Over the last decade, Helen Johnson has built a substantial body of large-scale, figure-based paintings and wall drawings featuring her friends and peers in gamine postures – reflecting, chatting or stretching – delicately rendered in flattened picture planes. The paintings have been winsome; figures cavort in domestic interiors amidst desk chairs or pot plants, the colours chalky and matte, with body parts dissolving into pale backgrounds like overexposed photographs.
‘Café Fatigue’ is a distinct departure from this bohemian Melbourne world. The paintings in this exhibition hurtle backwards through time and cross hemispheres to land in pre-World War I Europe. Figures here have been replaced by abstracted forms and interlocking compositions that recall early-20th-century experiments in deconstructing the picture plane wrought by the analytic cubists. The works pay more than a passing regard to the fragmented perspectives of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso but also their later experiments in synthetic cubism, where scraps of paper or wood stuck to the canvas turned paintings into reliefs. Although devoid of the rigour characteristic of this movement, Johnson’s paintings share its objective of atomizing pictorial structure. Chromatically, her works are also of a piece with this period, in particular replicating the palette of the lesser-known French cubist, Albert Gleizes.
Johnson plays with patches and layers. In a key work, It doesn’t say this is a problem we have to solve, it says how do you respond (2015), a large patch of canvas has been cut out to reveal another layer of yellow stained cotton canvas beneath. The uppermost layer bristles with abutting tectonic and biomorphic forms, pacified by the delicate horizontal lines gouged across the wet paint, as if placing a layer of gauze between the painting and the viewer. He head, she shed (2015) fractures a view of a street scene; winding paths and the edges of buildings are abstracted beneath a kinked grid of painted lines, like a view through the leading of a stained glass window. Of course, the painting’s degree of abstraction lends itself to other readings. The enmeshed forms might, contrarily, suggest the push and pull of a tussle or dispute; the work’s title punning on the phrase ‘he said, she said’ – a case of your word against mine.
Johnson is an artist who has a self-declared affiliation with Kantian aesthetics, describing her artistic method as predicated on a ‘pre-cognitive free play’ of imagination. This describes both her way of coming to images and the encounter she offers to the viewer, wherein the formal language of her paintings prompts a kind of imaginative roaming. If Johnson finds abstracted forms coax a certain interpretative latitude, this also occurs through the artist’s attraction to the materiality of paint. The works in ‘Café Fatigue’ are emphatically painterly; featuring textured mark-making, extroverted brushwork and paint made gravelly via mixing with mineral extenders. Their very painterliness is foregrounded.
But there are slippages of history and sleights of hand here: although the works are painted in acrylic, they have the look and feel of oil paint. The resuscitated colour schemes of Parisian art c.1910, references to cubism and even the paintings’ scale reveal a historicist imagination at work. While the catchphrase of modernism was the attempt to capture the transience of modern life, Johnson’s paintings instead deploy a modernist vernacular to comment on historical form. Her paintings, however, are not merely nostalgic. Their titles anchor them in the present; their cryptic wit is pivotal to the opening out of imaginative spaces that she so apprizes. Corporate Personality Type Painting (2015) is the only work where text outweighs the form – a cluster of speech bubbles parading contemporary corporate platitudes – and is the odd-man-out in the exhibition.
In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913–27), the character Bergotte, after reading a critic’s review of Johannes Vermeer’s View of Delft (1660–61) hurries to the exhibition to see the painting first hand. Noticing for the first time a patch of yellow wall – a small square strangely abstracted within the painting’s realist depiction of the Dutch city – Bergotte is overcome. This yellow patch silently embodies the very qualities Bergotte wishes he had captured in his own writing and strikes him in some simultaneously knowing and unknowing manner. Johnson’s paintings may not elicit the same drama of response (Bergotte dies) but their various parts and passages offer a related potential for ruminative absorption and tangential meanings.