New York

View of “David L. Johnson,” 2021. Photo: Sebastian Bach.

View of “David L. Johnson,” 2021. Photo: Sebastian Bach.

David L. Johnson

The unlikely affectual centerpiece of David L. Johnson’s inspired New York solo debut here was a silent, slowed-down thirty-six-minute video of a warbler sitting in the middle of a Manhattan sidewalk. Filmed in close-up at ground level in a static single take, the tiny bird had apparently only moments earlier slammed into the glass wall of a Hudson Yards skyscraper it had mistaken for a patch of clear sky. Feathers puffed up and eyes shut tight against the disorientation produced by the collision, the creature sits dazed and motionless—save for the occasional furtive blink—as people pass by to enter the building behind it. One in an ongoing series of such videos that Johnson has been making across the past decade, Warbler, 2019—like the rest of the twenty-seven-year-old artist’s compelling work at Theta—takes the urban environment as its generative if oblique subject, identifying a dark sort of poetry in the ambivalent effects its forms and protocols can have on both human and nonhuman organisms.

Johnson, a native New Yorker who received his MFA from the University of Pennsylvania in 2020, titled his show “Revocable Consents,” after a provision in New York City’s real-estate regulations that allow private-property owners to install certain kinds of structures on the public sidewalks and streets adjacent to their buildings. In addition to amenities designed to promote access and sociability such as ramps, benches, and lighting fixtures, the items covered by the revocable-consents statute also include modes of hostile architecture such as so-called anti-homeless spikes—jagged appurtenances driven into ledges or stoops or clamped onto objects such as standpipes in order to prevent them from being used as places of rest by everyone from tired tourists to chronically unhoused individuals.

The exhibition was centered on an array of nine such fixtures that Johnson had surreptitiously liberated from their original locations around the city. By forcibly decoupling the devices from the surfaces they were created to “guard”—and then hanging them low on the walls of Theta’s narrow TriBeCa basement space like trophies obtained on an urban safari—Johnson stripped them of their officious veneer of settled authority. No longer agents of socio-spatial order making designed to melt invisibly into the streetscape for all but those whose conduct they’re designed to thwart, these menacing instantiations of interdictory design were instead gathered into a kind of rogues’ gallery of municipal bad faith. As part of the ongoing “Loiter” series, 2020–, each was given a further parenthetical name that identified the occupant of the site from which they had been taken: thus the 2021 works Loiter (Thomas), a crudely spiked Basquiatesque crown fashioned from two lengths of rusted metal, and Loiter (Samuel), which was even more emphatic in its refusal of ease, with a lower row of jagged prongs made effectively superfluous by a trio of tall rectangular points that surmounted it. Meanwhile, another work from the series was set not on the wall but, appropriately, on the floor—Loiter (John), 2020, a collection of some three dozen small spherical knobs that are typically used to disruptively carpet sites where people might attempt to sleep rough.

The final of the three bodies of work on view here was a series of beautifully tranquil large-scale photos depicting potted plants—sprouting bamboo in 1:19 AM, 2021, or a gracefully arcing orchid in 1:32 AM, 2020—captured through the nighttime windows of banks across Manhattan. Simultaneously highlighted and diffused by the mixture of dimmed overnight interior lighting and ambient street illumination, these examples of nature as a prop for a certain sort of staged commercial conviviality were gathered under the series title “Nyctinasty,” 2016–. Though it may at first seem a play on the familiar initialism by which New York City is colloquially known, the word is actually the scientific term for the circadian period in a plant’s day when it is effectively “sleeping.” It’s a testament to Johnson’s precociously deft touch in investing his gestures with meaning that, as with the vulnerably bewildered subject of Warbler, one can’t help but wonder what strange reveries might be swarming through the vegetation’s noiseless slumber.