The Painted Word: Monique Johannet at The Painting Center
Monique Johannet: Intimations at The Painting Center
October 30 to November 24, 2018
547 West 27th St #500, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, thepaintingcenter.org
Writing about art is a form of synesthesia, a confounding of mental faculties. But instead of musical notes or numbers appearing as colors, the visual and the verbal scramble, so that “what I saw” becomes “what I wrote”, which in turn becomes “what I know” about the work at hand. This process becomes even more perplexing when one is considering art that is made of both text and image, as is the case at The Painting Center with Monique Johannet.
“Intimations”, her exhibition in the gallery’s project space, is a sampler of Johannet’s astringent, witty, and provocative art. The seven paintings, sculptures, and drawings combine words with a pop sensibility, translating the personal and the emotional into graphic icons. Johannet has developed this approach over the past twenty years, and her work shares a mordant humor and social critique with a range of contemporary artists including Rochelle Feinstein, Suzanne McClelland, and Michelle Vaughan. For Johannet, as with these other artists, language is incarnated in material reality, becoming something literally in your face.
This feeling of confronting the unavoidable runs through Johannet’s work, beginning with the first piece we see here, Pink Inch; Pink Yard (2013), which pairs a very small and a very large canvas. Both feature a wide cobalt margin, a shocking pink center square, and the title inscribed over them in a perky retro cursive.
The work plays on the statement by Matisse, “a centimeter squared of blue isn’t as blue as a meter squared of the same blue.” At the same time, one can’t help but connect the title with the phrase, “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a yard”, and how it speaks to the fear engendered when the powerless claim a bit of power. In the context of Johannet’s concern with the iconography of gender, the piece resonates with the wide-spread activism that has put sexual politics at the center of public consciousness.
The next work in the exhibition, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2011) resembles a child’s letter blocks strung together, spelling out the title with black letters on pink cubes. Lying on the floor, it is a tangle of desire and regret, a game of romantic expectations ready to go wrong.
We then encounter a large, boldly colored diptych, Sorry… So? (2014) with a cartoon speech bubble that fills the left panel reading “sorry…” in red script on yellow, against an aqua field, and the right panel with “so?” in black letters on a white bubble, with a magenta background. The effect is of seeing a private conversation writ large, with both an apology and a question that challenges its efficacy. The painting recalls the current public ritual of the confession of sexual abuse that often has at its core a bid for absolution and restoring the status quo. As with Johannet’s entire oeuvre, this work embodies an awareness of the tenuousness of intimate relationships, and brings to mind an acerbic dialogue in a play by Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee.
It should be noted that “Sorry… So? is painted with a kind of minimalist precision, and expanses of sheer, intense color. Only on the crisp edges of forms do we sometimes see a tiny gap of white, or a rim of exposed color, a slippage which suggests both a sense of dimension and a space opening beyond the surface. Johannet’s work resembles a sign, a graphical interface between the world at large and inner subjectivity that painting connotes.
On the far end of the project space is a large sculptural piece, a white wood panel with a pale blue speech bubble that had been cut from it and placed on the floor. The raised words on the panel read, “A HOLE THAT NEEDS TO BE FEELED”. The sense of loss, unspoken, becomes the voice of this piece from 2011, carrying a tinge of childhood combined with word play, as if Gertrude Stein had returned to try out a stand-up routine. This work parodies the essentialist trope that identifies the female body with specific psychological impulses.
The two smaller works that follow, while independent, can be seen as a “her and his” pairing. In Cuntrol Freak (2012), the title is painted in a thick red script onto which is affixed a thin layer of hair. The assertion of agency, with a nasty edge, plays off against the politeness of the light blue background. Jerk (2012), the drawing that reads as its companion piece, has a drippy jewelry chain sewn to paper, spelling out the title. The piece seems to constitute a warning about the guy whose love is a tie that binds like a golden chain, attractive and exploitative.
The exhibition’s final piece, Silent Treatment (2018), has two bulbous forms in cadmium red on an ultramarine blue background. Wired to the canvas are jingle bells, spelling out the title, the revenge of the oppressed and the repressed, that with a nudge can be shaken joyfully to life.