Nicole Rudick



Chris Johanson, "Now is Now", Installation view

Chris Johanson is an artist cum ethnographer. Taking on his subject, the social world, with the science of the streetwise, Johanson observes without remaining aloof because he recognizes his own complicity in the communal body. The complexity and engagement in Johansen's new paintings and installations at Deitch Projects are underpinned by the spirit of social disengagement that haunts the modern world.
Johanson shares an interest in the human condition with British artist Keith Tyson, and both are matched together by a mutual tone of playfulness as a Conceptual structure. Whereas Tyson's mode of exploration is scientific, Johanson's is social. But what is primary in the work of both, is the formal drafting of space. Johanson's flattened depiction of the urban milieu and strict two-dimensional rendering of rows of people read as a schema, a codification of the artist's impressions of this social world. contemporary cityscape (session sept./oct./nov. 2002), broadly demonstrates this sensibility. The diptych is peopled with the down and out, homeless, angry, lonely, and unhappy. Those who are visible through the windows of apartment buildings are alone and isolated, like so many prisoners locked up in their separate cells. Few individuals attempt connection, their speech bubbles extending out into physical space, occasionally making contact across divides (human or otherwise), and just as often threatening to drift off like real balloons, both from the speaker and from any chance of verbal reciprocation. The words themselves seem largely devoid of substantial meaning, as though the thought is predicated on the need to speak. Ill-fitted to the speech balloons that are intended to capsulize them, the texts cut through their enclosures.
In everybody loves variety and diversity, balloons reappear as the heads of people. Unmoored, the disembodied faces are here right now, but could at any moment float away. As the title of the exhibition indicates, now can only be now; it is at once a fleeting concept that implies immediacy, the present moment, and a more protracted one that connotes the present circumstances. It is, in essence, all we have the possibility of controlling. Johanson's world is saturated with loneliness: As participants in this now, we are estranged not only from each other, but from our selves. The social contract is broken.
The paintings act as a literal schematic for Johanson's installations. us, a large work of acrylic on wood, is covered entirely in black except for a dime-sized circle of white near the center. Only by moving in closely to the painting can the viewer discern “US” written in black in this one spot of light. Certainly a thought-provoking work in its own right, us comes to exist as a concise statement of intent for “Geodesic Dome/Space Installation”, a ramshackle building in an adjacent room. The exterior of this construction consists of an imbroglio of variously sized planks of wood (hardly geodesic) painted a faded camouflage green color. Even before entering the structure, one has the feeling that what is on view, is not the outside of something, but a support that is not meant to be seen, or wouldn't actually exist in reality. This sensation is akin to discovering that the sky, as we see it, is held up from the other side by steel supports.
The interior of the dome is also quite surprising: the walls are completely concealed by black paint, and the doorway is shrouded with black curtains that, when closed, shut out nearly all light. The space thus becomes a void. The only guiding light is a quarter-sized incandescent frosted lightbulb with the word “US” written in black on the bulb itself. It is the incarnation of solipsism.

Chris Johanson, "Now is Now", Geodesic domeSpace Installation, acryl on wood

The expressive honesty of Johanson's childlike style and the why can't we all just get along superficiality cannot disarm the seriousness of his enterprise. Paintings like i'm being absorbed by the gray area, in which an inverted triangular gray space hovers above an individual who appears to have no recourse, and i'm glad that i'm going over here for a while because i know if i do, i will be ok to go back there, a work similar to the former, but with a black space looming over a figure who is walking toward the edge of the painting-such works point directly to our nation's failed social experiment. Perhaps “US” implies United States as much as it does we. The country's domination by large, unaccountable corporations, the egocentrism of leaders, and the failure of Capitalism to address the spiritual needs of people has divorced the latter from their role as indivisible parts of the whole.
While Johanson isn't predicting that the end is necessarily nigh, he does, through his very criticism of now, appear to advocate a renewal of mutual respect. And this unironic humanism is perhaps the most appealing aspect of his work. His concepts aspire to a level of complexity without the use of condescension, and he seems content to forgive the past, as it is outside our scope to transform. By becoming aware of our current social forms, Johanson proposes, we can conceivably reconstitute the worth of the individual and society at large. It is, undoubtedly, an endeavor worth our attention.

Nicole Rudick
Brooklyn, New York