Cletus Johnson

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer . . .”

“Theater . . . an edifice for dramatic performances; a place where events of importance are enacted; a structure for viewing a wonder or a spectacle.” A theater is also a box; it shelters a specific situation and contains an event. Since the early 1950s, boxes in art have been “theaters” for many things: incongruous images, memorabilia collections, erotic or menacing forms, social or political metaphors, intimations of infinity, and everyday junk. Cletus Johnson’s theaters are architectural facades of old-fashioned movie palaces or vaudeville houses. They are made of wood and cardboard, painted a unifying flat gray-brown, set in shallow glass-covered shadowboxes, and hung about eye level. To harden or mellow their facades, the boxes have lights that may be dimmed or brightened and marquee signs that hallow or simply institutionalize such names as Helen, Moon, or Ailanthus.

This particular show includes Johnson’s boxes spanning 1972–76. All of them share certain obvious effects: nostalgia for a bygone era, a sense of the stage when the actors are gone, an imposing facade, an airless environment. They also share a meticulous construction. It is possible to look behind the frontal architecture into little passageways and up unfinished stair flights past blank windows and doors. The designs are symmetrical and have an immediacy born of the repetition of the rectangular box-form in many details. The varieties of architectural detail include open arches, hanging spheres, acanthus leaves, star light fixtures, sun ray pediments, Greek key design borders, kitsch-classical columns with ornamental capitals, and ladies and lions in relief over blind ticket windows. Throughout their years of being produced, the boxes show no straight progression of design, as from ornate to simple.

Too bad that Johnson hasn’t taken advantage of the unique tensions available in box art. Regardless of architectural detail, his constructions read the same: “theater, facade, bygone day, ghost town, name in lights.” It all makes too much sense; a theater in a box is so predictable that it gets repetitive very fast. In contrast, someone like Nevelson always provokes a mystery. Her architectonic boxes use flat monochrome to unify details, they repeat an encompassing rectangular shape, and their imagery is not specific. You want to get inside, you wonder about the relation of the boxes, you wonder what the pieces were before she transformed them, you imagine that the designs signify all possible shapes.

But one of Johnson’s theaters, among the few with no name in marquee lights, is a total switch from the other boxes. A real “theater,” it houses an event. Poking through a central arch, a plastered-over artificial rose with prickly thorns and leaves appears to be candied or dead. One can peer through the arch and see, behind the rose, a small blank door that suggests the flower’s origin. A row of partially hidden, small white lights separates the upper, “rose” portion of the box from the lower portion. Below these lights, a number of small rectangular cornices are arranged, hinting at the combination of large components in Nevelson’s Homage to the World. Each of these rectangular shapes is edged with a different band of beads or squiggles, like icing borders on cake. Rows of sharp protrusions flanking the cornices seem to echo the rose’s thorns. In this construction, the not-quite surreal juxtaposition animates the box and gives an indication as to how Johnson’s art might grow.

––C. L. Morrison