Anna Johnson

Anna Johnson’s paintings confound many of the fences that the industry of art may attempt to place around them. In the body of work for her first solo show, Intention – created over two years, and developing in that inchoate, un-pin-downable way for many more – Johnson grapples with the male canon of Western modernism, the Instagram square, and the “manners” of the modern gallery.

Johnson’s engagement with her influences – abstract expressionism, post-impressionism, early modernism, Monet, Clyfford Still – is ambivalent, and yet unburdened with the irony that characterises a lot of work on history and the archive produced today. In an interview for Intention with Rachael Parsons, Johnson described the experience of an artist (especially, but not only a woman artist) facing a male canon as “being in love with your captors.” Masculin/Feminin, with its gestural, shifting fields of colour which shift tectonically beneath the eye, seems to warmly trouble the very pair of poles to which its title refers; Johnson, I would say, is not interested in either celebrating or sublimating the artistic history she is immersed in. Well enough of the anxiety of influence; in these works, influence is generative  – even where what it generates is a painterly vocabulary in which to speak back to the canon.

The use of large-scale canvases – and Johnson notes that she would love to go even bigger in the future – has an element of gendered engagement with modernist legacies. These are works that, practically speaking, simply could not be created in the domestic space of the home, or at the kitchen bench. Works like Mother Mountain would envelop the viewer in the gallery space, as would Electric Ladyland. Like the figure of the mother, the encounter with works of this scale might “nourish” a viewer, but they also demand sustained attention, and declare their occupation of a physical and conceptual space which can’t be made to serve a purpose other than their own. The paintings make apologies to nobody. Scale, for Johnson, also serves as a disruption to our digitised, dispersed, and highly commercialised modes of “consuming” art in a contemporary context. There’s no way these works could serve as content an Instagram square, and this is very intentional; the works are to be engaged with in time, in space and scale, and in light as it passes across Johnson’s moving bounds of colour. In fact, paint seems precisely not to be “content” for Johnson; it’s rather something to be lived with, and something to be answerable to.

Gesturing though they do to colour field painting, the prominence of the gesture itself pulls these paintings out of the art history textbook and into embodied life. Johnson says that she is happy for people to touch the works in the space, to feel the tactility of the linens that she works on. There is no dissolution into the field here, but rather a celebration of the artist’s hand, as well as an invitation to the viewer’s. Perhaps the only thing not allowed near the paintings is the velvet rope  (or the nervous gallery staff member on the watch for misbehaviour from children or enthusiastic adults). 

Ultimately, description of these paintings will always fall short from experience of them – and not just because description always must fall short (which Johnson would know, as an established art writer), but also because of how they mobilise scale, texture, and warmth as part of their work in the world. We could list colours or tones, dimensions, or traceable movements of the hand, but that’s never quite it. You’ll just have to look at the pictures above, and at the works themselves, if you can.

5 – 19 May 2022
AK Bellinger Gallery, New South Wales

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