Chris Johanson (b. 1968) is an American artist whose idiosyncratic paintings, drawings and sculptural installations address the contemporary human condition with sincerity and wit, placing him in a long and distinguished lineage of artists who have attempted to portray not only objects, people and events but also the ineffable fabric that binds them together. His installation for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, This is a picture about a place we live called Earth that is inside of this place we call space, is as sprawling as its title. Featuring painted wooden cutouts of figures, cars, freeways, buildings, planets and other forms arranged in a multi-storey vignette, This is a picture is no less than a model of the universe and humanity’s inglorious place in it. From its explosion of colour to its crooked wooden supports, the work’s appearance exudes an artless urgency that’s in perfect sync with its acute message.
Born in San Jose, California, Johanson moved north to San Francisco in 1989, where he took up painting and drawing in a burgeoning artistic community of street artists, including Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen, that later became known as the Mission School. Despite his lack of formal training, Johanson’s work stood out for its ‘heavy energy’ and off-kilter humour, and since the late 1990s it has been increasingly featured in major solo and group exhibitions across the United States and Europe. Existing in a state of tension between meditation and confrontation, his paintings are documentary pictures: simultaneously an image of the world outside and a direct translation of the his own heart and mind. Johanson’s artistic objective is, in his words, ‘beauty through honesty’.
While his paintings and installations recall the apocalyptic visionary work of outsider artists such as Harold Finster and Sister Gertrude Morgan, Johanson ditches their religiosity for the secular positivism of his native northern California. His detailed, brightly coloured depictions of ordinary people are a spirited defence of humanity against the crushing uniformity of modern existence. In the painting Untitled (Figures with Black Shape) (2002), twenty individuals stand with multicoloured rays emanating from the tops of their heads. These rays twist around one another as they rise upwards, finally uniting in a black blob that represents collective unconscious, social control, harmonic convergence or none of the above. More recent exhibitions have seen an increasing involvement with abstraction in his continuing artistic quest for the sublime. His 2009 exhibition ‘Totalities’ featured a an elaborately funky three-dimensional environment — a cross between a spaceship and a modernist church — to house a number of abstract paintings and works on paper. Within this ramshackle structure, built entirely from salvaged wood, hidden speakers played an instrumental soundtrack made by the artist and his friends — in his words, ‘a celebration of life and death through music’. True to the exhibition’s title, the effect of this immersive installation was cosmic, powerful and utterly unique.
Johanson’s work has been shown in numerous international exhibitions, including the Istanbul Biennial (2005), SITE Santa Fe (2002) and the Whitney Biennial (2002), and featured in solo exhibitions at such venues as the Portland Art Museum (2007), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2003) and the Hammer Museum (2001)