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Thursday 02.15.07

« 3 Dances on your Card | Main | Talk is Cheap, Buy a Beer »

The Candor of Cali: Chris Johanson at The Portland Art Museum

Non-Time Specific
Chris Johanson
(Detail) Non-Time Specific Molecular Contemporary Landscape, 2007
Latex, acrylic, and spray-paint on reclaimed wood
48 x 45 3/4 inches
Courtesy of Jack Hanley Gallery, San Francisco and Los Angels, and the artist
Photo: Paul Foster

The latest APEX spotlight to hit the Portland Art Museum this month is Portland-based artist Chris Johanson. In the past couple of years, Johanson (who is currently represented by the Jack Hanley Gallery) has received national and international attention as part of a group of artists hailing from San Francisco's Mission District. Occasionally titled "The Mission School" this group of artists ( including Barry McGee, his late wife Margaret Kilgallen, and Alicia McCarthy, among many others) revels in the intersection of public, private and the D.I.Y. philosophy of a generation suffocated by consumer culture. Inspired by the for(u)m of graffiti as the art of the people and its intent to reach an audience perhaps wider and more diverse than simply those that visit the gallery that particular month, these artists have revived sincerity and observation as something worth making art about. Not hackneyed or kitschy in the slightest, they have developed sophisticated, unique languages that draw attention to the contemporary condition. Influenced by street culture but not created by it, these artists honestly confront their own visions on their own terms and then present them to us. Unfiltered and poetic, these works are a refreshing break from the heady, often self- absorbed agenda of the east, and thus, despite much due attention, these artists remain just a bit outside of the ? current of contemporary rhetoric.

In the Portland Art Museum's designated corner for the APEX series artists, Chris Johanson's installations and drawings immediately stand apart formally and conceptually from the rest of the floor's Northwest artists. Johanson's work feels light when compared to most of the work on the floor, the making quick and unconcerned with immortality. Drawings have been ripped from sketchbooks with perforated edges in tact, and the wood used to build frames and walls is found or recycled. Johanson's work is imbued with a childlike freedom, yet is also somewhat bipolar. He bounces between figuration and abstraction randomly, yet always makes it seem appropos. We find him unpretentious, yet demanding of our time and attention.

My first encounter with Chris Johanson and his wife and art partner, Jo Jackson, was through an article in the Los Angeles based, grass roots publication, ANP Quarterly. Theirs was a visual language of spirituality created for a lost people, and this is what most of Johanson's work seems to speak of. He hails the doubts and spirits of contemporary living, making the thoughts and energies of humans visible. Fragile, small, often self-deprecating, these figures endear themselves in the extremity of their candor. Their bodies are an amalgamation of swirling colors, and their thought bubbles never seem big enough to contain their undulating thoughts. Sometimes, the figures interact with one another. Yet often, they are only next to one another, alone with the weight of their own thoughts. The text becomes formal poetry, a candid confession of the state of the world. THere are discussions of love and meds, suicide, and fear. The drawing is inventive and expressive despite its simplicity, every formal element intentional. Johanson's installations are merely the environmental dimension of all of this. The two pieces: "Light Show #4" and "The Way of the World as Humans Know It" installed and created with Johanson's peer, Kal Spelletich, in an irregular womb room also built of found wood is the culmination of the drawings. Inside, colored light bulbs blink in random order behind a sundial-like mountain form while a mandala-like painting spins upon detecting the movement of viewers inside the womb. A small bench waits patiently between the two entities, beckoning contemplation. The introduction of the element of time as a cycle hints of mortality and rebirth. The painted figures on the spinning mandala hint of ancient spiritualities as the figures on the circular canvas fly and dive, contemplate, and pray and die as the painting rotates. No text is present inside this room. This room is the hum of Johanson's commentary and celebration of life.

