“In his mysterious paintings,” writes Leonard Michaels about Edward Hopper, “he makes felt what isn’t there, the nothing, the nothing that isn’t there.”
The same ought to be said about Mitchell Johnson’s oeuvre. Not only because Johnson is an artistic descendant of Hopper, both brilliant colorists, and not only because both have made the landscape around Truro come alive in oil, but also because in some ways the statement is even truer in Johnson’s work, especially lately. True partly in the sense of what isn’t there — unseen narratives and events that bring a life to any given moment, any given moment of seeing — but also who isn’t there.
Fewer human figures populate Johnson’s spare but vibrant art than do Hopper’s — and in his next exhibition, “Nothing and Change: Selected Paintings 1990-2022,” which is on view from September 7 through 18 at the Truro Center for the Arts, you can almost count them on one hand — and Johnson’s often have their backs to us, or their faces blurred.
Where is everybody? Where are the cars and their drivers? The beach houses and benches and lifeguard chairs are empty, as if the occupants are swimming or walking or long gone. Where did the lifeguards go? Where did any of us go? Because they seem almost peaceful, the weight of the sadness in these paintings didn’t hit me until later: humans are a mess. One way to think about our kind is to remove us from the scene. To look at the something — the many kinds of something — that we make and leave and live within; to see what we are by what we aren’t, but had a hand in constructing, like a chair or a window or a breakaway iceberg. If sadness and human emptiness are two of his subjects, Johnson doesn’t evade these matters. He brings them to light — and what light it is — by emphasizing absence, in terms of both what’s pictured and what’s not. This is why his paintings, though they seem to record the external world, always feel deeply introspective. Wistful if not brooding, brooding if not pensive. Songs on frequencies that can’t be heard but can be evidenced. Color blocks, and buoys and silent towns. No one to save no one. The vacant chairs and uninhabited tables glow.