“I'm not designing an image; I'm feeling my way through the painting.”
Lee Johnson’s paintings have a presence and expressive beauty contained within a structure of networked botany and geometric forms alive with kinetic energy. Johnson’s mastery over composition allows his contemporary interpretations of Expressionist approaches to evolve into a series of highly accomplished modern paintings. Seemingly conventional subjects such as a model in a studio are transformed in a vividly rendered mode of painting.
This expressiveness begins with an approach that is as a whole quite open ended. Johnson notes that “each painting develops its own form and language.” In fact, as he paints colours or shapes may be transformed into other objects or patterns during the process itself, a sculpture originally a hand, or vessel, a studio transformed into an exotic landscape.
Artifice is an important theme, particularly in the depiction of certain subjects such as the cat as symbolic of the rejection of others, the works in the studio as surrogates for friends and family etc. These transformations are not conscious, but rather evolve through the creative process, and as such the final scene is on some level about something else entirely. This approach is seen in works such as Wild Swimmer where the blurring of boundaries between abstraction and figuration allow an immersive and studied experience of painting. As well, like many other works in the artist’s oeuvre the formal style recalls the nostalgic and alluring paintings of German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, particularly the positioning of figures in colourful stylized scenes of nature.
Indeed, the formal influences of Expressionist artists like Max Beckmann and Edvard Munch can be read in the bold colour and geometrically gothic forms seen in Johnson’s work. As well the artist notes an affinity for the work of both Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. Johnson’s work shares with these iconic artists a certain intensity in approach: the process of painting is readable, marks of paint transect the surface, deep and often contrasting hues overlap the figures or interior scene, creating a window into a world that is at once ornamentally beautiful and imminently unreadable, what seems ordinary, a pair of models reading, or a figure immersed in a sea of greenery, remains enigmatic and at the same time penetratingly beautiful.
Rosa JH Berland