Artist Feature: Geoffrey Johnson

GJohnson7Who: Geoffrey Johnson
Born: 1965 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Medium: Oil paint

Although there are a few paintings that feature interior scene, most of Johnson’s works depict dark human figures in watery urban landscapes.

And, oh how those figures are magnetic! It is very difficult to relinquish your gaze…my eyes just couldn’t stay away for long. They simply pop from the page. The paintings definitely revolve around those figures, though the artist keeps their distance (most figures are situated in the midground or further) and maintains anonymity (all distinguishing facial features and clothing styles have melted into black).

Although humans are usually the focal point of the work, sometimes animals or trees enter the spotlight, though they, too, are black silhouettes. Johnson is particularly partial to the verticality of these figures. For example, leaves on the trees seem little more than candyfloss (or there are none at all), thus augmenting the tall, stark trunk. Human figures are usually standing or walking, and they are elongated by reflections that extend from their feet to the bottom edge of the page.

The most successful paintings are those that manage to balance the landscape with both the visual weight of the black figures and the heightened verticality of those figures. Johnson does this in a very delicate way that does not take away the impact of the dominant figures. Often, the black figures themselves are carefully scattered on the page. The landscape is often composed of varying shades of grays; the artist “builds” that background with slabs of paint, and the weighty architecture of an urban environment emerges. Johnson also uses strong horizon lines or distinct patterns of windows, doors, and buildings to balance the vertical nature of the strong midground figures.

The worlds in these paintings seem misty, watery, and changeful. Even the reflections of the figures have a variable nature: they are unstable pedestals for the figures under which they lie. The entire scene sways, grays moving in and out of each other, melting into waves of shades and light. Yet, the solidity of each figure is evident. Its presence is deliberate. The world in which it resides is changeful, and the figure is subject to that changefulness. However, in this moment when all is still, it maintains a presence. A presence and effect on the world that cannot be erased. It will not separate and dissolve into the air.

It’s a bit melancholy, yes, but with a slice of hope.

Johnson’s interior scenes reflect similar content in a different form. There are more detailed objects here, and a variety of colors enter the fray. The rooms are packed with things, some objects even seem to float. There is potential for chaos here, but Johnson stops short of it. Indeed, he maintains a strong sense of horizontal/vertical stability, often by accenting dark picture frames, windows, or furniture or contrasting the “horizon” of floor vs. wall. There is also a single human figure in each work. It is anonymous once again and colored in dark hues. On one painting, the person is sitting on a distinctly dark chair. Either way, the figure is very solid, unique, apart from the rest. The interior scenes reflect a sense of momentary stillness in a quietly busy world. In fact, a Jane Austen quote comes to mind: “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Overall, I really enjoy Geoffrey Johnson’s work, in particular the scenes that have a sense of place to them. A few paintings feature figure walking…on a beach? On the moon? In the clouds? I think he achieves a similar sense of isolation in a more complex, relatable manner when the figure is in a recognizable place. Plus, such scenes show off his sensitivity to visual balance: a commendable skill!


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