Peter Frank 2004


Stephen Johns is nothing if not a (neo-)modernist. His work concerns the relationship between the viewed and the viewer's response to it – and, implicitly, between the artist-viewer's response and that of the audience. Form is the common language here, allowing the artist to arrogate authority by determining the conditions of that form (and thus that language) but making him responsible for representing – or, if you would, re-presenting – his vision of the subject honestly and communicating his vision lucidly with the audience. Modernism may make a despot of the artist, but demands benevolence of that despot.

It also expects a certain faithfulness to various modernist tropes. The operative one in Johns' art is the revision of human perception through human inventiveness. Specifically, Johns reaffirms a view of the world that has become at once broader and more detailed, at once more macrocosmic and microcosmic. He is inspired to paint landscapes not as seen from the ground, their horizon lines anchored just below the middle of the picture, but as seen from above, the horizon line absorbed into the irregular patterns of raw and cultivated topography. This is not simply the panoramic view afforded landscape painters since the Renaissance, the view from the tower or the occasional balloon; this is the view to which increasingly more humans have had access over the last century as the phenomenon of airship flight has become commonplace. This is the view that so excited Gertrude Stein as she crisscrossed her native land on her 1930s lecture tours. This is the Cubism of the gods (as the flight-besotted Futurists might have put it).

At the same time Johns reverts to the microcosmic with his equally abstracted (but still identifiable) renditions of leaves and flowers and other details of foliage. Once he lands on terra firma, he switches from geography or geology to biology, specifically (but not exclusively) botany. He trades the telescopic purview for the microscopic. But, given that his aerial views record patterns of forested or cultivated growth, Johns effectively paints the same thing from below as from above. The palm fronds and bamboo staves he renders over and over again, ringing variations on a kind of visual mantra of nature, comprise the ocean of chlorophyll that is the Central American jungle.

Wanting to capture the lush intensity of his subjects' color, and for that matter form, Johns relies on both natural and synthetic materials. Interestingly, a case can be made that his natural material – triple-thick Washi paper – is subject to a process of synthesis in its fabrication, while the synthetic substance with which he paints – polyester resin – is a chemically derived analog to naturally occurring substances (i.e., tree resins). The issue here is not one of ecological security (these paintings are meant to endure, after all, not to bio-degrade), but of metaphorical closure with the subject matter. In functioning as notational mementos of his trips to Costa Rica, Johns' Washi paintings remind us that, no matter how exotic, natural phenomena are inextricably bound up with our lives. Just as leaves and fields fill Johns' visual spaces, so the dense web of the ecosphere envelops us, sustaining us in its embrace.

With these paintings, Stephen Johns embraces nature back.


Peter Frank, 

Los Angeles, CA

May 2004

Stephen Robert Johns: Environmental Modernism 

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.