Purple, green, pink and turquoise are colors you think you may see on the sharp gem facet edges of North Truro’s colonial houses, because when Mitchell Johnson paints them, they seem logical, not fanciful, but real.
Indeed, color and shape seem to be the point rather than the subjects themselves. The houses and landscapes Johnson paints are, in a way, excuses to express colors. One wonders, is he suggesting our world is just color and form? And yet those colors and forms evoke the essence of place: his European vistas are somehow, well, so European. His vistas of New York, are utterly New York; those of San Francisco as from Russian Hill, could only be San Francisco. So, too, his Cape Cod vistas essentialize the Cape. You can inhale the sea and the musty scent of a pearly gray-blue sky.
You can see Johnson’s homage to the Cape’s town of Truro at his exhibit, “Sixteen Years in Truro,” at the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill from September 6 through 17. (His most recent exhibit, Johnson has had so many exhibits and hangs in so many museums and collections it takes up pages of the catalog.)
In “Jenny’s Iceberg,” Johnson skews perspective to give us the stark feel of a northern place with its bright buildings under a looming iceberg which threatens to come down upon them, while at the same time illuminating them. This painting is typical of his process. A composite made — he says it is collaged — from buildings he saw in Newfoundland and an iceberg depicted from photographs: the end result is vivid, both dream-like and real at the same time.
He will, whether as with “North Truro Murmur,” start a painting right there in place in front of the cottage depicted, or as with “Jenny’s Iceberg,” in his studio, with an instant inspiration, and then put the piece away, perhaps for a year, then return to simplify and augment it, perhaps seeded by his own photos and drawings, and then edit, subtract and add until the outer work matches his inner vision. “It took me eight tries to get the sky right for ‘Murmur.’” (Sometimes he will destroy a work.) He added that when you get the color right for one element, then everything else is enhanced.
Another example of how Johnson works, “Thick Morning (Chatham),” changed over seasons ending up with palpably tactile paint, often layered on with a small palette knife, creating rough surfaces, giving even more texture by the linen on which his oils rest when they are not on canvas, and then contrasting the thicker with thin pigment in “almost a stain.”
Johnson said that Josef Albers, whose influence he credits with changing his own work, from a more reserved dance with color and shape to a bolder one, did the same, “using the texture of the Masonite boards, scraping thinning, leaving space between color, to assemble very specific combinations, not just a green, maroon and gray, but a very particular version of those colors, so each makes the other special; they would be nothing without each other.”
He added that Kurt Schwitters’ collages, and the paintings of Max Weber and Giorgio Morandi have this same delicately inter-relational aspect of space and color and that Albers’s work taught him that, “a painting can go from being ok to being important with just the subtlest change, and isn’t that like life?”
About this relational aspect, he continued: “You could compare it to a party; four people may be talking, and someone enters who changes theway people pay attention to one another. Morandi and Albers ask, ‘do you want to know color better and how profound it can be?’”
He commented that Albers was very different than Mark Rothko, though they both dealt with blocks of color, Albers was spiritual, Zen — knowing that subtle changes make a moment profound, Johnson said. Rothko was inward, “trying to heal himself,” a different focus.