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In 200 Words: Medford Johnston at Sandler Hudson and the High

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Aberdare
Medford Johnston, Aberdare, 1987. At the High Museum.

Let’s pretend for a moment we are approaching the paintings of Medford Johnston at the High Museum and Sandler Hudson Gallery without the aid of wall text or press release. Paintings such as Aberdare (1987) use shaped lines and irregular geometric forms nestled together in a fashion that suggests intimacy. The objects are abstract figurations. The palette shows thoughtful sensitivity born from specific reference. Warm brownish reds, unnamable grays, butter mixed with cream, and yellowish greens the color of dry vegetation. The paint is put down in broad brush strokes of acrylic mixed with modeling paste to appear as if stucco. The color is flat, no gloss. Closer inspection reveals each form delineated by pencil and a boundary of luminous underpainting. This bottom layer is made of up colors as varying as a sunset or a tie-dyed T-shirt. It serves to create an ambient light, or visual vibration, that peaks past the edges of the thicker opaque forms on top.

Perennial Properties

Now, if we look at the text for the shows, we learn that these paintings were made in the late 1980s and early 1990s and were informed by the artist’s visits to East Africa. It makes total sense: the colors, forms, and manner in which the paint is applied can be related back to tribal textiles, arid climate, and traditional African adornments. However, as with most great painting, specific references are only the subtext. The main concern is making a great painting. The goal is to separate and distinguish oneself within a lineage dating back thousands of years and contribute a new way to articulate one’s humanity through painting. It is no small feat that Johnston has achieved high-end inventive paintings.

Medford Johnston, Untitled Study (Samburu Linda), 1989; acrylic, modeling paste and pencil on paper, 30 by 22½ inches.
Medford Johnston, Untitled Study (Samburu Linda), 1989; acrylic, modeling paste and pencil on paper, 30 by 22½ inches. At Sandler Hudson.

Johnston’s color-shaped lines achieved figurative solidity 10 years before Brice Marden’s marks coalesced into a similar definitive style. And the shimming ambient light of Johnston’s underpaintings mark a novel solution to the conundrum of illusion in abstract painting. Johnston’s paintings precede, by some 20 years, the work of Mark Grotjahn, who gained attention for a similar device. Johnston’s paintings are a high-level achievement because his inventive solutions to problems in painting describe, more generally, a subtext that can be conveyed to the viewer. A specific and complex articulation through painting is hard. Invention is harder. Combing both of these, Johnston delivers a rare accomplishment in painting.

“Notes of Africa” is on view at Sandler Hudson Gallery through April 19. “Counterpoise” can be seen at the High Museum of Art through June 8.

Brendan Carroll is a painter living in Atlanta. A show of his work appeared at {Poem 88} from January 11 to February 22, 2014.