Tuesday 14 April 2009

On Tim Johnson

It might be that punk saved Tim Johnson's art.  Pushed away at the back of the large room where 'Painting Ideas' at the AGNSW, a survey exhibition of the work of this Australian painter are the records of his art student 'happenings'.  It's familiar stuff from the early seventies, black and white photos of nudity and banality, smug beardy chaos all documented with the poe-faced seriousness of scientific record.  But something changes, slowly and surely Johnson takes punk's genius for bricolage and creates a unique magpie of an art that is far more interesting and arresting than the sum of its parts.

Back to the seventies, the records of Johnson's conceptual work are typical of the formalist pranks of the time, they suffer from the innate contradiction between their claim to spontaneity and apostasy and the inability to resist recording all that in a way that met the needs of the art establishment.  And then, on the other side of all this theory and pretension,  punk seems to happen.  Johnson begins to capture some of the energy and passion of the scene in paintings that look almost journalistic but for their swathes of day-glo colour.  This first disruption, or it might simply be discovery, is the first of many for Johnson.  He discovers the aboriginal art of Papunya and, later, Buddhism.  These are all present in the large canvasses, stand alone works and polyptychs, of his most recent work, dot painting meets buddhas and punkish appropriation of cartoon characters and symbols.

The punk paintings are a clue to where he eventually arrives.  They look like gig photos of the time, but rendered in almost silk screen solid blocks of colour.  Oddly the bright polymers capture some of the energy of performance, despite occasionally veering into the realms of Warhol.  Viewing the music pictures as a whole, especially those of Sydney punk band Radio Bridman, you begin to see the creative osmosis of influence.  Where first he applies the most obvious model of Pop Art to peripheral pop culture by 1983 his "Radio Birdman, Wickham Hall" and "Pink Radio Birdman" have been invaded by psychedelic swarms of dots more familiar from aboriginal painting.  That these don't look entirely gratuitous is interesting, the figures in his painting have already flattened out and the patterns seem strangely at home amidst the rituals of punk.

The first trip to Papunya was in 1980 and it informs the development of Johnson's art at every level.  The lessons Johnson took from the Papunya artists during frequent visits in the early Eighties are , firstly, formal as he begins to paint more and more across a flat single plane.  The presence of different times and places in a single image is also a characteristic of, amongst others,  pre-renaissance western art.  That allusion to the histories of so many art traditions is every bit as important as the dot formations.  In making it Johnson creates the space he needs to bring together references and symbols that might not otherwise sit together.

During his stays Johnson befriended Papunya artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and was invited to paint the dot patterns he had become fascinated by.  Part of Johnson's interest, and the one that is made most visible in the spread of his works, was identifying dot painting with the meditative practices of Tibetan monks.  If the work in 'Painting Ideas' leads us toward any single idea it comes from that link, Johnson uses dot-painting together with an impressionistic and indistinct figurative style and the symbols of Buddhism (and more recent Asian iconography, like manga) to make us consider the common threads between humans.

Johnson is true to his theoretical (or perhaps spiritual) underpinnings in the way he works.  Much of what is hung here is collaborative, from his work with Papunya artists to more recent collaborations with Karma Phuntsok and Brendan Smith.  It is this respect for fellow artists that produces a good deal of moving portraiture and seems to fill his quotation with something more than a post-modern cleverness.

The large canvas 'Visualisation' is the one of the most resonant pieces in the exhibition, if not the most representative visually.  Much of its power might be summed up in the way smudges of white paint, or here and there ochres and yellows, drift across the surface of the scene like smoke.  Beneath that smoke figures emerge from a dark ground dotted with an almost Byzantine gold, a Red Indian, a romanesque saint, buddhas and others all seem to force themselves through the dots whilst, if we step back further, also forming part of some primeval topography.  It is on works like these that Johnson's cultural blurring is most affecting.

Johnson's art is never static, and whilst some of it touches on Eastern philosophical notions that hasn't guaranteed a steady progression toward Nirvana.  The most recent cycles of work, in particular 'Lotus Born' feel to have found a comfortable, if not enlightening, groove.  At times the brighter palette, detailed quotation and regular structures start to look like a melding of Aboriginal and Buddhist kitsch.  

Perhaps Johnson has grown comfortable with the traditions that stimulate him.  The high points here are found during a period from the early 1980's through to the late 1990's where his negotiations between styles and techniques, cultures and symbols, takes place restlessly on the canvas.  Works like 'Pink Radio Birdman', 'Summer of Images', 'Paradise' and 'Eden Burns' feel giddy in the way they seem to wrestle to give visual form to a world of ideas.  Johnson, at his best, captures a sense that those ideas, like art forms and cultures, are messy beating living things, and that alone makes his work a pleasure.

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