New York

Kysa Johnson

Roebling Hall

Concerned with the extremities of perception—the telescopic and, especially, the microscopic—Kysa Johnson’s appealing brand of conceptual painting and drawing evokes the structural poetry at the very base of things. Inspired by essential biological forms and processes, the elegant renderings on view in her first New York solo show (in ink, watercolor, and most often chalk on blackboard) operate in a territory somewhere between lyrical abstraction and literal representation. Their focus is that level of observation where the familiar “real” forms of the world begin to resolve into the fantastical, hidden shapes that lie at the foundation of all matter.

Unlike an artist such as Matthew Ritchie, who similarly teases visually arresting forms from esoteric scientific information, Johnson generally keeps her distance from her subject matter, usually opting not to massage the imagery and the ideas behind it into high-toned conceptual frameworks or personal cosmologies. Instead, she typically directs our attention back toward the thing in question, whether it’s the skittering paths of elemental particles depicted as a dynamic thicket of linear color in Blow up 45—subatomic decay patterns, 2004, or the blossoming fronds of bacteria that fill her composition like foliage on a Chinese landscape scroll in Blow up 34—tuberculosis, 2004, a gorgeous two-panel chalk drawing whose sixteen-foot-long blackboard surface dominated an entire wall of the gallery. The latter drawing was hung in what functioned as a quarantine zone, joined by smaller works representing the bacterial structures of pneumonia and whooping cough. This suite of killer diseases concluded with a literal foil, Blow up 37—penicillin, 2004, a delicate watercolor-and-graphite image of the structure of the antibiotic whose filigree tendrils, in Johnson’s rendering, suggest an exotic species of deep-sea flora.

Despite the many smart connections her work organically forges between familiar forms of abstract mark-making and the fundamental structures of the physical world—both the infinitesimal and, in the case of the show’s one macrocosmic image, her chalk drawing Approx. 32,459 galaxies, 2002, the infinite—Johnson’s exhibition was actually built around a rather more involved and arguably less successful conceptual gambit. Four works referencing Spanish Baroque masterpieces depicting the Immaculate Conception (by Velázquez, Zurbarán, Murillo and Juan de Valdés Leal) recapitulate their source images via a formal vocabulary drawn from microscopic processes of asexual reproduction, three derived from Rhodomicrobium vannielii (erroneously referred to as “vannillie” in all the titles), the other from yeast.

These works are often beautiful—in particular the chalked Blow up 41—the asexual reproduction of rhodomicrobium vannillie after Velázquez’s Immaculate Conception (1617), 2004, in which Johnson manages a kind of microbial pointillism, the gathering spores ingeniously implying the delicate nimbus that surrounds the head of the Virgin in the original. Yet for all their appeal, the quartet also has a whiff of gimmickry about it, something notably absent from the rest of the show. This is perhaps most acute in Blow up 43—the asexual reproduction of yeast after Juan de Valdés Leal, 2004, the most stylistically anomalous piece in the show. Although the palette Johnson chose for her bubbling colony of yeast is a dead ringer for that of the seventeenth-century masterpiece it’s meant to mimic, the sweet-hued water-color rods and blossoms seem weirdly overdetermined in their pursuit of the original image, giving the work a forced, unnatural quality that is actually heightened by the “natural” material on which the forms are based. “Science,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “does not know its debt to imagination.” Johnson’s promising work clearly displays her imagination’s debt to science—based on this early sample, it’s a relationship that would seem more than rich enough to feed further inquiry, and one that makes contrived references to art history seem mostly superfluous.

Jeffrey Kastner