Erick Johnson: Double Take
Brattleboro, VermontBrattleboro Museum & Art Center
June 19 – October 11, 2021
Double Take brings together five paintings from 2020–21 and 33 photographs by the New York-based artist Erick Johnson. Taken over the last five years, the 33 untitled photographs come from Johnson’s Instagram feed @erickjohnson9. Mostly taken in New York, each one is a street scene that somehow triggered Johnson’s aesthetic sense. The cityscape’s colors range from neon to monochrome, and the compositions from grids to fractal chaos. Loaded with visual imagination, they are, in the words of Brattleboro Museum & Art Center Chief Curator Mara Williams, “expansive, egalitarian, and generous of spirit.”
His paintings follow a more constrained format: rows of irregular polygons in rich colors arrayed against a white ground. Within those constraints, there is considerable variation, especially in the palette, making them no less “expansive” in their own way. Johnson is above all a colorist, and the way he bends the hues of his glazed tints like the notes in a blues guitarist’s solo shows mastery. The abundance of complex color transparencies in the paintings, the formal invention in his photographs, and the conversation that takes place between the two make Double Take a generous offering indeed.
It takes some looking to see overlapping areas of interest between the various themes in the 33 photographs and the hard-edge geometry of the paintings. One obvious connection are the photographs that have compositions with 2D or 3D patterns. One image consists of an overhead shot of red and white squares of linoleum, worn away in places to reveal a black substrate. Another shows a wall at what appears to be a worksite, tiled haphazardly in rectangles of white, green, and unpainted plywood. While patterning is an obvious through line, what are we to make of an image with a milky puddle bisected by a writhing swath of black plastic? Granted, there is some geometry in the reflection of an iron fence in the top half of the puddle, but otherwise there’s no overall pattern. What does tie all three images to the paintings is how they show the transformative action of entropy. None of these images show something pristine or new. All show weathering, or some other temporal process, having a direct impact on their formal properties: color, shape, etc. Johnson’s painting process also depends on the steady accumulation of accidents, especially the traces of the brush across the glazes, and colors bleeding into the taped edges between the polygons and the white ground. Johnson captures these events to his advantage, not unlike the serendipitous compositions he captures on his Instagram.
Especially noteworthy are the accidents that take place in the play between the layers of glazes that build Johnson’s polygons of color, giving them the remarkable shifts in hue mentioned above. Four Triplets (2020) has a three-by-four array of polygons that crowd in from side to side and from top to bottom. Each polygon stands out from its neighbors and the brilliant white ground that pokes through like so many shards of glass. The middle polygon in the second row down immediately grabs the viewer’s attention with its high-contrast, tight, horizontal striations of alternating cerulean blue and dark raspberry. As the eye drifts through the different chunks of color, it might rest on the polygon in the third row that alternates between sap green and burnt sienna, or perhaps the polygon in the bottom row that fades from a teal blue to a lime green, and back again. In other words, there is a lot to keep track of in terms of the dynamic color relationships within and between each polygon.
The most engaging of all the paintings is Chorus (2021), a bigger canvas than Four Triplets, containing two top rows of large, vertical polygons in a two-by-four array, and below three smaller rows of horizontal polygons in a three-by-three array. Here Johnson introduces ghostly white polygons on the lower left, which announce their presence with halos of color around the edges. While the ghost polygons add a new dimension to the figure/ground relationships, what really makes Chorus sing, so to speak, are the vertical polygons in the top two rows. Large enough that the individual brush marks diminish as a graphic element, these polygons become subtly varied fields radiating color, rather than hues hemmed into a shape. It is exciting to consider what could happen in his next body of work if Johnson continues to expand the size of his shapes, taking on the scale of Helen Frankenthaler or Kenneth Noland with his unique color sense.