71" x 64" - oil, ash, earth, rocks, thread on canvas - 2015
Painted for Freddi Vilardi - "existing & ceasing to exist" - 71"x46" - oil, ash, thread on canvas
Just finished painting two fences at the new food truck station on the North End of Asbury Park Boardwalk
Artist talk in the Nilson Gallery at Monmouth Museum, host to a cohesive body of paintings by Michael Burris Johnson. Part of the New Jersey Emerging Artist Series, this collection of oil paintings based on the grid occupied the gallery from May 29 - June 28 2015.
To see the written notes that were prepared for the talk visit my blog, viewfromaburrow.com
A cohesive body of paintings is currently hanging in the Nilson Gallery at the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, NJ. The show runs until June 28th - there will be an artist talk in the gallery on June 17th.
Virtues of Patience : The Opening Within the Grid
by Zachary Ritter
Patience is a tense and restless painting, one whose formal and conceptual dynamics call for mapping and subsequent navigation. Such a task provides us with a point of departure, with a way forward. Visually, the tension of the painting is manifested through the manner in which the formal characteristics of the grid interact with the expressivity of the paint, which is to say that, structurally speaking, the painting seems to resist what Johnson’s brush ultimately liberates and sets loose. On a conceptual level, the grid operates as a point of connection between the world of the painting and that of the viewer: the structural control that the grid exerts over the painted space is analogous to the structural control that social institutions and their accompanying ideologies exert over our lives. Similar to the immature flowers in Patience, those in which the suppressive power of the grid is made visible, our lives are fundamentally conditioned by the social structures that we are born into and that inform our operational ideology, that set of ideas and assumptions that coalesce into a functioning worldview.
We are, as a result, and to varying degrees, mere embodiments of the social grid in which we are placed and in which we place ourselves. This does not mean, however, that as products of a social order, of material conditions beyond our control, that we are unable to give our lives a singular form, or contour, or that we are unable to carry out the life-project of self-shaping. The grid does not have a monopoly over the form of our lives, and it is in Johnson’s Patience that we can see a model for how to resist the homogenization of the grid, for how to pursue our own form of life.
As an organizational framework the grid simplifies that which it is imposed upon; it attempts to set the limits of possibility for whatever lives or operates within its confines. In Patience we can see this logic at work when standing in close proximity to the painting, so that the painted space begins to atomize, revealing square after square of color in precise circumscription from those surrounding it. At this distance the ability of the grid to unify the entirety of the space is suspended, and instead the relative singularity of each square becomes observable. Nuances of color inscribed by the brush are made visible, as are the sensual and textural qualities produced by the meeting of paint and canvas. However, despite these traces of the hand, of formal singularity, the structure does not entirely disappear; although subtlety is evident, the essential form of each unit of the painting is dictated by the single organizational logic of the grid, of which there is no exterior. The effect becomes nearly schizophrenic: while combing the surface of the painting and relishing its painterly qualities, one is directed back to the larger totality of the painting, to its single organizing principle; to see the atom is to be reminded of its structured existence, of its place within.
There is another schizophrenic, or perhaps dialectical, quality within the painting, this one between the expressivity of Johnson’s brush and the seemingly cold and rigid demands of the grid. One can look to the work of Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin, two painters that utilized a gridded structure for their compositions, to see examples of the grid being implemented in a way that embraces and reflects its reductive and simplifying qualities. Mondrian and Martin were predominantly abstract painters, and as such their uses of the grid reflect such an orientation. Patience, along with many other of Johnson’s grid paintings, documents a different orientation, one still committed to the expression of the natural world.
Indeed, Johnson’s use of the grid is one that seems less conducive to its formulaic properties, which we can see as the foliage, and many of the flowers, remain fixed within the pixilated contours that the grid imposes upon them, whereas others, those lucky few to reach maturity, to achieve a relative singularity of form, have overcome their geometric beginnings. These flowers in bloom stand in sharp contrast to those that have had their development halted, those still undergoing a transformation of form and which Johnson’s brush has abstained from liberating from the grid, and herein lies the dialectical movement within Patience: those areas that have successfully matured, that have been given the space to develop their own contour and form, these exist side by side the areas that have had their growth stunted, restricted to the allowances of the grid. Perhaps more significant in this relationship is that both areas issue forth from the same totality, that their point of genesis is one and the same.
