Los Angeles

Ed Johnson, Sugar Creek, 2021, oil and gesso on Plexiglas, 36 × 48".

Ed Johnson, Sugar Creek, 2021, oil and gesso on Plexiglas, 36 × 48".

Ed Johnson

Ed Johnson is a painter who does not cut corners. The last time the public received any news from his studio was in 2017, on the occasion of his exhibition at MiM gallery in Los Angeles. Johnson’s output is scarce, which might be one of the reasons he shows so infrequently, even though he works continuously. This much can be gathered at a glance: His paintings are evidently the product of intensive deliberation. They are meticulously realized, yet far from fussy; this impression bolstered by the seemingly casual aspect of what they feature in terms of content. Johnson’s starting point is always a more or less banal photograph, a snapshot that would strike anyone as random, even failed, were it not translated into paint with such extraordinary focus. This attention is evenly distributed between what the picture represents and what it is in itself as a technical construct. On the viewer’s end, a reciprocal oscillation occurs: The picture that is pictured appears both as a view and a thing in the view. So what kind of thing is a photograph once it enters a painting? This is not a new question—it is at the crux of the discourse around Photorealism. Yet Johnson comes at it in ways that never cease to surprise and disturb.

First, a pronounced temporal discrepancy obtains between the work’s photographic instantaneity and the deliberate painterly process that unfolds over months, often years. In a piece such as Sugar Creek, 2021, which is based on an overexposed photograph of a neglected landscape, the viewer could acutely sense to what extent the source image has been bored into and excavated. Every grain or pixel in its raster is treated individually; a vast array of tiny, independent, and often brightly colored—sometimes fluorescent—marks infuse the whole scene with an air of compacted exuberance that’s entirely at odds with one’s first impression of its washed-out inertia. On closer inspection, these minuscule gestures were revealed to be attuned to the various things that they also serve to depict, turning languid in relation to the eponymous creek that runs through the composition at a slight diagonal, and then more abrupt and rigid for the weeds that wantonly sprout to either side. In this, Johnson would seem to be operating like any painter, except that these marks, executed on a microscopic scale with a resolutely nonexpressionistic precision, turn sign-like, a miniature typography. Moreover, the echo between painterly form and imagistic content is by no means formulaic. What kept one looking intently while passing from one painting to the next is the formal inventiveness of Johnson’s gestural marks, which always veer off into the hallucinatory. The awe-inspiring Untitled (California), 2021, is a case in point. This view of a suburban lawn, with a house barely visible in the background, is marred by a massive lens flare; yet the information loss that normally occurs when you point your camera toward the sun instead becomes an opportunity for fervid byzantine elaboration here. Emanating from a white void are countless agitated brushstrokes of every color, a lysergic maelstrom churning with specters, luminous and sinister in equal measure.

The unbroken concentration evinced by these works quickly turns ominous. What happened here, one might wonder? Car Fire, 2021, a small nocturnal painting, presents an oblique view of a burning automobile on an otherwise perfectly unremarkable neighborhood street. Yet even in what was this show’s only instance of a dramatic scene, one couldn’t help but withdraw from the action to once again become lost in a thicket of paint. After all, we confront all manner of atrocity every day on our image feeds without raising an eyebrow. The real event, here and elsewhere, is one that begins in the studio: looking at photographs, painting photographs, and then looking again, until something that has very little to do with photography, and might not even relate to the visible world, begins to appear.