Studio Visit: Dion Johnson, The Curvature of Light…
By Gary Brewer
“Polyphonic painting is superior to music in that there, the time element becomes a spatial element. The notion of simultaneity stands out even more richly”
Paul Klee, Polyphonic Painting
“…I see my soul reflected in nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible
completeness, sanity, beauty…”
“The universe is a procession with measured and
Walt Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric
Perception, movement, light, the arc and angle of a body gliding through space, color as presence – physically projecting into space. The paintings of Dion Johnson are informed by his experiences of light and space in nature; whether riding his bike through the Santa Monica mountains and cresting a hill to see the horizon line of the blue Pacific, or trekking in Nepal, Patagonia or Iceland, these experiences of space and light, of the curvature of the earth and the natural arc of the arm drawing a line in space, all find their way into to his elegantly resolved abstractions.
There is a velocity to the color chords, lines and stripes of varying widths and in different hues of his paintings, it is the speed of perception that he plays with, giving the patterns of his compositions a musical quality. Dion spoke of Paul Klee’s idea of ‘polyphonic paintings’, and of how the idea of the ‘time element becoming a spatial element’ has been important to his work.
It is a play of opposites, a musically playful complexity against elegantly open space, concordant colors against opposites, push and pull, compression and expansion. ‘Early on I was influenced by Charles Sheeler and the precisionists as well as architectural drawings, but when I saw a show of Gustave Courbet’s seascapes at the Getty, it blew me away, the openness, the color, light and space.”
His paintings are a marriage of influences; the modernist idealism of abstraction as a way to break with the past – to have an art form of immediacy, the ‘supremacy of perception’ being more real than the illusion of representational painting. This fused with the sublime romanticism of the Hudson River Valley School and the Luminist painter’s with their infinite horizons, the glow of the sunrise or sunset and the vastness of space.
Indeed, Dion mentioned that it was after seeing the sunrise in Nepal that he began adding the chromatic gradients to his backgrounds. “There were always open fields of color in my paintings that conveyed ‘space,’ but after seeing the sunrise in the Himalayas I wanted to capture a feeling of the transitional light of a sunrise, of the feeling of infinite space.” The paintings have a vivid immediacy, the complexity in the vertical bands and arcs, the “ transitional fades, intersections, and terminations” of these compressed color chords are juxtaposed against the open fields where gradients transition from dark to light and shift into different hues. It is almost as if the information from ones peripheral vision were abstracted and compressed into these vertical bands of information, color chords creating a coded pattern of memory perceptions.
There is a meditative quality to the works. We spoke of the elegant and serene abstractions of John McLaughlin, and he said of these, “ I love his work but I do not want to be pure in that sense, I like the contrast, the ‘challenges’ where a beautiful passage of color chords is disrupted by clashing colors, or where the atmospheric gradients clash with something that feels synthetic, man made, the contrast is important.”
Dion is a serious bicyclist, not in a competitive sense but in distance riding. His experience of the way riding affects consciousness, of how ones senses are heightened and altered by the swift movement through space, to bring one fully into the present. This altered sense of time and its affect on perception has had an effect on his paintings. I asked him about the curves and arcs and of the smaller transitional zones in his work that seem to convey a sense of time. He said, “My experiences in nature, trekking in the Himalaya’s or riding my bike all find there way into my work. There is a sense of movement, space, light and time in the paintings.”
He creates his designs in Photoshop and carefully color matches each passage. He mixes large amounts of each color and stores them in plastic containers for use in other painting as well. The lids of the containers have the names of various paintings made using the color, an archive of the many paintings that this color has been used on. He tapes and uses various tools, palette knives, sheet rock tools etc. to apply the paint, some passages are seamless and immaculate, while others have a subtle variance in opacity or thickness allowing the white of the canvas to show a little.
These are deeply felt works carefully crafted, the intuitive process of composing worked out a priori, the execution flawless with subtle variables adding some ebb and flow to the design. “ I use Photoshop to design my compositions, I may make six or seven versions and sit with them until one becomes clear. I premix all of my colors, color matching is very important, I then tape it out, there is a natural arc to the movement of ones arm, I put the tape down making these arcs by eye and hand, allowing the slight irregularities of my handmade curves to be present. They are precisionist but the handmade element is subtly present”.
The vast range of inventive uses of paint to find ways to make something fresh, that somehow comports with your own idiosyncratic needs, makes contemporary painting more eccentric and personal than ever before. We can adapt our approach to match our needs in ways that are so flexible and wide ranging from the marriage of materials, technology and computers by way of Photoshop and the easy access we have to images, photographs video etc. Dion uses all of the tools available to him to find a way into a deeply intuitive method, the space between design and execution a seamless flow.
Through his sensual immersion into the landscape on foot or on a bike, sensations and perception become memories and find their way into the musicality of Dion’s precise, elegant abstractions. Nature/culture, memory and technology all colluding to manifest the brilliant musical color chords in his paintings that ‘Sing the body electric”.
Dion will have a solo exhibition at Azusa Pacific University in Jan 2018 – Dion Johnson ‘Feel The Sky’ – Visiting Artist Exhibition and Lecturer, Duke Gallery, Azusa, CA.