Kiel Johnson: Prepping for the Edge
January 12 – March 9, 2019
Kopeikin Gallery, Los Angeles
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Kiel Johnson’s got a serious sketching habit, and a case of the collector’s obsessiveness to boot. In this suite of watercolor paintings made during the last few years, Johnson gives full rein to the impulse to catalog and chronicle the conceptual accumulations that occur to him. Tall ships, random chairs, cacti, ocean waves, bees — whatever it is, he’s gotta catch them all. But instead of a million itemized depictions, Johnson groups his themes into singular pieces, which, while they each contain multitudes, have the organic linear regimentation of miniature grand salons. This effect is frequently amplified as each image is bordered with its own ornate drawn frame. Deviations from this eccentric grid result in proliferate fractal fields, without losing any clarity on the individuality of the items.
Major keystone pieces like the tellingly named “144 Images for the Price of One” (a compendium of classic, pastoral landscapes in a variety of frames within the frame), “Rough Seas” (tall ships on high swells), “Wave Collection,” and “Honeybee Hall of Fame” (which are just what they sound like) express a distinctly art historical or natural sciences, academia-inflected noblesse in the compositions’ structural citations. Within each work, the initial impression of repetition immediately dissolves into a rabbit hole of wonderment at the uniqueness of each variation on the theme. Every wave, ship, and bee with its own personality or situation; every scene a 2-inch square masterpiece occupying the fullness of its own frame.
“Everyone I Know Sits Down” is a meteor field made up of the chairs of his friends. While scattered across a spatial vacuum, there is little or no confusion and very minimal touching or overlap between and among them. It reads more like the natural spread of a crowd of people in a plaza — loners, small groups, facing in every direction. They are all to scale and precision rendered down to the make, model, and well-worn. We learn his friends like Eames chairs and some use overturned buckets, and some are clearly beloved thrift store scores, and at least one person lets their cat on the furniture.
Charming details like the aforementioned cat, or a sun-bleached skull nestled in the sands beneath one of 1000 thorny succulents in “Cactus Patch” make closer inspection a treasure hunt, and reward your attention. Throughout all the works, an engaging balance of exuberance, humor, neurosis, and information overload make for a brisk vibration. Even in a series of single-image works — smaller paper, larger images — Johnson’s penchant for a nearly Baroque elaboration makes the gilt frames the site of densely finessed, witty detail. The octopus is everyone’s favorite, but ultimately the cheeky reference to the snobbery of European salons comes off as both subversive and appreciative. It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. After all, the foundation of the broad appeal of this work is Johnsons’s quick, confident draftsmanship, incredibly fine-tuned eye for observed detail, a natural but amplified palette, and an empathetic eye for the inner beauty of every last damn thing ever.
2766 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034