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Chris Johanson @ Altman Siegel

Installation View: "Equations."  Rear view (foreground):"The Big Picture Escapes Me," 2015, acrylic on found wood, 64 x 84"
Chris Johanson has long been one of the Mission School’s signature artists.  The movement, which he, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy and Ruby Neri co-founded in the early 1990s, was influenced by the Mission District’s vernacular art: its graffiti, community murals, hand-painted signs and outsider art.  These humble influences give his work a unique valence.  Today, he’s not just a favorite son who’s made it big here and elsewhere; he’s an artist whose work, at a deep level, represents and transcends those origins, demonstrating, in particular, how much he’s grown artistically since relocating to Portland in 2004. 
Equations, his current exhibition, presents him as a highly sophisticated painter, casually discarding two of painting’s most obvious conventions: the distinction between installation as a discrete category of art and installation as a generic term for hanging a show of paintings. Equations, as such, consists mostly of double-sided paintings mounted on wood supports suspended within a framework of whitewashed 2 x 4s.  (Only a couple of paintings hang on the walls.) 
"The Big Picture Escapes Me," frontal view
This oddball format exists comfortably enough in the gallery; but it also stands apart as a kind of intervention — one in which the artist thumbs his nose at commercial conventions and challenges what it means to be street artist. Johanson, the show seems to argue, is not a street artist per se, but an artist whose work is fundamentally about the streets: art as socio-anthropological inquiry.  While Equations dramatizes both his skepticism about the market and his savvy knack for negotiating it, the show, at its root, is about assessing the meaning of public space.  
Consider, for instance, Lecture Series/Abstract Mass.  It shows a lecture hall, a beach, a 99-cent store, an automobile, a tangled mass of abstraction, a hint of a stripe painting, some figures walking in a line, and a man with his head on his knees, as if in despair. The people and places are disconnected and fragmented, as arbitrary as any selection found on a city street.  But rather than mining these discontinuities to make a pointed statement, these disjunctions point to the essentially unruly nature of city life and to the common context into which the pieces fall, however uncomfortably.  This, perhaps, explains why Johanson works as he does, partitioning the structure of his paintings with representational scenes on the front and patches of abstraction on the back.
The cheery color, torqued space, and jarring discontinuities of this and other works superficially recall Wayne Thiebaud.  Where Thiebaud puts the Bay Area landscape through Cubist-type contortions, Johanson’s spatial manipulations, with their fragmentation and vertiginous shifts of scale, speak more closely to the reality of city life. And where with Thiebaud we always know whether we’re looking at a still life or landscape, Johanson barely registers any distinctions between interiors and exteriors. His collapse of those distinctions forces us to consider what the spaces and objects in our life might mean. 
Installation view: "Lecture Series/Abstract Mass," 2015, acrylic on found wood, 72 x 78 1/2; Right: "Los Angeles with Pills, 2015, acrylic on found wood, 66 1/2 x 76"


Take Los Angeles with Pills. In this we see palm trees, a boxy, low-slung house, pairs of people sitting around tables, two individuals shopping in a grocery store, a person studying, and a homeless person pushing a cart.  It shows a range of social and economic activities, some of which imply or call for a critical reaction. An example would be his repeated use of shopping carts.  Are they vehicles for the homeless to transport their possessions?  Or are they simply functional objects for moving consumer goods from one place to another, from display shelves to checkout counters to automobiles?  Johanson’s uniform depiction of them in terms of scale suggests that both uses are part and parcel of our country’s economic system. The same forces engender both uses.

It recalls Rauschenberg's famous dictum about “operating in the gap between art and life,” as well as a corollary notion: that art asserts its autonomy while remaining linked to world from which it springs.

“Reimagining the Square Trying to Make it Round Like a Circle, 2015,” acrylic on found wood, 29 1/4 x 30”

Johanson’s work seems to do both.  His work is complex and provisional, filled with disparate scenes of people, buildings and city streets merging and overlapping in dozens of possible scenarios.  Far from feeling unified or inevitable as a composition, Los Angeles with Pills feels almost modular in biological sense, as if any piece of it could break off and regenerate, like the limbs of a plant. 

Here one thinks of Sarah Sze.  Her works are finely articulated installations of variegated materials that require viewers to absorb and process an immense amount of sensory information.  As Sze explained her concept: “They ask how you might use sculpture to locate yourself within a plethora of information. It’s an impossible task. Like the encyclopedia, the work is out of date the minute you complete it. So the important thing is that they [the sculptures] are remnants of that ambition rather than themselves the success of that ambition.”
So it is with Johanson.  He thrusts us back upon the everyday aspects of life, reminding reminds us to consider the contexts in which these objects exist. Strange to think, then, that an artist who is instantly recognizable for his ramshackle constructions, playfully vibrant color, and faux-naif figuration might be seen for his seriousness and rigor. The things in his pictures, he seems to suggest, are ultimately manifestations of social conditions: symptoms of the economic systems, institutions and social divisions that shape us.
Chris Johanson: “Equations” @ Altman Siegel Gallery through December 19, 2015.
About the Author:
Elwyn Palmerton is an Oakland-based artist dealing in obsessive and improvisational abstract paintings. A New Jersey native, he received a B.A. from New York University and an M.F.A. from The School of Visual Arts.  Since graduating he has exhibited regularly in New York City and Oakland. His writing has appeared in Frieze, Art Ltd., Artillery, Sculpture and Art Review.


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