility in doubt; vision itself seems to dissolve. In Between the Sea and Sky 1, 2, 3 (2001), for example, three canvases trace modulations of blue in soft fat discs, each blob of colour reading like a unit of visual information. These bits of information never cohere, they stay discrete. If there is a landscape reference here, it’s one only produced through film in those moving images that, cornily, pull focus on water’s dappling or willfully fuzz nighttime street lights in jazzy city symphonies. Over time, as the orbs of colour in Johnson’s paintings have grown smaller, and the grid tighter, the number of bits of information on his canvases has increased so that what we get now is not a cinematic “grain” but the glowing pop of pixels. These too stay discrete.

Johnson’s “little things” – the interplay between two greens, the way light can fudge tones – are getting bigger, taking him beyond painting to architectural commissions. In conjunction with Wood Marsh Architects and Multiplex in Sydney, he recently completed a large scale LED work that allows him to program colour changes through what he calls “an intelligent light source.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the end result which is installed in a lobby, produces “something like a shimmer of nature.” In other projects he is transcribing the undulations of late afternoon light on to brick patterns, and developing interior paint treatments based on principles of changeability and variation. For Johnson there’s no conflict here even if it does take him away from the canvas. Thinking about the contingency of light and colour, he says: “If I can achieve the same results differently, I’m not afraid to do other things beside paint.”

Matthew Johnson’s exhibition Peregrination will be at Christine Abrahams Gallery, Melbourne from 4 to 22 October 2005.

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