By J. Fatima Martins
Howard Johnson’s solo exhibition, “Phantastrophies,” is on view now at the Fitchburg Art Museum (FAM) through September 30. Organized by FAM’s museum director, Nick Capasso, the exhibition continues FAM’s interest in providing solo exhibitions for New England artists who demonstrate exceptional skill and have an extensive oeuvre with a distinctive and focused singular style. For decades, Johnson’s art has been defined as being within the surreal and visionary mode.
Taking a closer look, what becomes obvious, is that Johnson is an artist who works primarily with the figure and word-art pushing it into a brand of pop-mannerism with roots in European avant-garde, Cubism, collage format and American Modernism, particularly the esoteric experimentation and low art of the post-World War II counterculture, blended with an obsessive and organized elegance. The tone of Johnson’s work is that of a sophisticated and observant rogue.
All the artwork in “Phantastrophies” is courtesy of the Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston, who has represented Johnson for many years. The drawings in “Phantastrophies” are selections from Johnson’s “Alien Dispensation” series, which he began in 2013 and are comprised of discarded papers and graphic material that reveal Johnson’s interest in diverse themes within history, religion, philosophy, popular culture, fiction and the occult, science, including science fiction, mathematics and symbology.
Of Johnson, Capasso wrote in the curatorial statement: “These fantastic scenes are made palpable and emotionally powerful by Johnson’s prodigious aesthetic technique. For many years, he has been a master draftsman, with a virtuoso command of line. More recently, he has added color to his artistic arsenal to make his images both richly attractive and creepily repulsive. Johnson is also a student of art history, and has closely studied Pablo Picasso, the Surrealists, Hieronymus Bosch and other artists who shared in his penchant for the bizarre.”
To understand Johnson, it’s important to know immediately that the viewer must pay attention to details, and that multiple readings are necessary to see the fullness of Johnson’s technique. He is an artist that works with specifics. He plays with and combines and layers down elements to create opulent compositions. The drawings are alluring and heavy with information, rich in sensuous shapes, color, shading and unique line and spatial characteristics. The spatial depth is best observed by stepping back away from the drawing and viewing it at a distance. To get this approach to looking at Johnson spend time with the drawing “Creations of the First Cubist.” First, get up close to examine the various papers set down underneath the drawing and then take a step back to observe the color gradations and shading.
Johnson’s special style indicates his working and processing mode: he is watching for and deconstructing content, and formulating his own formal language. At his core, he is a lover of sensuality and beauty, and sensitive to the ugliness of the world. This energy comes through in the art. While most interpretations of Johnson’s work highlight the monsters (of which there are many) and grotesque aspects, there is another powerful characteristic — the complex innocent. Johnson drawings of the figure are mostly of rounded, curvy shapes that flow.
The rounded forms are abundant, soft, organic and squishy, like pudding, cream, balloons and internal organs. The harsher cubist sharp lines are within the rounded forms. Included in the exhibition is one of his most recent and popular drawings, “Awakening of the Alien Queen.” 2018. In this portrait, we see the ‘queen’ on the right side of the composition, her face a cubist construct, a bit hard-edged, yet still lovely, with a touch of sweetness. Her body is composed of dark bulbous full shapes. To the right of her are two other roly-poly figures, what looks like a genie riding a water horse. AWAKENING OF THE ALIEN QUEEN is written in all capital block letters at the top of the composition as if the entire piece is evoking a science-fiction movie poster. Collaged in, underneath the word THE at the top-center position, is an ADMIT ONE ticket.
Johnson’s interest in pulling apart American culture and poking fun at it is seen in the wonderfully sarcastic “Have Another Slice of ‘Effin’ Fruitcake [With a Cherry on Top],” 2017. In this piece, another full-bodied lady with a slightly cubist face is serving a large pie. There’s a text block above the pie indicating that she is speaking the words “have another slice of ‘effin’ fruitcake.” Beneath that is a drawing of the iconic McDonald’s Golden Arches with a sign that remakes the company’s trademark phrase into horror comedy: “McDeathwish: Over 7 Billion Served.”
Howard Johnson’s art retains a particularly American style because of his engagement with popular culture, and language as a foundational element; but it also has an otherworldly tonality and steps outside the provisional here and now. As the exhibition’s title, “Phantastrophies,” indicates, these pictures are relics and mementos of an imaginary place rooted in truth and reality.
CORNERED: HOWARD JOHNSON
J. FATIMA MARTINS (JFM): Your compositions are abundantly layered with material. We see collage format with different paper material: old menus, pages from various pieces of literature, puzzles, advertisements and more, making it obvious that words are very important to you. Do the words and the text influence and direct the drawing and painting on top? Or do you go into a surreal mode allowing flow to happen?
HOWARD JOHNSON (HJ): The under compositions are as quirky as the artwork; things go from rational to ridiculous creating a funky form of dark humor. The title comes first and they are arduous, and like haiku poetry summing up the initial vision and concept in a few words, then I work around it both in composition and idea. I stay away from bizarre and twisted stuff mainly due to there is too much of it around, most is bad — mean little kid, look at my sick mind, must have done that on acid — very few artists can pull that off.
JFM: From your personal experience, how has art helped you process the chaos of the world?
HJ: This planet is a rotten place; it is set up that way. History is mostly a study in tyranny and until the whole way of business in done and profit is made, nothing is going to change. I take note of the 13th century French Cathar movement which stated that the world is an evil place; just try to make the best of it. A little blunt trauma here and there helps to loosen up the symbol formation. In my art, it’s all fantasy and contrived manipulated history, fake quantum physics, ufology, metaphysics, grail, goddess worship and goofiness.
JFM: Many people know you to be one of the most interesting, sensitive and enigmatic of artists working in New England, and you are now in your golden years. Tell us, briefly, when did you begin making art during your youth, and how has your style and practice evolved?
HJ: I don’t believe talent has a lot to do with making good art or anything else; it is all in practice and discipline: work all the time. At age 19 in 1969, I was a flunky student; it was the ‘60s — (Jimi) Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane were playing, the last thing on my mind was to show up for class. I used art at first as a ruse to get out of responsibility. Art came easy so I took art courses in school and still did not make the grade since I only knew one way of doing things — my way. It all came to a head when I was drafted into the Vietnam War; I enrolled into school of the Worcester Art Museum which still did not get me a deferment; I ended up dodging it via the resistance movement and other means. Afterwards through a series of outwardly visions and alien contacted communications, the realization cane to me that this is what I was being guided to do.
(“Howard Johnson: Phantastrophies” continues through September 30 at the Fitchburg Art Museum, 185 Elm Street, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. For more information, call (978) 345-4207.)