San Diego

Steve Ilott and Kenneth Johnston

Dietrich Jenny Gallery

Sometimes in an exhibition one comes across works by two different artists that, seen together, provide a context for each other that illuminates them both. Such was the case with this two-person show. Although Steve Ilott and Kenneth Johnston did not produce their work collaboratively, in preparing for this exhibition they exchanged ideas at length via the telephone and an extensive correspondence. As a result, Johnston’s quasi-figurative cardboard sculptures and Ilott’s dark abstract paintings complemented each other more profoundly than the work in a typical two-person show.

Ilott’s paintings, which feature large, black, amorphous forms against brown grounds, are reminiscent of a decorative strain of Abstract Expressionism and its descendants. They recall the work of Franz Kline, only prettier and more cleanly rendered, without paint spatters or rough edges, closer to the decorative gesture painting of such School of Paris artists as Pierre Soulages. Ilott gives his work poetic titles—for example, Big Boats Put Out to Sea for a work whose large blotches of black brushwork could easily be interpreted as boats, and more lyrical effusions such as The Image of Immeasurable Grandeur and The Memory of a Lost Paradise. Although such titles border on schmaltz, the juxtaposition of the paintings with Johnston’s sculpture makes Ilott’s indulgent metaphors seem intentionally ironic.

Johnston made his sculptures out of cardboard and what appears to be a brightly colored sort of packing tape, combining a post-cubist assemblage technique and a post-Rauschenberg low-tech esthetic. They look like stacks of recognizable objects, with many of the components resembling totemic Kachina dolls. They are also very funny. Johnston’s method of construction is almost camp. He uses the colorful tape not just to join the components together but as formal accents that give the works their unique look—something like a cross between kid’s art and a burlesque of pointillism. Although the Kachina doll parts make reference to primitive art, Johnston’s sculpture is more than totemic. There are also art-historical references. One piece, Sculpture #6, reproduces a stack of bottles, perhaps referring to some of Picasso’s early Cubist sculptures. Such historicism, however, is only part of Johnston’s accomplishment; these works are bright, cheerful, and very accommodating. The commonplace materials that he used conceals the complexity of their construction.

Showing the work of Ilott and Johnston together brought out the tongue-in-cheek side of both. But whereas Ilott’s work might otherwise have seemed either maudlin or cloyingly precious, beside Johnston’s sculptures his paintings appeared assertively decorative. It is just this self-consciously decorative quality of Ilott’s work that is significant, for these paintings function as a post-Modern celebration of the artist’s role as the maker of “beautiful” objects. By the same token, while Johnston’s sculptures might have seemed merely lighthearted and even somewhat trivial on their own, pairing them with Ilott’s paintings enhanced their historically knowing aspects and also made them look rather elegant.

Susan Freudenheim