Harlan Johnson

Galerie Trois Points

In “Territoires intimes” (Intimate territories), Harlan Johnson’s paintings refer to cellular, insect, and reptilian forms. Hovering somewhere between abstraction and figuration, his colorful two-panel pieces examine this bio-matter as if it were frozen between the moment of creation and its resolution in form. In Bactrician Topography, 1995, two panels—one white, one yellow—compose a kind of two-dimensional nonspace teeming with organic forms, cell structures, radial patterns, the silhouette of a frog, and assorted indeterminate shapes. In Ear Algae, 1995, the protozoic becomes prosaic; his patterns and structures are captured at the moment of formation, their resolution left incomplete. Botapographe, 1994, presents polymorphs and fragments of microscopic life-forms that fill in the canvas as if they defined the overall space. In these works, the bio-forms populate some parts of the canvas at random while the background areas are immersed in pure colors and abstract textural effects.

Johnson’s painted organisms suggest a world we associate with that examined by paleobotanists and biochemists. In a way analogous to scientific photographs, with their probes of proteus bacteria, subcellular structures, and microorganisms, in Johnson’s work the invisible world becomes visible and real. The sources for these paintings may not be as imaginative as, say, Paul Nash’s wartime images of flowers in flight, but Johnson succeeds at elaborating a diverse visual universe that is at once structured and chaotic; his canvases in fact ultimately serve as a space linking life and art.

The balancing act between structure and chaos portrayed in Johnson’s quasi-scientific imagery parallels the formal evolution of Modernist art, whose critical labels of abstraction and figuration seem as simplistic now as Darwin’s theory of evolution appears to contemporary geneticists. Between the panels, amid all the prescient ambiguity of his organisms, it becomes impossible to reach a point at which the forms can be analyzed structurally, where the panels begin to cohere as a whole. The bio-forms in each panel in a pair are similar but not identical. We can go from one element to the next, investigating the topologies and bio-forms in the paintings as a way of searching for clues that would resolve the enigmas created within each composition, but this investigation turns out to be fruitless. The simple organisms Johnson works into the micro-universes of his canvases become a visual challenge paralleling the interrelation between codependent issues of representation and abstraction in Johnson’s practice of painting.

John K. Grande