New York

Lester Johnson

Martha Jackson Gallery

One might say that Lester Johnson’s compressed lineups of booted, helmeted, crouching gangs of male figures at the Martha Jackson Gallery are the figurative equivalent of Al Held’s abstract bulk volumes. In canvases scarred and pitted by viscous, encrusted surfaces Johnson shackles dense silhouettes whose delineated flatness and lack of interior articulation contrast to the way in which these bodies are thickly packed into the contours of the field and seem to want to burst out from such confines. A frontal mug shot of anonymous, even threatening figures, Three Men With Hats (1968), describes the most forceful elements of the painter’s style: tense standing men cram together on a diagonal to the frame as if chained or glued to one another, while the actual edges of the canvas move in on their forms with a severe symmetrical will and pressure. Compaction and the obdurateness of these black, grey, and umber or ochre stained bodies gives them a weight which may also be relieved by the more calligraphic energy of repetitive movement, as in Three Crouching Figures (1968) in which the curled up men look as if they are involved in a concentrated, dance-like muscular exercise which leads them into and out of the picture space through great effort.

Like Held, Johnson wages an architectonic struggle with the space of his pictures, theatrically trapping the figures within it, forcing them to argue for a confrontation with the already dramatic and tactile excitement of the painted surfaces. Austere in their lack of grace and color, in their brutishly hampered movement, the works are also quite sensuous: but it is the overall awkwardness of the painting process itself which most often detracts from their otherwise emphatic and bulging presence.

Emily Wasserman