The former Hayes Furniture building, Bristol, VA – June 20-August 31,2014
Perry Johnson has been a growing presence in the art world of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia during the last decade, and this exhibition secures his position as an interesting artist with something to say. Occupying the entire empty ground floor of the former Hayes Furniture Building in Bristol, VA, it is a large exhibition of work that resonates with common pictorial devices, narrative threads and an urgency of purpose heightened by its surroundings. This exhibition is more than just a series of paintings from the artist’s career but is an accomplished balancing act between competing pictorial tendencies rewarding extended contemplation.
As a visual experience, individual works and the collected body of work succeed in building an enticing decorative experience through well painted and strong figurative elements that are striking in their complexity. Utilizing a breadth of symbols both obvious and obscure, work such as Prometheus Band (2011) and Adam’s Mortgage (2006) bring a sharp focus to the single individual amidst surroundings that are either overwhelming or indifferent. With Prometheus Band a lone figure stands in the middle of a bar’s dance floor, lost in thought but infused with the energy of the space.
There is the obvious reference to Greek mythology not only in the title, whereby fire as music becomes the instrument of an awakening consciousness in a manner both revelatory and damning in its consequence, but also in the figures of Epimetheus and his future wife Pandora in the background, who lack foresight but do not lack ill fates. With Adam’s Mortgage the landscape rather than an interior space serves as a stage for a treatment of pictorial space that is layered in its symbolic intent; with foreground, middleground and background sharply delineating zones of exclusion, there is a shift from commodification through exploitation to the realization of the empty modern promise.
More than any other painting in the show, Adam’s Mortgage exemplifies a sense of the inadequacy and inconsequentiality of individuals in the face of changes in the modern world. While often making connections, through various symbols and titular references, to the past and its permeating hold in symbolic language, Perry Johnson’s paintings also entangle themselves in the fact that these emotions and situations have always been a part of the human condition.
There is more, however, to this exhibit than a symbolic dialogue with the notion of the eternal and universal oppressed nature of the human condition. At one level these paintings can be enjoyed as purely decorative work; Holding a Balance (2012) is indebted to Vermeer, William Blake and even instances of ancient Egyptian art where Anubis would weigh the souls of the dead, but it is also a lush, richly vibrant work that can simply be appreciated amidst the traditions of still-lives. Counter Fitting and First Impressions (2009) is equally rich, not just in symbolic allusions but in Johnson’s attenuation to plastic texture and transparent materials; it is a painting that you can enjoy purely on a visual level.
At the same time, what is also apparent is that Johnson is wrestling with the traditions of representation. All of those symbolic allusions — a panoply of iconography that skates across the history of art — are lost if the viewer’s attention strays too quickly from one rich surface to the next. It is precisely in the banality of the settings that the viewer is rendered inadequate to the task of looking, challenged by our predetermined modern sensibility to take it in quickly at a glance that leads to an incapable sustainment of engagement. Here two paintings in particular serve notice to the viewer of this situation: Cornholed (2013) and Defending the Green (2012) almost take exception to the viewer’s tendency to pass from one image to the next. Cornholed in particular, with its strange Poussinesque palette, confronts the viewer with an empty invitation, a knowing gesture facilitating participation in the continuing crisis of painting as a medium precisely because of its contradictory purposelessness.
To put it another way, the effect comes across as an intended sense of frustration in the face of what seems to be an opportunity for interpretation, almost a knotted Borromean rabbit hole that heightens the viewer’s sense that painting is more than just image making.
While the abandoned retail space serves as a reminder of the dichotomy between the decorative qualities and lush treatment of the subjects of all of the paintings and their functioning allusions, Johnson’s work is also productively treading water on an aesthetic level. There’s a hint of danger here, in that Johnson’s work might seem too plaintive, but it also is an enervating approach to figurative work that steadily asserts its valuable stance amongst faux revivals of abstraction, post-postmodernity, and an increasing lack of personal investment that is apparent is so much of the contemporary art world. The only real regret of this excellent exhibition is that it’s been too brief and too provincially located to have a wider impact.Dr. Scott Contreras-Koterbay is an Associate Professor of Art History and Philosophy at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, TN.