Occasionally, in an effort to hold staunchly fast to the ideals of purity, Johanson's drawings become too obvious and almost slightly insulting in their simplicity, demanding "earth people" to "stop being assholes" in the first of a series of framed drawings. The proceeding drawings, arranged in a three-dimensional frame of found wood, depict a person in a car driving first to the left and telling a friend by phone that he will arrive even later than expected. In the next drawing the person drives to the right and by night. In the last drawing, someone drives while smiling and thinking about a piece of displayed sculpture in an ornate room. Behind these images, a "Non-Time Specific Molecular Contemporary Landscape" hangs. Indeed, we understand. We drive too much. We have lost ourselves in the soulless artifice of remorseless consumptive practice. We are assholes. This arrangement is the weakest area of Johanson's work at the museum and not at all exemplary of the language he has developed. It is the failure of the execution of an ideal whose push has become too automatic, perhaps the danger of too stringent ideologies in general. While the PAM does not represent the rich extent of this prolific artist's oeuvre, it gives a small and intriguing taste. Chris Johanson's provoking presence foils preconceptions of the institution and decorates the APEX series with the freedom and boundless possibility of the state of contemporary art.

Posted by Amy Bernstein on February 15, 2007 at 20:36 | Comments (13)


I found the "womb room" to be very northwesty... full of that northern lights meets jagged volcanic peak thing we take for granted here (heavenly ideals and earthy risks). It isn't executed in a precious manner though, which I really like. Johanson's work has always reminded me of southpark meets anime by way of lo-fi Dr. Who style special effects.

In fact, I liked this installation a lot better than the one in Baja to Vancouver which I reviewed (positively) for Modern Painters several years ago.

Also, the idea of what is "Portland art" has changed completely. It is multifaceted and no longer requires some reference to trees, stumps, craft, mysticism, shyness or hazy skies to be of this place.

Examples: Sean Healy mocks and explores the "lizard brain" power dynamics of social groups. Chandra Bocci reimagines a world (through installation) that is both formally recontextualized and idealized while still being OF consumer culture. Jacqueline Ehlis is interested in the way materials change the experience of the viewer as a way to make life better. Daniel Peterson chronicles the tiny bohemian moments of freedom that make existence a little more magical.

It's all about what makes life better. That is what Portland is about... it's the concsience of American cities and the artists are articulating it... Storm tharp, Jim Riswold, Matt McCormick, Bruce Conkle, Jesse Hayward, David Eckard, MK Guth, Brenden Clenaghen, Scott Wayne Indiana, Red 76 and Adam Sorenson are at it too. etc. the list is massive and I may write an essay.

It's a kind of test kitchen for a better living (or a better meaning) and dont think the Film, Design and Music scenes are removed either. I think there is something very interesting going on here. It's a very mature sentiment, a more European but distinctly American sentiment.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 16, 2007 10:36 AM

Thank god we have finally reached a point where it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly what "Portland art" is. Although, as we have discussed before, we have an affinity for 60s and 70s Formalism. I wonder why.

Posted by: Calvin Ross Carl [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 16, 2007 02:52 PM

Few but the most out of touch are still scared of Greenberg. Instead the ideas that he promoted then suffocated have appeal again as a kind of idealism that cannot exist in our crappy social and political polarizations. It's Dave Hickey too... colors and texture are democratic.

Hope isnt something that can be theorized out of the human equation. Its better to strive for the impossible or improbable than whine about how nobody can agree.

Matt Stadler's back room supper made this very obvious.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 16, 2007 11:19 PM

What does it mean for an artist to be "influenced by street culture but not created by it"?

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 18, 2007 09:56 AM

I've been watching (and writing about) art in Portland for a decently long time now, and I think Jeff J. is kind of on to something with this idea of "conscience" as a unifying Portland ethos. The word potentially bundles up a lot of styles and practices in a way that seems relevant and roomy, and also seems to gesture toward 1960s liberal "conscience" in an interesting way. Less messianic, more practical here and now, though. One might argue that 60s liberalism, with all its attendant "conscience," and sloppiness, and pacifism, and art-making, has been living in hiding in the Willamette Valley since about 1979, and only lately has become strong enough again to assume its rightful place at the center of national discourse. That's one theory, anyway...

Posted by: jon raymond [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 18, 2007 12:59 PM

Here's an article from the SFBG framing the 'Mission School' in a similar way.


Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 18, 2007 06:36 PM

Thanks Jon,

There is a very strong humanistic impulse here that is getting increasingly ambitious, and demonstrative (it seems somewhat Swiss too). This humanistic conscience is precisely what draws people here or keeps them from wanting to be elsewhere. Not since the 1st half of the 20th century has it been more needed.

Stephen, it's precisely those types of paradoxes that make successful artists what they are.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2007 09:51 AM

Thanks for another great article on PORT, I like this site a lot. However, I have two corrections to make: first, ANP Quarterly is based in Los Angeles, not San Francisco as stated above. Also, it's not really a "grass roots" publication. You may not be aware that the three editors, especially Ed Templeton, are basically some of LA's biggest tastemakers in the indie art scene, and it's a slick, large-format magazine that doesn't need advertising to exist. On a related note, there's another Portlander (Bean Gilsdorf) in the latest issue.

Posted by: jonesy [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2007 03:38 PM


I didn't read it as a paradox. I don't understand what Amy is trying to say here. If the artists were not 'created' by the street, where were they 'created'?

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2007 05:23 PM

Stephen... I find that most artists react to a more general zeitgeist than "the street" and their philosophies seem to be aimed at things that arent just operating at the street level. The trick is to hit the other cultural targets. There is a reason Basquiat successfully moved beyond the samo tags. To get beyond the street but have credibility you have to be of and not of the street... an essential paradox for many artists, especially the mission school.

Jonesey, thanks for the correction (people always ask about fact checking and blogs... and there you have it, we have a lot of informed readers who let us know when we arent right).

Also, that description of ANP sounds like a very well connected grass roots effort. For me successful and influential indie music is still indie. Granted that is a very fine hair to split and I respect your call in seeing it the other way. It has a level of sophistication that screams big production.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2007 06:05 PM


Thank you for your thoughts. It is strange to discuss the meaning of Amy's words with you.

McGee hit a lot of cultural targets with the work he did on "the streets" (a point Amy makes prior to the odd "influenced, but not created by" line).

Since McGee still tags, he must not see graffiti as something he has to move "beyond". In interviews, he exalts the purity of the graffiti gesture.

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2007 09:49 PM

Meta chit chat isn't odd for me at all and most of the people I hang around with are constantly having funny meta conversations about other writers/artists and filmmakers... It's part of the atmosphere for me I guess.

Maybe I could have used a different phrase but "moving beyond" the street doesnt have to be a final condition, simply something an artist can achieve. An artist can switch back and forth from the street and the privledged art environment seemlessly if they figure out how (like McGee). Still, it is necessary to own that paradox as McGee does if you want to be a big deal internationally while still keeping street cred. Talented guy and its why I feel paradox is of key concern here.

credibility is a huge issue too

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 20, 2007 05:04 PM

I wonder if paradox is too strong of a word now? It's interesting to look back at the early 'Mission School' interviews and reviews, when there was a lot of emphasis put on 'street cred', and institutional success was a cause for concern. Does anyone even need 'street cred' now?

It has become commonplace to see artists exhibit at different venues to vastly different audiences. Think about Johanson at Reading Frenzy, Vanessa Renwick's tours, or Bill Daniel showing The Girl On The Train In The Moon in front of a Motherwell one day, and under a bridge the next. I agree that credibility is an important issue, but It has shifted from the narrow frame of 'street' vs. 'institution' to artists staying true to their own sensibilities. It's easy to forget that these artists were using the same approach when it wasn't exactly considered a wise career move.

I may have misread the 'influenced, but not created' line to mean that the artists had developed a sophisticated language, and therefore could only be influenced by the street-not created by it. I'm of the opinion that these artists are a product of 'the streets' as much as anything/where else, but what that means (or maybe the importance of that distinction), has changed considerably in the last ten years.

Who knows? Maybe one day, institutions (like UCLA Hammer) won't feel required to tell us that Chris Johanson "has taken classes in history, sociology, and philosophy at various Northern California institutions".

Posted by: stephen_cleary [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 21, 2007 09:22 PM

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