Tompkins Weekly (PDF):
Small square canvases, of identical surface area, are covered in pools and clouds of richly colored, though thinly applied and often translucent paint. Floating or standing amongst these color fields are more crisply defined, relatively opaque shapes. Although abstract, these blobs, lumps, and tubes suggest the figure — or perhaps its limbs and organs.
The assemblages evoke oddball human dramas. Some shapes are also reminiscent of vegetables: peppers and eggplants in particular. Rock gardens and microbial landscapes also come to mind.
Such are the myriad forms that populate “New Lines: Paintings by Melissa Johnson,” which is currently up at Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall Gallery. Johnson’s show comprises some 20 acrylic works: 19 of them small (12" x 12") and one large (48" x 48"). The paintings are unframed and often quite thick; they pop out of the wall like boxes.
Though distinctive, Johnson’s paintings call to mind diverse precedents from the history of modern art. Her sensuously colored, densely translucent, and overlapping tone-tongues resemble the abstractions of Morris Louis, although on a much more intimate scale (and using brushes rather than pouring). In contrast to Louis, and the other protagonists of Post-Painterly Abstraction, with their high seriousness, her quirky, quasi-figurative drama and humor is reminiscent of artists such as Joan Miro and Louise Bourgeois. (The humor is slapstick, and therefore hard to convey in words.)
There is an ambiguity in the way Johnson plays shapes off of the edges of her squares: they either appear to rest on the edges like objects on a platform, or they seem to continue beyond our view.
Several canvases feature rows of tongue or finger-like forms protruding from the edges, often from the bottom. Among these is New Lines, one of the most strongly figurative works in the show. The background is unusually rough, with abrupt brushstrokes forming a rather landscape-like background of blue, purple, and green. Mid-ground, near the center of the square, floats a low hanging white cloud. Lined up along the bottom edge is row of six foreground finger people, resembling dancers, or individuals in a parade. Some, looking like inverted exclamation marks, even sport head-like spots. The foreground colors are warm: bold reds, murky dark purples, burnt orange.
Ten 26 is distinctive for its clarity and relative sparseness. The background is a busily brushy green — yellow over a blue under-layer. Emerging from the left of the bottom edge and seemingly leaning rightward is a pair of adjacent fat blob-tongues: lavender and orange-red. (Their brushwork fills neatly echo their contours, helping keep them separate.) Down from the top edge: a skinny, Indian yellow tongue and a pair of dark red-brown projections that suggest a pair of dangling, stocking-covered legs.
Slide On, in contrast, is a densely layered vortex of color-forms, spanning a wide range of sizes and opacities (generally, the smaller, the more opaque). These are more rock-like than organic and the colors suggest desert and rust. Slightly off-center is a tear in this space. Its colors are unexpected: warm blue and magenta.
The variety that Johnson has achieved within a fairly consistent format is impressive. Wild (like several) features rough, scrawl-like marks, My Deep a background of curved diagonal stripes. Pour Me Down is unusually opaque. The gracefully curving CM is filled with eggplants (purple and brown, hazy and sharp) while Those Spaces Between seems to feature some kind of elongated orange gourd.
Scaling up can be a difficulty for any artist. The task is a particular challenge with gestural, painterly work, wherein every mark may be called upon to make a self-conscious statement. Moving bigger requires renegotiating the manner in which bodily movements and perceptions are choreographed into the agglomeration of form.
It is therefore unsurprising that Best Days, the sole large piece here, is dominated by two stiff, flatly colored-in forms: one resembling a red pepper and the other (vaguely) an upside-down axe or hammer head. One misses the lively interplay of gesture and drawn shape found in most of the smaller works.
All too often in local art, work that has pretensions toward playfulness or whimsy gives the impression of desperate effort being made to mask a more fundamental creative lifelessness. Ithaca loves the idea of the artist as free spirit; sadly, the real thing seems to be fairly rare. Melissa Johnson’s paintings are the real thing and as such deserve a broad audience.