The external significance of the grid, its deeper relevance for us as viewers, goes beyond its role as a formal conceit in Johnson’s work and extends into its capacity to mirror the ways in which our lives are shaped by the social grid in which we exist. In this context the grid serves as an abstraction from what is material, as an image of what exists both around and within us but which nonetheless remains difficult to adequately conceptualize and, at times, even to feel. Our grid, the one that structures our material conditions of existence, and which attempts to instill in us our operational ideology, is capitalism. To live within a capitalist society is to live within a socio-economic system in which the field of possibilities has been set, and what’s left to the individual is what to choose within this predetermined spectrum of choices. Here it becomes crucial to speak of the society that is capitalist and not simply the economy which is so, because to structure the means and relations of production in a manner that facilitates class divisions, is to also instill in people the concomitant ideology about said means and relations of production, and to do so in a way that effectively reproduces the conditions for the production of the system itself, which ensures its continuance.
Such choices have now, more than ever before, become saturated with a global resonance: because capitalism is a global system that shapes both the material conditions and productive relations around the world, our material existence depends upon those populations that capitalism has demanded to produce it, regardless of the human cost. This is treated as merely an unpleasant circumstance of a fully realized and fully integrated global capitalist economy; to seek out even a modest material existence is to be implicated in this cycle. And so there is a city beneath ours, one that never stops churning, producing, suffering, and which we deliberately banish from consciousness for fear of confronting the true ethical dimensions of our acts.
Fredric Jameson argues that the internal dynamics of capitalism – with the profit motive and the logic of capital accumulation chief among them – are the fundamental laws of this world, and that as a result, they set “absolute barriers and limits to social changes and transformations.” The barriers and limits that Jameson speaks of do not only apply to collective attempts at political and economic change; their first extension passes through the individual, who is to be molded and formed in such a way that they do not see these barriers and limits for what they are, and instead see them as “natural” developments of the system, those beyond human intervention. The individual is taught to respect these barriers as safeguards against anarchy, as limits in place that ultimately benefit him or her. We are told to join the game in progress, to value and seek out wealth along with a modicum of happiness, to accept the system for all its flaws and downplay its homogenization of life. The grid embeds these desires deep within us so that, even after carrying out a sustained conceptual insurrection against our inherited ideology, we come to find the system creeping back up to the surface, rearing its myopic worldview and value system back into a place of functionality. What purpose can art, and Patience more specifically, serve in this context beyond mere distraction and escapism?
Gilles Deleuze characterized philosophy as a tool with which one can negotiate with the Powers that permeate all of us, powers such as capitalism, the state, religion, science, laws, and so on, the very system of values and beliefs that the grid instills within us to the best of its ability. For Deleuze, these are Powers because they attempt to shape who we are and how we live, they seek to mold us in the form best suited to their purposes. Philosophy is a means of interrogating the presence of these powers within us, of challenging their claims to rationality and progress. It is in this context, viewed as a tool for negotiation, that art can serve a purpose beyond the trappings of aestheticism. What becomes necessary, then, is an art that is oriented towards the confrontation of the presence of the grid, of its Powers, in all of us. It must generate an opening in which we can think, and feel, in a manner that facilitates awareness of our place within the grid, and which will compel us to go beyond reflection.
Johnson’s Patience offers us an example of how to exist within the grid, of how to step into the opening that the work itself creates, and ultimately, of how to resist. Like the flowers that bloom in Patience, we too must pursue our own form of life, one predicated upon the creative act as a resistance to the pecuniary bottom line of a truly capitalist culture. We must also avoid the ease of slipping into despair when confronted with the reality of the grid, with its constant presence within us; despair offers us nothing, it only serves to pacify us and push us closer to resignation. Rather than project despair, our place within the grid should serve as an affront to its intent to irrevocably shape how we position ourselves in relation to the world. To capitulate to the grid, to wilt before its Powers, is to renounce our right to a different form of life then it would have us believe is attainable. The task at hand, the one that Patience aids us in, is to continually undermine, critique, and ultimately dismantle the ideological framework that capitalism and its social grid have put in place both before us and within us.
