Thursday, March 15, 2018

Michael Johnson sculpture and modern Chinese art at University of Puget Sound

by Alec Clayton
Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 15, 2018
 “untitled (Blue)” by Michael Johnson, courtesy University of Puget Sound
A line is defined as the path of a moving point. If the point is three dimensional and a foot or two in size in every direction, and if it doubles back on itself and crosses its own path like an Escher drawing or like a meandering line drawn without lifting the pen from the paper —and if it does all that while remaining a single cohesive form, what you have is a sculpture by Michael Johnson.
Michael Johnson: Sculpture in the front room and Rewriting Tradition: Modern Chinese Landscape and Calligraphy in the back room are the two shows now occupying Kittredge Gallery at University of Puget Sound. The obvious first-glance observation might be that no two shows could contrast so thoroughly. But after studying both shows, an interesting thought struck me, and it is this: if you isolate a letter or a word from the Chinese calligraphy and enlarge it into a large, three-dimensional form, the result would be the same thing as the meandering line mentioned above, a Michael Johnson sculpture.
Johnson’s sculptures are large and bold in the tradition of such artists as David Smith and Noguchi. They are painted in flat colors and are made from plywood sheets that are pieced together in such a way that most of them appear solid, with no joints, the only exception being one called “Confluence,” which is unpainted, and all the glued-together joints stand out like a sore thumb. I would love to ask the artist what his intention was with this one. Was it left this way as an example of his method? He does teach sculpture at UPS, after all. So maybe he included it as a lesson and will sand and paint it later.
One of the most intriguing is “untitled (blue),” which looks like a giant tuning fork. It rests at an angle on the curved fan-shaped part and looks as if it would teeter non-stop if touched. (I was so tempted to give it a little shove.) 
The sides double back upon themselves like pathways in an architectural maze. This is the one that made me think of Escher drawings.
It is fascinating to walk around Johnson’s sculptures to see how they look from different angles —surprises from every point of view.
There are five sculptures in the show, which is the perfect amount given the size of the works and the gallery. 
The other show features a variety of landscape paintings and calligraphy by modern Chinese artists. Local art lovers who are familiar with Japanese Sumi art, will recognize the style. These Chinese drawings and paintings are similar to the Sumi we’re used to, but there are subtle differences. Overall, the paintings have a softer look, and even though they are modern works —many from the 1950s to 1990s, but one from 1899, they look old.
Among my favorite pieces are “Picture of Blue Mountain” by Zhuo Hejun and a group of landscape paintings on rocks by Cynthia Wu. The blue of the mountain is subtle and seems to soak into the paper, and the composition enhances the height of the tall scroll, giving the viewer the feeling of looking up at a formidable mountain.
The works in this show are accompanied by wall texts with extensive information.

Michael Johnson sculpture and modern Chinese art, Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 5 p.m., through April 14, Kittredge Gallery, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma, 253.879.3701

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