Whitney Johnson at
By Maggie Morton
May 16, 2016
It has always been the business of science to unpack—to reduce complexities in material reality to a set of basic, predictable principles. What has not always been, is the belief that while scientific inquiry has set to work unpacking the physical order, the cosmos is being emptied of what was once valued as intangible. Made popular even more recently is the notion that our world, both external and internal, is better for it.
So, when a visitor to Transpace Gallery asked the exhibiting artist, Whitney Johnson, “Do you consider yourself more of a scientist or a sorcerer?” they presented a commonly accepted dichotomy. Johnson’s reply? “Neither.” The query was a playful one, but the artist’s refusal to claim either identity parallels the delicate line on which her exhibition, Part and Parcel balances.
In the corner of the gallery sits a fabricated wooden table holding a stack of canvas pieces, ordered by size, and stained with muted acrylics. This is the first sign of a scientific methodology at work. On another low table in the center of the room is a spread of more canvas sections. These seem to be in the next stage of experimentation, as the color fields are overlaid with dots, dabs, and spreads of thick color. In an exploration of color interaction, one dark stain is offset with three clusters of red, green, and blue stripes—each a different value.
Some of these canvas fragments are inserted into the larger works that line the walls. In 6:30 or so, brown and blue acrylic washes compose an image of a bridge passing over a river. Darker, oblong brush strokes in the upper half of the painting are complemented below, where impressions of strings and strips of canvas interrupt an area of shadow. Camouflaged in the bottom right corner is a rectangular piece of canvas, speckled with fractured photographs of sky and water, and spots of violet acrylic. The collage resembles a key of sorts—a guide to the microscopic ingredients that make up a scenic view. Still, its relationship to the larger composition is more metaphoric than direct. Rather than decode the image, the cutout contains a microcosm just as suggestive as the one that surrounds it.
While 6:30 or so plays subtly with scale, the works that break from representational landscape do so more insistently. after 11:45 is dominated by a circular form that contains bits of canvas (cut into various shapes), as well as ash, glitter, and studio debris. The materials are matter of fact, tactile, even dirty, but surrounding the circle are the ghostly imprints they leave behind when laid in a wet wash. Their actual and implied presence create a space that intrudes and recedes in equal measure. Just as the forms suspended in the circle begin to resemble amoebas swimming in a petri dish, the single star at the center is a playful cue towards a more cosmic reading.
The worm-like impressions that stream across the surface are a recurrent motif throughout the exhibition, possessing an animated quality that reduces figure to its most basic form—a suggestion of life, more than a strict representation. These figures cascade down a contrasting field in their shadows, and gather at the bottom of the panel. Painted thickly onto watery acrylic, the shapes appear to vibrate with energy as the color particles separate into shades of red-violet and electric blue. The interaction displays Johnson’s practiced manipulation of the chemical properties of pigment, while at the same time creating an image that could refer to the branches of a neuron, or a bolt of lightning flashing across the night sky. In these small, yet sweeping, moments, when material fact gives way to mystery, it’s something between science and magic.
Images courtesy of the artist.
Maggie Morton is an artist, writer, and poet, who earned her BFA in Painting from Illinois State University in 2016. Morton currently lives and works in Normal, IL. Her writings have been published by Sixty Inches From Center and Catfish Creek.