Peter Frank 1999
Even more than most artists working in a geometric manner, Stephen Robert Johns derives his art as much from extra-formal sources as from formal reasoning. There is in Johns' work a "real-world" resonance, something that imbues the retinal dynamics of point and line on a plane (as Kandinsky put it) with a more "viewer-friendly" dimension. Not that the dimension of Euclidean (and non-and post-Euclidean) formulation is incapable of attracting and rewarding viewers' attention. But, as Johns' work increasingly evinces its symbolic and sensuous as well as retinal factors, factors which point to phenomena beyond the literality of the canvas, he now allows (without actually encouraging) viewers the opportunity to "read" as well as see his compositions, and to recognize ranges of experience that might resemble their own. This does not mean we can regard Johns' paintings as abstracted people, places, or things. Such abstraction can feed, however obliquely, into his work, but is no more now than ever its raison d'etre. Rather, it means that Johns has moved into a practice of marking and coloring once exercised by such painters as Mondrian, Torres-Garcia, and Kandinsky himself, a practice in which the derivation of geometric form from natural and quotidian sources (or at least their conceptualized essences) was a common practice. As neutral and obdurate as Johns' work can often seem, it is always motivated by something recognized (if not truly recognizable) outside the sphere of design or compositional reasoning even as it invariably returns to that sphere. Johns' initial, and basic, extra-formal source was his childhood memory of farming patterns seen from the air as he flew over California's central valleys. The abstracting view of the land - especially the land as modified by human intervention - has been an inspiration for artists of all kinds ever since they started ascending. From early photographers' land and cityscapes made from hot-air balloons to the Cubists' and Futurists' dynamic romanticization of air flight and the enchantment Gertrude Stein felt travelling by air over America (which helped mute the disdain she'd maintained for her native land), the artists of the modern era(s) have reveled in flight and the unprecedented visual stimuli it has provided them. Neo-Modernist Johns thus follows in a latter-day tradition. He has as much as declared his faith in this tradition with his Sector Series, an extended sequence of paintings that have been neutrally formatted (12-inch-square) and neutrally composed (regularly and repeatedly sectioned according to various gridded or otherwise patterned structures), and painted with resin, giving the colors an intense saturation even as it neutralizes the paintings' surfaces. Since his extended visits to Costa Rica, however, Johns has made yet more apparent his response to what is in effect the partial abstraction of nature into cartographic ciphers - ciphers relieved of the kind of symbolic function they perform in actual maps.
The Costa Rica travels inspired Johns into even more fervid aerial abstraction, affording him (among other provocations) the bulbous form of tree foliage and the vivid lushness of the Central American jungle's green – In contrast to the more balanced, multi-spectral patterns he derives in his Sector works from the crops, water sources and gridded roads of California. His experiences on the ground, however, have also proved fruitful(the pun intended). Jazzed by the vegetation, by the vernacular architecture of peasant churches, by the custom of painting everything in bright colors - right down to the fences, which serve as a kind of non-objective mural site – and by other rich sources of (literally) local color, Johns has returned from his two southern sojourns with several new bodies of work. Some works on paper go so far as to depict foliage and figures as well as landscape in a flat, stylized, but still readily recognizable fashion. Other works (on paper and canvas) display rolling, rippling bands of green and yellow cascading on one and another in almost banner-like evocations of verdant hills. Still others find a handsome, slightly eccentric constructivism in multi-colored compositions responsive to the architecture of the region.
These works prompt us to think back to any number of modernist models: the colored disks, for example, of Robert Delaunay (which were themselves so heavily based in architectural forms, from Romanesque churches to the Eiffel Tower); the rhythmic machine-scapes of Fernand Leger; and the system Theo van Doesburg devised for abstracting natural forms according to a several step progression of increasing simplification and classicization. Johns has made this rich but recently neglected heritage his own, re-exploring and re-valorizing the process of abstracting from nature and divesting it thereby of its decorative, artificial associations. No, actually, Johns re-valorizes those associations as well, regarding decorativeness and even artificiality as central to artistic conception and formulation – at least as central as is the spontaneity and naturalness to which we have expected painters (at least since the Abstract Expressionists) to aspire. Johns is among those painters capable of finding the spontaneous and the natural in decoration and artifice – and finding the decorative and the artificial or at least artful, in the spontaneously natural and the natural spontaneous. If it's a jungle out there, Stephen Robert Johns demonstrates, our eyes are the richer for it.
Los Angeles, CA
Stephen Robert Johns: Aerial Views, Jungle Rhythms
PETER FRANK is a New York born, Los Angeles based art critic and curator. Associate Editor of Fabrik magazine and art critic for the Huffington Post, Frank has served as Editor of THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and as art critic for the LA Weekly, Village Voice and SoHo Weekly News. He has organized exhibitions for Documenta in Kassel, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, among other venues, and served as Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum in California. He has written extensively for books and periodicals around the world.