BY Michael Wilson in Features | 12 NOV 03
Featured in
Issue 79

One piece at a time

Chris Johanson

BY Michael Wilson in Features | 12 NOV 03

The person responsible for these clumsily expressed sentiments is, predictably, a lank-haired, guitar-strumming hippy. He is depicted sitting cross-legged on a street corner, offering his painfully obvious 'insights' in exchange for weed money. His words, rendered in angular, unpunctuated capitals, form a dense field that threatens to burst the confines of a large speech bubble. This gives them the feel of a rant in the manner of Private Eye's 'Great Bores of Today'; a wearisome tirade that has clearly been going on for a while before we were unlucky enough to wander into its radius and seems likely to continue indefinitely after our escape. Yet while the singer's lines are hardly Dylanesque, what they communicate would be tough to dismiss out of hand.

In his all-too-human blend of ineptitude and sincerity, the unnamed prophet is typical of the cast of characters that populate the paintings, drawings, books and installations of San Francisco artist Chris Johanson. These people express the joys, frustrations, aspirations and misconceptions of contemporary urban life in language that is frequently awkward or crude, sometimes unrepentantly self-absorbed, but rarely dishonest. That their dialogue (or, more often, monologue) lapses so frequently into the hipster argot of 30-odd years ago is primarily a reflection of the artist's own bohemian heritage and environment. Talking to Hillarie M. Sheets in the New York Times, Johanson asserts that 'if you're from the Bay Area, it's inescapable that you're New Age. If you say, "Man, my energy's heavy", anyone here would say: "I feel for you. That's unfortunate."'

Since dropping out of college in the early 1990s, Johanson's own energy has been shedding pounds with the momentum of a crash dieter. A significant starting boost came in 1997 from the late Margaret Kilgallen, who recommended his inclusion in 'Bay Area Now', a local survey at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In 2001 former Bay Area writer and curator Eugenie Joo included his work in the sprawling 'Widely Unknown', at Deitch Projects in New York. The same year also saw Johanson mount a second solo show at Jack Hanley, his gallery in San Francisco, and put in an appearance in the bi-coastal 'East Meets West' at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Finally, an outstanding contribution to the 2002 Whitney Biennial
of American Art put him on the world map.

This is a picture about the place we live in called Earth that is inside of this place we call space (2002) was a three-dimensional diagram of city life that rambled through the museum's stairwell, beginning at ground-level with a solitary painted plank and working its way upwards to end in a cosmic burst of colour, worshipped by a cluster of tiny cut-out figures. This Temple Called Earth (2003), made for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, features a forest of angular model redwood trees encased inside a sky-blue geodesic dome. Rows of people, painted standing rigidly and in profile, are visible through a small window. On the structure's exterior surface is the image of a man attempting escape in a canoe stacked with his every possession. Now is Now (2003) incorporates a mechanical carousel that sets a wooden model galleon spinning endlessly and fruitlessly after a bulging sack of money. The drama unfolds atop an ocean that is also a tunnel into which viewers are permitted to crawl.

Johanson came to this kind of expansive installationism gradually, showing his drawings and wood panel paintings in increasingly eccentric formats until, around 1995, they began to leave the wall altogether and invade the surrounding space. Now he regards the practice as a direct route to 'the kid area of the adult mind' and the most effective way of immersing viewers in his universe. Fond of using reclaimed timber and other salvaged flotsam and jetsam, he drags the raw stuff of the outside world into the gallery (even when, as was the case at the Whitney, it has to be disinfected first). As a result, his exhibitions often take on the look of unusually decorative shanty towns: every available surface is saturated with intense colour and urgent text to make an exciting, if ramshackle and possibly dangerous, adventure playground of signs.

The same holds true for his publications, You Are There (2000) in particular. Equal parts sketchbook, scrapbook and catalogue, it's a modestly scaled affair that nevertheless manages to incorporate a variety of colours, textures and formats into an energetic pocket-sized guidebook to the artist's thought and method. Fold-out strips of sausage-nosed heads and striding figures adjoin pages of urban and rural landscapes. There are clocks with two dozen hands and smiling faces superimposed with frowns. Curses merge into confessions, and greetings into warnings. A note, perhaps imagined, perhaps found and transcribed, reads: 'Dear Chad, It was really great to see you. It was nice to hear things have been going good for you. I'm writing to confirm our meeting this Thursday. Remember it's a sliding scale $65 to $75. Thanks, Sally.'

Johanson's art reveals that he is well aware of the abundance of this type of cruel bargain, but ultimately hopeful about the potential of people to work with and help each other. All we need to do, he seems to suggest, is stop muttering to ourselves and start talking to our neighbours. His paintings are filled with thoughts locked into isolated heads and cities full of people shouting ideas into the ether, which are promptly drowned out by the surrounding noise. Yet he aims for a balance - a bit of good, a bit of bad - which allows viewers to approach their own conclusions about the best way forward, about whether this is a day marked out for social progress and personal growth, or one to spend at home in bed.

The unabashedly folksy yet still street-smart, rough-hewn yet self-aware, aesthetic of Johanson's work is shared to a greater or lesser extent by a number of artists from his immediate area, including Scott Hewicker and Barry McGee. Their stylistic similarities and social connections have inevitably led to the identification of a 'Mission School' based around the eponymous district of San Francisco. But, from the knowing faux naivety of David Shrigley, Raymond Pettibon and Martin Maloney to the radically different inspirations and motivations of Outsider and Graffiti artists, Johanson's project is linked to a far broader array of traditions, both long established and comparatively new. Echoes from children's drawings to the Slacker aesthetic of the early 1990s to the improvised communal craziness of The Royal Art Lodge, are everywhere, and Johanson seems more than happy to observe and absorb them.

In a number of paintings Johanson's vision of our world is reflected in his imagining of others. In the frontispiece of an untitled book published by Jack Hanley in 2002 a cluster of planets are inscribed with the defining characteristics of their contents or inhabitants. 'Waste and things you don't want to deal with can be found here and also everywhere else'; 'Some really good thoughts about and/or from the past, present and future.' With wry wit and a teasing circularity these brief summaries map a universe of possibilities. The route through it is up to us. 'Mysterious perhaps filled with hidden positive value. You never know until you know. Maybe.'