Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Erick Johnson Parallelogram Paintings at Heskin Contemporary

January 14 to February 13
443 W 37th Street, between 8th and 9th avenues
New York City, 212 967 4972

Erick Johnson, Smiles of a Summer Night 2009. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Heskin Contemporary.
Erick Johnson, Smiles of a Summer Night 2009. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Heskin Contemporary.

Erick Johnson’s Parallelogram Paintings are a series of pictures in oil and gouache which offer small variations on a single basic idea.  When approaching these works, one first notices the parallelograms themselves:  each painting consists of stacked narrow bands of rightward-leaning, vibrantly colored rhomboids.  Because the title of the show sets our expectations, it takes considerably longer to realize that none of the parallelograms in Johnson’s paintings are true quadrilaterals:  in each case, one or both tips of the extreme corners are cut off by the edge of the picture, leaving us technically with stacks of 5- and 6-sided figures.  This shows how open we are to the power of suggestion, both by labels and by the shapes themselves.  The negative space surrounding the parallelograms along the right and left margins of each picture form two inward-pointing serrated edges.  These columns of triangles hint at the cut-off tips of the figures, which complete themselves just beyond the edges of the surface.

Beneath and behind each “parallelogram” peek out contrasting bands of color.  In the case of the oils, these have been formed through a laborious process of layering, abrading, and scraping.  The overall effect is something we might call soft-edge abstraction.  All of the detail and complexity seem concentrated in the margins and underlayers of the picture in a style that recalls Diebenkorn.  Other references include Noland and Stella, with the shared meditation on the rhythmic interplay of concentrated fields of color.  In some respects these paintings seem to be a direct descendant of Rothko, insofar as they offer stacked, hovering, soft-edged rectangles of color.  But in other respects Johnson’s paintings seem like only a distant cousin:  whereas Rothko’s pictures are brooding, tragic, and evocative, Johnson’s rightward-tilting, skinny, parallelograms suggest dynamism and forward movement—they threaten to scoot off the canvas.

Once the complexity of the paintings’ under-layers have revealed themselves, we are in a position to appreciate the way in which these paintings offer up to us a visual metaphor of their own making.  We can shift our point of view and see the parallelograms as a stack of floating rectangular planes, shown in deep, oblique perspective as if tilted 90 degrees perpendicular to the picture plane.  It is as if we were being shown the tissue-like layers of paint suspended, held aloft and apart from one another, before they sink down together and become fused into a two-dimensional work.  The titles of some of the paintings, such as “Chord Stack” and “Quartet” elaborate the metaphor.  Just as a musical chord is a layering of different notes, played simultaneously, we are being asked to see these paintings as a visual chord, in which different colors play with and against one another harmoniously.   It isn’t accidental that the term “tone” can denote both color and sound.