New York

Lester Johnson

Martha Jackson Gallery

Lester Johnson showed a large number of recent paintings at the Martha Jackson Gallery that bug me. It’s not because they are representational either, since the real tension is not so much between representational and pure painterly values as between fine art and an almost historicizing kind of funkiness. Let me explain. There are obvious similarities with Léger, including crowds of city people with tubular limbs and bowler hats, and even an attitude toward the figure as a manipulable mannequin. Yet there is an embraced clumsiness in the assembly of groups and a deliberate spatial inconsistency that are in contradiction with Légeresque resolution.

Johnson’s figures do carry general narrative and associative meanings but they are “realistic” more in the sense of antinominalistic than they are descriptively naturalistic. Submerged like particles whose behavior is discussable only in terms of quantitative generalizations, these people have a lot in common with crowds of anonymous lower-class figures in Bowery life scenes by Marsh, Soyer, and others in the 1930s. It is significant that where, in one case—James Joyce, 1971—we have a portrait, the “sitter” appears two or three times in the same partylike crowd.

The compositions are erratic, as though involving a populistic deflation of the orthodox notion of compositional balance. The figures slam against each other, or else they sort of hang there like doors half unhinged. Although the figure style suggests Léger, the high, wide, Boris Karloff foreheads and the pawlike hands relate to funky drawings of people on view nowadays.

Oddly, the bodies are so unspecific, and the compositions so haphazard, that the only characteristic of the works capable of sustaining involvement is the paint-handling. Not that there is anything pleasant about it, in the way that people who don’t like a film say it has “good photography.” And there is little loveliness in the color; sometimes we hit large areas where everything is almost monochrome, as though there were no pressing reason to mix or change colors when you can just go on painting. This monochromism can be quite dumb in its effect. The unexpected part is the actual texture of the oil paint; its rich, glossy sheen, its candy shine cannot help but ironically stimulate some of the same receptors as works by certain thoroughly modernist painters. Johnson’s jumbled spaces and ungracefully distributed volumes and voids are interestingly antitraditional.

Joseph Masheck