Ways of seeing: Duncan Johnson in 3 interpretations
September 24, 2009
By Jeremy Abernathy
Contemporary art often resists description, baffling even those whose expertise is the written word. Part painting, part sculpture, the work of Duncan Johnson at Marcia Wood Gallery is no exception. The photographs don’t do the work any justice; we can’t see those intimate textures of wood, nor can we appreciate the literal depth of each panel. We can’t feel the seductive presence of works like Tannin, its latticed innards exposed like skeletal ribs. I want to touch it. I want to walk directly to its surface and peek inside, and I do. Still, the words don’t come. Sorry. In light of my lack of perspicacity, and in lieu of a single definitive review, I offer you three instead.
1. They look like barcodes!
Johnson’s verticals vaguely recall strands of digital code, the very kind responsible for the words you are reading now. He collects abandoned wood near his home in Vermont and mills it down into strips of “an endless variety of textures, patterns, and patinas.” Copy. Cut. And Paste. Johnson’s process in a way parallels the flow of binary data, here appropriated and given physical form.
A friend suggested the barcode interpretation to the artist, who merely shrugged and said, “Sure, if that works for you.” The analogy was clever, but at the time I had something more traditional in mind. 2. They look like paper collages.
When I first viewed Johnson’s work, I was immediately reminded of City Verticals by Lee Krasner. The colors are similar to Johnson’s (light orange, teal, shades of gray), and the work is similarly a hybrid of both painting and collage (as Johnson’s are painterly sculptures). Krasner’s shapes aren’t nearly so tidy, but we get the same sensation of simultaneous rising and falling. We see a world that’s constantly in flux but persists in loving acceptance of change as a fact of life.
In that sense, Krasner’s Verticals are like the modern urban landscape. It never occurred to me to ask if Johnson, too, was thinking the same.
3. They look like maps.
Now I’m SO confused. Oh, hell. Let’s just ask Jerry Cullum:
“The uneven, stairstep effect of many of the pieces is a little reminiscent of parallel contour lines on topographical maps, but even that is a misleading comparison. These are, quite simply, abstract forms with their own internal logic, and they give pleasure for that very reason.”
This statement, written in a 2001 review published in the AJC, is most likely in reference to sculptures like these. Still, it’s relevant to our current discussion. Cullum conjures a comparison (i.e., they look like maps) only to banish it in the same sentence. Perhaps they look like landscapes to you? Or do they look like barcodes? The likeness helps us anchor our senses to something familiar. That association has value, but only so much. Work like Duncan Johnson’s is meant to be experienced for what it is, in person and on its own unique terms.
And that’s why I’m here. I like to share ideas, and I appreciate things people make with their hands.
Duncan Johnson: Solo Exhibition and Palimpsest Portraits, a video installation by Monica Duncan and Neil Fried, both continue at Marcia Wood Gallery through October 17.