Review by Ann Landi*
There is a certain kind of painting that has a meditative force but is nonetheless packed with restrained, potentially violent tension. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, an artistic oxymoron, one has only to think of work by Giorgio Morandi, early paintings of Vija Celmins, and even the frescoes of the great quattrocento artist Piero della Francesca to understand that conundrum.
It is to this category that the best of Jane Johnson’s work belongs. Her mysterious shapes—trees, buildings, land forms—often seem to be mute reminders of things in the real world, but in reducing them to their most radically elemental outlines and colors, Johnson gives them the quality of a visual mantra: stare at them long enough and you can find yourself entering another zone of experience. When she pairs these obdurate shapes, such as the buildings in the “Descant Maroc” paintings, with the quavery trees that are almost her trademark the results are magically volatile.
Johnson’s works are mostly landscapes, but virtually all of her paintings are realized in the studio and come from memory, not direct observation on the spot (as was the preferred method of the Impressionists and the Barbizon School, for example). And she often finds herself recycling memories of the terrain seen on trips years, and even decades ago, such as the thrusting shapes of cypresses that are an unforgettable part of the Tuscan countryside she visited in her twenties.
Many of the paintings based on memories of Italy have an enchanting fairytale quality, like Etrurian Night Cypress (1994), Val D’Orcia (1998), and Amalfi Tree Town Lights (1993). A sunnier kind of magic invades the paintings inspired by her immediate environment, the East End of Long Island and some of its landmarks—Three Mile Harbor, Napeague, and Otter Pond. Anyone who knows this part of the country will recognize these works as conjuring the crystalline light and gentle salt breezes of a summer’s day in the Hamptons.
There’s another kind of tension that occurs in Johnson’s work, one created by a gleeful pile-up of forms and a tendency toward almost pure abstraction. In paintings such as /77 Places/ (2002), /89 Sagaponack/ (2003), and /120 Places/ (2003), we know that the shapes somehow relate to landscape but identifying them as tree or flower, water or solid ground, rocks or hills is a less assured enterprise. The same holds true in some of the artist’s most recent work, where seascapes dissolve into almost Rothko-like bands of pure color.
Other paintings from the last few years play an almost humorous balancing act between still life and landscape: October 6 06 and July 3 2007 could as easily be a group of ripe fruits jostling each other on a tabletop as referents to the natural world outside.
The childlike freshness of Johnson’s imagery almost goes without saying, but there is a tremendous difference between “childlike” and “childish.” This painting is, at is best, reminiscent of certain Modern masters—like Paul Klee, Arthur Dove, and Milton Avery—who worked with simplified, often awkward shapes and luminous color to achieve ends that were highly sophisticated.
In both her down-to-earth landscapes and her more fantastical imaginings, Johnson belongs to a very American tradition exemplified by painters like Dove and Charles Burchfield, who might be said to take their credo from Walt Whitman, that most American of 19th-century poets. “You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from your self,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself. The result for the poet and for the painters mentioned here is a kind of ecstasy that comes from seeing the familiar in wholly original ways.