The grid is the first target of negation; it is the ground on which we sever our ideological dependence. In its place we affirm new values, new forms, new processes for the development of a life.
The Fredric Jameson quote is cited from the following source:
Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. CaryNelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 284.
Zachary Ritter blogs at http://separationintheevening.tumblr.com
This essay was written for the solo exhibition of Michael Burris Johnson’s work at the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, NJ during their NJ Emerging Artists Series, with his show lasting from May 29 to June 28 of 2015.
“Patience” painted prints will be available at the Monmouth Museum for the duration of my New Jersey Emerging Artist Series show, Grid Paintings. They are 26″ x 13″, printed on heavy fine-art paper, and the textured blooms are painted with acrylic. Limited edition, only 23 were made, each one is hand painted, signed and numbered.
If there are any left after the show I will post a link to buy online.
New painting for upcoming solo show, "Grid Paintings" as part of the NJ Emerging Artist series at Monmouth Museum
With the first grid painting I ever did, “Pale Composition (Horizon of the Senses)”, I drove to the art store and bought two things: the biggest canvas they sold, and the smallest brush they had in stock.
In retrospect, I understand the tension of the grid painting to be the relation between the size of the canvas and the brush – the canvas becomes large in relation to the small brush, the brush becomes small in relation to the large canvas. This might seem obvious, but consider that the canvas could become small if the brush were larger.
Meaning, communication, and expression occurs because of this relation between the canvas and the brush – this is the capability of the grid painting – the expression is what occurs between canvas and brush. The difference between sizes is the interval that needs to be traversed – the size of the gap is the monstrous demon to be conquered.
The difference in sizes is also the measurement of time. The fixed interval of size difference between canvas and brush allows us to set a limit on time, to understand how much time it would take to paint in this speed, in this interval of sizes. To understand that the interval is potentially infinite and capable of being rearranged, helps us understand the same about time. To stretch the imagination: the infinitely small and the infinitely large become the same thing. What is left is the human ability to fix the relation of differences, to return within limits, and affirm life by returning. The return also runs the risk of becoming infinite – but in the case of the painting, it is never finished, only abandoned.
Of course, these aspects and fixed differences are subject to rearrangement – but in the painting each aspect is frozen in place to be seen & felt. This is the force of the painting – the bridge that was built through repetition of the return between two fixed differences. Pale composition is the conquering of the monstrous demon and reaching the limit of what can be sensed of the metaphysical interval between two differences.
I began this paining after an immersion in the early work of Michel Foucault.
The image is intended to communicate the idea that Madness only exists within Reason, and can only be understood as Unreason. Madness is a concept within Knowledge, but can only be identified in the figure of the madman.
Because the madman cannot contribute to the order of society, he is kept in a space of confinement. The confinement of the madman within society is an embodied consequence of the way the concept of madness is held in place by its relations within the discourse of Knowledge.
An understanding of madness is the recorded perceptions of a reasonable doctor who contributes pieces of discourse to a system of Knowledge & Power. The concept of madness is the conversion of the raw energy of the madman into discourse that remains both rigid and repeatable, but also capable of being rearranged.
The scratched birds of the painting become gridded birds of order – this is a visualization of the dispersion of madness into reason & discourse. The grid is used to represent reason, order, and the system of differences.
The painting attempts to situate itself between the critical consciousness and the tragic experience of madness.
Without reason, madness ceases to become madness, and is instead one of many possibilities of consciousness or animations of the body. If consciousness is a large circle, reason is a concentric circle within consciousness, and madness a concentric circle within reason. However the body animated by madness is capable of extended limits – the body becomes capable of things that the reasonable body is not.
