ED JOHNSON: A COMPLICATED SIMPLICITY
A critic reviewing Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — since ranked among the unique landmarks of the vernacular style that best exemplifies American literature — praised it as having “that strange air of seeming inconsequence that only life has, that conscious art strives so hard to avoid.” The review appeared way back in 1919 when the book was first published. It’s safe to say the world has changed since. And yet, it is still common enough to hear the same criticism: that "conscious art” fails to deal with the “seeming inconsequence that only life has”.
The terms may have changed. There is no longer the same sense of progress that permeated Anderson’s newly industrialized American landscape with a nascent optimism and self-importance that would last well into the Cold War.
Anderson’s story is about a world divided between the longings of those who could take advantage of the immanent technological changes underway and the lost dreams and disappointments of those who would be left behind. It is a history of a fictional any-place in the best tradition of American storytelling, like Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) — a revisionist Western in which Bob Dylan can do a cameo as a Symbolist cowboy, or Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974) — a picture of the hopes and aspirations of Southern male fantasy. Everyday reality intervenes in the halcyon nostalgia of small town respectability and the American myth is revealed as a sham.
Winesburg, Ohio initially met with the same kind of criticism; Anderson’s rejection of the inhumanity of a psychology of moral truths as a false representation of the human condition was at first bitterly resisted by readers. Such criticism has long since gone the way of an optimism for total solutions, and has found its place on the scrapheap of the great all-encompassing, unifying global think of times gone by.
But whereas other artists are content to take a casual approach to these profound themes left for dead on that junk pile, advocating a faux-naïve slacker attitude of simple complexity, Ed Johnson takes an opposite approach: like Anderson, Johnson, whether in his paintings or his writing, chooses instead to do all he can to complicate simplicity, bringing all that he can bear to subjects so common they might otherwise go unnoticed.
H. L. Mencken said of Anderson’s style that it was a will to “pure representation”. Johnson’s work expresses a similar compulsion. Only, the artist is a child of media spectacle where the bucolic authenticity of revisionist small town America is lost in the manic shuffle of glittering imagery. Johnson is forced to seek out his inspiration in mediated fragments, in glimpses of a world already over-represented, in the overlooked odds and ends of popular culture — folk culture relegated to kitsch, movies like Hard Country (1981), broadcast alongside reruns and infomercials on late night TV. In Johnson’s work, those things in life that pass us by almost unnoticed and “without consequence” are omnipresent.
For the last decade, or so, Johnson has been painstakingly painting from stills he took from a couple of these movies that bear traces of a revisionist American lore, spending up to a year at a time, sparing no effort, to represent the selected picture as faithfully and completely as possible, right down to the inevitable breakup and distortion that comes with photographing the glowing picture-tube, then working them, until they look almost effortless, into the most insistently complicated simplicity.
These paintings are a rare exception to the charge that “conscious art” is incapable of representing that “strange air of seeming inconsequence that only life has”. Johnson has, in his own idiosyncratic way, managed to update Anderson’s American tradition for the present.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, Originally published in the catalogue for Ed Johnson: Selections From Optimist's Park, Kristi Engle Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2006