New York

Martin Johnson

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Martin Johnson saturates us in language to the point of vertigo. Every currently “in” style and type of image, every kind of surface and rhythm of paint, a seemingly inexhaustible mixing of high-art and kitsch modes of representation, are all brilliantly manipulated in fast-paced, punning works. Many of them have interchangeable parts, and seem like only gratuitously different hands in a game of solitaire. These paintings are polysemous manipulations obsessed with the plasticity of language and meaning—in Johnson’s words, a “visual jazz . . . stretching and testing the limits of meaningfulness.” Accident is seriously involved in this text, as is temporality: Johnson “embosses” some of the drop-cloths he paints on with white dots on a black bar, symbols for the mechanical conception of time, and contrasting with the unpredictable duration of the chance event. Chance plays a major role here—it’s almost a formula; it has been ordained that everything be left to chance. This effect shows up perhaps most obviously in the bits and pieces of lettering, which do and do not add up to familiar words, memorable phrases, aphoristic statements. The language has the faded quality of a half-recalled insight, resembling the flotsam and jetsam of words of wisdom on ancient monuments.

Meaning has seeped out of this language, yet it remains peculiarly moving, touches some blind reflex of an obscure feeling. Like the works as a whole, it is terribly familiar, but it has the force of a blurred concrete poetry. Thus the works have an aura of both profundity and banality. They are a cynical invitation to invent one’s own image, make up one’s own story—a kind of linguistic and visual doubles peak. Everything here is trivialized into a fragment, a trace, and these traces are organized in a semiotic joke—free-floating signifiers in search of a signified—and then let loose like balloons to see how high in the stratosphere of meaning they can rise. Each image is like a half-dumb gesture that just might make sense, a sort of visual Delphic oracle which rings peculiarly flat but calls forth our best interpretive powers. Johnson’s works await the seer who will make sense of them, yet they’re not quite senseless in themselves, but resemble oddly shaped parts of a puzzle that when finally put together is discovered to constitute a familiar picture of the world.

Seeing these works, I thought of a police lineup in which none of the faces were quite recognizable but all were sort of familiar or of baseball cards, which were exciting to collect only so long as the set was incomplete. Johnson deals with the instant passé: in our artistic and social worlds that means everything, yet just because it is everything it remains peculiarly mysterious. Each work is a tease. like a penny arcade game, and the exhibition as a whole was a carnival scenario, the stage set for some gala punk masque of fortune. The figure of the Joker from the Batman comic strip seemed to me a major due to the show, and the general aura of macabre clowning was of its essence. The near garishness of the works, the obvious desire to dazzle, and the peculiarly fetishistic focusing on individual objects or configurations are powerfully witty in effect, all the more so because the wit is felt but not always analyzable. The words "Sears and Bikinis’’ make a certain sense together, their juxtaposition with the vaguely monstrous striped face of the sun perhaps still makes some sense, but the whole thing next to a schematized image of what can be understood (no doubt à Ia Rorschach) as a symbol of a fiery female genital and a penis, beneath which the words “Xerox Open Wide” are stenciled, makes little direct sense. As one goes from image to image within the same work, one is not always sure to what point they are being accumulated, yet the tension mounts, even if the final reading is unclear.

To call these works “dadaistic” has some appropriateness for their institutionalization of the antiinstitutional. But unlike traditional Dadaism, which had a certain aura of know-nothingism to it, these works have a know-it-all aura which makes them even more vicious in their insight into the institution of art. Dadaism wanted to dismiss and shatter that institution, and ended in nihilism. But Johnson knows that nihilism is a lame-duck position today. Whatever one does ends up in the institution of art, so why not continue to labor within it, the canker in the rose that adds to its rosiness, or, better, Jonah trying to gnaw through the side of the whale while knowing he never can? Johnson gives us a rich manure of images which, spread on the field of art, helps raise a single flower of scorn, and that’s the prizewinner these days.

Donald Kuspit