Reason and Madness are bound. Madness is an active force, while Reason is a reactive force. Yet, reason is the dominant force, and dominates Madness through quantity of force.
Between the Reeds was painted on private commission, and was delivered today. The painting is a portrait of two people as animals.
The animals of this painting exist in a space that is beyond identity – a vision of what will forever be unknowable, unverifiable, and silent in our everyday world. And yet, the energy and force of the animal is somehow always there, rumbling beneath the surface of things, between the threads of reality, composed and whole when human life is frenzied and fragmented.
The gaze of the sheep follows the viewer – from any angle the sheep appears to be looking at you. There is reflective silver paint in the sheep’s wool, and shiny gold paint in the fox’s fur.
Hung up a new painting at Elan Hair Studio tonight. Eternal Night - 36" x 72" - Oil on canvas
The Movement of Shadows will be in the Monmouth Museum's 36th annual juried competition this month, opening reception and awards on January 17th from 4-6, the show will be up until March 8th.
This painting is a visualization and enactment of the struggle to pass through a rigid structure and hold in tact something pure, honest.
There is a blending of two distinct styles of painting that do not normally appear in harmony. Each style is used in opposition to the other, but simultaneously contribute to a unified expression. The textured blooms are imagined to be passing through the grid, into reality, the world of the viewer.
Each bloom (both gridded and textured) has a unique identity, but is also intertwined in a series of attachments and relations, both immediate & tangible, and compositional & distant.
This painting caused a reflection on the line of beauty, or, caused me to wonder how it is that beauty travels. It seems to me an invisible sort of phenomenon, traveling through inspiration from one vessel to the next in unpredictable ways. But for beauty to become manifest there has to be a certain balance – a certain struggle, a certain amount of work and sacrifice, but also a certain effortlessness or grace, something given – the ability for both the work and the worker to become detached from all earthly worry. I like what Rilke says, “beauty is the beginning of something terrifying”. The role of the artist might be to find the right balance between working just hard enough and remaining just empty enough to allow something beautiful to pass through and become manifest visually in the art. I am interested in the tension between the appearance of beauty to the senses, the moment of recognition, and the existence of beauty on an invisible plane, a force alive, simultaneously searching and sought after.
I was inspired to make this painting during a moment when I was questioning what was worth making at all – I entered the woods one day in early spring with a question, I emerged with an answer, although it was not fully formed. Initially all I saw was a horizontal canvas, I saw green and white, and I knew the title would be Patience. I had a feeling, the feeling that needed to be worked through and made external. I made the canvas almost immediately; gridded it out into small squares and began work.
I dwelt in the space of the canvas for several months before I had any idea what would occur. There were swirls of grey-green and white, and then verticals of a green-blue, hills of white, gold specks scattered. Green began to dominate the top, emerald green. Emerald green began to appear everywhere in my life, it kept occurring in noticeable ways, like a haunting, or a blessing. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, the way a color began to present itself to me, over and over in all different ways: people’s clothing, food, soap, buildings, books, reflections, scraps of paper, etc. Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation, but at the time each occurrence felt like fuel and confidence, a secret between me and another plane of existence.
Around this time I took a trip to the Met to see Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc. I spent the day lost in the Met’s labyrinth looking for ghosts in the mirrors of the staged rooms and on my way out I said, well, let me pay a quick visit to Vincent. I rounded the corner to the room of van Gogh’s and tucked in the corner of the room was a painting of his white roses on the emerald green background and I swear the painting knocked the wind right out of me.
I feel now that this was the moment of a profound recognition, that in that instant, for that single split-second, that painting had been created and was there just for me, and for me alone. A moment later, a woman gasped, and said, my god, that’s beautiful! It was her moment then.
Patience, for me, refers both to what it required to make this painting, and also the patience of the line of beauty that exists beyond me, lying in wait.
I finished this painting on New Years Day, 2015.
Federico Castelluccio also known as Furio from The Sopranos posing for a photo in front of my Mural of the Brooklyn Bridge at Patrizia's restaurant in Red Bank, NJ. The Bridge Mural is the wall to take a photo in front of!