Peter Frank 2001
Even for an artist as dedicated, formally and conceptually, to logic and symmetry as Stephen Robert Johns, the experience of what might be called the extra-logical can have profound impact. Such experience, as Johns demonstrates, need not compromise an orderly foundation to register its effect. Indeed, it can be on that very intersection between what seem mutually exclusive or contradictory factors that an enriched art emerges.
Until he began his visits to Costa Rica, Stephen Johns explored color through refined, even restrained compositional formulas, formulas so readily comprehendable that they in effect effaced themselves, the better to allow color its inherent glory. This, demonstrably, paid nature honor: Johns was not seeking to improve upon nature through refinement or edition, but to concentrate on nature's impact, retinally and thereby psychologically, upon us humans. The question of how (and what) we perceive – a prime concern among many of the abstract artists working in Los Angeles – engaged Johns, as did the desire to "know" elements of nature, notably color, absent the contexts and referents that bound our experiential understanding of such phenomena.
At the same time, Johns knew that color cannot completely be isolated from its context(s) in the world. His "pure" paintings, like those of Malevich, Mondrian, and other theoretical heroes of 20th century art, are pure only for the brief moment during which we regard them as pure – as idiom momentarily transcending inflection. Before, after, and in some part of our minds during, this moment, we see colors if not as symbols, then as suggestions of real, palpable things – yellow the sun, red fire, green vegetation, blue sky, to name only four especially elemental inferences. The pioneers of abstract art had hoped at least to signal abstract sensations, but even there they found it impossible to trigger for long the apperception of love, anger, envy, hunger, sleep, or lust. A color might have psycho-physiological properties – it might induce sleep, or even suggest its qualities – but, if anything, these interfere with its metaphysical properties. A color might induce or suggest the state of sleep, but, precisely because of these active effects, it could never embody sleep. A color is abstract, ironically enough, only in relation to another color.
Johns' first trip to Costa Rica allowed him to move beyond this dilemma by giving him permission to engage color referentially, to complicate composition so that the references he was now accepting (or, more accurately, bringing) into the painting took on a greater concretion. Of course, Johns was not moving towards literal description, but towards evocation. His new-found stylizations, disrupting the symmetries and lockstep rhythms of earlier series, brought his art to a new pitch, less ideal, less luminous, more sensuous, more recognizable – and yet not readily identifiable, not entirely voluptuous, not lacking in inner light or conceptual refinement. In his works from – and since – his first trip to Costa Rica, Johns has met the world half way.
This relinquishing of rigid formula was an aesthetic voyage waiting to happen, one triggered by a geographical and spiritual voyage. Johns' introduction to a very different place gave him permission to "know" in a different way what, and where, was familiar to him. Johns' introduction to Central America certainly provided him a gateway to a whole new universe of experience; like Paul Klee – who introduced color into his work as a result of his visit to North Africa in 1911 – Johns let his visit to another universe a few miles south have a radical but entirely comprehendable effect on his approach to his art.
In certain aspects, the overwhelming experience of Costa Rica reified conditions already manifested in Johns painting: color is of prime importance, form is smooth and regular, texture is (surprisingly) soft and sensuous, and composition is deceptively regular and repetitive. These conditions determine a groundwork for artistic evolution that can prove quite supple; what is surprising is the nature of Johns' evolution, away from the self-effacing fixity of the earlier Vector-series paintings and towards a much more asymmetrical approach – and yet there is little if any change in the color, the grammar of shapes (the vocabulary modified enough to allow in the new landscape), or the firm draughtsman's line with which everything is described.
Johns' visual thinking has in fact always been sourced in landscape. What has changed is how apparent that is to an uninformed (if still reasonably sophisticated) eye. And what has surfaced is the surface of the earth, the patterns and colors of a topography seen from above. Johns has spoken of the impact that seeing the farmland of central California from the air had on him as a boy. Similarly, the Costa Rica painting cycle began in his mind as he flew into Central America the first time. On its way to San Jose, his plane made a stop in Guatemala City, bringing Johns up close for the first time to the tropical rainforest – and to the rooftops of a Spanish colonial city. The intensity of the colors and elaborateness of the shapes he saw in both natural and manmade realms set in motion a re-evaluation of composition and palette that his stay in the region only heightened.
Since that experience and that visit, Johns has retained the sensuousness of the real world in his painting – not just the sensuousness of color, which has always been his domain, but a formal sensuousness equal to, and enhancing, the color's. This has not meant a diminution of formal rigor; on the contrary, the new compositions require more consideration, so that their evocation of the external world can be modified without being suppressed. Stephen Johns' task is, after all, not to replicate the seen world, but to distill it into unencumbered retinal experience. What he has found is that such experience begins encumbered, by unavoidable association, and that the oblique associations he can bring to each picture serve to pre-empt the associations we might bring. If anything, Johns' color is freer than ever.
Los Angeles, CA
Stephen Robert Johns in Costa Rica
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.