Thursday, February 11, 2010

Essential form

Michael Johnson’s sculpture at Kittridge

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Feb. 11, 2010

The current show at Kittredge Gallery features sculpture by Michael Johnson, associate professor of sculpture at University of Puget Sound. Johnson’s sculptures are inspired by, but not imitative of, common objects such as bottles and bowls. There is one that looks like a pestle or maybe a butter churn and another that looks like a life raft but is called something else — I didn’t make a note of the title on that one, but frankly it doesn’t matter; these sculptures are about essential form, texture and color, not about the objects they vaguely resemble.

An artist’s statements begins with “First and foremost, I am a maker of objects.” How’s that for telling it like it is? It’s a slap in the face of post-modernist fashion. Shallow and trendy folk think that object-making is passé. They also frown on beauty. Johnson makes beautiful objects.

He goes on to say: “My identity is that of a builder, a fabricator, employing materials and processes akin to methods of manufacturing and technical engineering. This activity defines me, connects me to my past, and will play an invaluable role shaping my future. I find the ordinary to be extraordinary. I am drawn to common elements that make up the contents of my expansive personal landscape. From ordinary domestic implements to rural and urban structures, these images serve as symbols, marking my place in this world and when translated into minimal form, refer to the familiar yet retain a degree of autonomy.”

Johnson builds his objects out of plywood. They are gigantic in scale, meaning they look much larger than life regardless of actual physical dimensions. Imagine Claes Oldenburg’s gigantic sculptures of everyday objects if they were stripped of all identifying marks and reduced to simple abstract shapes, and made of wood.

Johnson’s objects look very heavy and solid. The walls or skins of his vessels are about three inches thick. Surely they are hollow, but they look like they are carved out of solid wood. The surfaces are made from strips or squares of plywood that are burnished and painted (typically with sanded and polished edges) to create sometimes startling and often subtle changes in color and texture.

One of the oldest of design principles is variety within unity. Johnson’s sculptures have this in spades. Each object is a simple, shape. In most of them there is an inside and an outside, which is why I refer to them as vessels, and there is a strong color contrast between the two. The outside surfaces are all natural wood finishes with very subtle textural and value changes, and the inside surfaces are painted to look like various industrial metals such as painted steel or burnished copper, or natural stones such as marble.

The one exception to the natural wood on the outside is the piece I described as a pestle or butter churn. It is painted black and looks ominous and super heavy. The surface is made of strips of plywood that are painted various shades of black and gray, with sanded and burnished edges that glow with the natural wood color.
To be truly appreciated, these sculptures need to be studied carefully from many angles to note the various patterns in texture and color.

In the back gallery is an exhibition called "Shadow" by Ted Vogel. The title piece is an arrangement of red flower petals with scattered white feathers on the floor in the shape of the shadow cast on the ground by an airplane. The shape is lovely and sensuous and displays a keen observation of the shapes of cast shadows “flying” over the ground. In a wall statement Vogel relates this work to the burnt shadows after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

[Kittredge Gallery, "Forty Years," Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 5 p.m., through Feb. 20, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma, 253.879.3701]

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