Kelley Johnson: Recent Paintings, an exhibition of strikingly bold paintings by the St. Louis artist, recently closed at Twin Kittens (October 25-December 7, 2012), wrapping up the first solo show in the gallery’s new location. Twin Kittens is a nonprofit exhibition space directed by Jeff Guy and located downstairs in the TULA Art Center (which also houses the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia).
Kelley Johnson’s seven oversized paintings (all acrylic on canvas, mostly dated 2012 and measuring over five feet in each direction) command the walls, creating a presence simultaneously functioning with playful gesture and skillful control. It is refreshing to view paintings as physical objects—while not slick or monolithic, they operate as flattened forms shaped by human touch. Tactile brushstrokes read as finger or hand-made gestures, and specific layering devices employed by Johnson add dimensionality by expanding or collapsing the conceptual space.
Johnson’s strong and colorful vortex motifs—formed by taped geometric lines and injected with a neon palette of pinks, purples, and blues—at times appear overpoweringly present in three closely installed canvases, Shutter, Push, and Untitled. Important is Push (74×60 inches), the painting hanging in the middle; its vortex-deficiency creates a needed conceptual void or pause in the right-hand corner of the gallery, and proves Johnson is confident in subtlety as well.
If there is a formal spectrum at play, Push operates as visually minimal but anchors the other works together. A mint green painting with few framing devices, the work exemplifies Johnson’s formal discipline characterized by a basic abstraction and emphasis on process. Through faint trompe l’oeil, the painting appears to wave or crumple as cloth-like (à la Tauba Auerbach). Smart compositional devices, such as the purple half-border and floating mark in the middle of the canvas, seem direct and well-formulated.
Bound (2012, 74×60 inches) allows sustained viewing through its depth and semi-all-over composition. But thin sections of white negative space on either side of the canvas remove us from fully falling for the illusory tactic. The void created by implications of borders and framing-within-a-frame methodology carries the viewer on a collapsed and abbreviated history of mark making, from a most basic gestural line to a rigid neo-geometric abstraction laying on the top and sealing the composition.
Johnson’s work feels aligned with similar young and rising painters such as Paul Demuro or Amy Feldman (both whose debut solo exhibitions were reviewed in the New York Times in 2012), and while there is a wide range of tactility and palettes, they all use formal compositional devices to shape their human mark making. It is refreshing to engage in a conversation that questions painting as a language versus painting as physical form; in this duality Johnson excels.