Josh Johnson: Resemblance Erosion

by Robert Mahoney

June 16, 2016

Josh Johnson’s sculpture has been on my radar since I first saw it in a two-person show at Nebraska Wesleyan two springs ago, then he had a piece in the Art Seen show at Joslyn Art Museum last summer. This is the first one-person show of his that I have seen, consisting of four works, a two-drawing set and three sculptures. And, as usual, Lincoln-based Johnson remains an artist whose work is always on the move. In this outing, Johnson welcomes us into the Kimmelm Harding Nelson Center’s re-purposed 60's living room as art gallery -- with carpeting, timbered ceilings and picture windows, the whole bit -- with an orientation piece and two drawings called Erosion (2016). Careful graphite sketches of rock formations, they announce that Johnson continues to mull over the fact that one day while walking on a path in Lincoln, he came across artificial rock formations that imitated the Black Hills of South Dakota that he had passed through recently, and somehow the difference, the whole art vs. nature, here-there, why here-why not there? why would a path in Lincoln imitate a hill in the Dakotas? dynamic of the design decision intrigued him. While the drawings are indistinct as works of art, they are welcome as concierge works signaling themes to come. 

Josh Johnson,  Gateway, to the West,  2016, pine, walnut, plywood, bronze, balsa foam, polystyrene, water putty, latex paint

Josh Johnson, Gateway, to the West, 2016, pine, walnut, plywood, bronze, balsa foam, polystyrene, water putty, latex paint

His sculptures in this show seem oriented to reduce to their essence certain dimensions of the space around them. Gateway, to the West (2016) stands perpendicular to entry, in the long part of the gallery, its carpentered false wall profiled against the timbered roof work above. Placeholder: Memorial Park (2016) sits back in the left corner as if to mark the farthest edge of art in that direction, and Outcropping (2016) is off on the right, a bit more vertical. And yet, in a strange way, Johnson’s work, while situated with some orientation to the space, is not “installed” to interact with the space, as I might review, for example, a classic neoconceptual installation. His work, that is, does not “pick up a vibe” of a space and materialize it. Having marked out his space, Johnson’s work seems to turn its back on objective space and inhabit a counter-space in which art has crawled into itself to muse on life by way of material means inside of itself. I would also like to say that Johnson’s work therefore inhabits some crawlspace relative to the main spaces we all live in but, no, it does not do that exactly either. Where then, in the universe, is Johnson’s work situated? 

Josh Johnson,  Outcropping,  2016, balsa foam, polystyrene, sheet rock, cedar, plywood, latex paint

Josh Johnson, Outcropping, 2016, balsa foam, polystyrene, sheet rock, cedar, plywood, latex paint

I have to resort to some formalism for my radar work (and do apologize). If it is accepted that all art works have surface, fictive space and then ground (i.e. a front, middle/inside and back, receding perpendicularly from the viewer), it appears to me that Johnson has effaced surface, thus the sense of not-thereness of his work, and situated his art in the interaction between fictive space and ground. In pieces like Placeholder: Memorial Park (2016), where a large chunk of pinkish polystyrene is carved by Johnson to resemble those fake walking trail rocks, in imitation of the Black Hills (glued together, apparently, by oozing black latex), that fictive event, meant to muse on nature vs. culture, is itself pushed down in under a wooden sawhorse, so that it is forced to act as a false or compromised ground, even though it seems to keep wanting to “get up”. This then is fronted by a curious twist of bronze, which acts as a kind of guardian, warding off, on the wood platform base of the work as a whole, an inky black flooding, which acts as a kind of frontyard event, the first thing encountered by the viewer, to distance oneself from the memorial object. Out in the open, one might say the piece looks like a construction site rather than a memorial; a forensic approach, putting mental police tape around it and exploring it as a crime scene of vandalism might also benefit, but to me it seems like the outward expression of a meditation on the nature of memory space itself, a kind of anti-trophy, something inside the mind precipitated out. This makes Johnson’s work vaguely post-minimalist (i.e. not essentialist), certainly post-positivist (in the sense that positivists only believe in concrete reality) and oddly, somewhat mental-perceptual in nature.

But then in the two newest pieces in the show, Gateway, to the West (2016) and Outcropping (2016), there is a newer tendency in the work. Johnson has decided to give his work more independent presence as sculpture by incorporating in them a kind of built stage that looks like a pedestal, either laid flat as a platform, or standing up as a pedestal. (For a moment, I thought they might be gallery equipment, they are so finely made, which Johnson had decided to occupy — that would be neoconceptually fun, but they are not). This is ground, but it is ground in the back of fictive art space (to onionskin that space too). All on and about this stage space Johnson is freer to render a more sophisticated kind of sculpting, in an even more thinly sliced state of notthereness. Here, our world is represented by the comparatively monumental empty framework of interior wall carpentry but which, though it stands up in way that reads like a wall, so that you think of “one side and then the other,” in fact separates nothing so ends up only as itself, a distinct, abstract wreck. This is the effacement that sends up into the fictive space, down on the platform. Then, there, the fictive space seems to also have been thinned out, allowing Johnson to open up that space to its microspace dimensions where, driven by some intense endoscopy, strange little sculpture events or gestures, that might be lost if placed directly on the floor, can proliferate. Curiously enough, this appears to be the cutting edge of Johnson’s work right now. One gets to it, by way of what appears to be jumping off elements, little carved clumps of the polystyrene affixed by way of studs like an anvil to the front of the assembly, leading you in. Below, made of balsa foam, a kind of filler, there is as if a miniature Josh Johnson of the previous memorial, little crumbles, set so casually on the platform it might be mistook for actual crumbling, if there was another form like it to crumble from above (but there isn’t). This comes off, dwarfed by a bronze bar of bullion (an actual object) laid behind it, as an enigmatic offering. At the foot of the carpentry, another Chimney Rocking of a microsculpture event, this time not only centered in one vertical cube, with two others, but ground down into dust, and left in a pile of that (there is also another pinprick insertion of polystyrene through one of the vertical boards way up on the structure above, a very curious microevent). It‘s almost as if Johnson, bearing down in the fictive microspace, is taking his cues from termites, to fashion a really, truly erosive substructure sculpture. It is as if Johnson has taken his consideration of the notion of erosion, both natural and cultural, and instrumentalized it as the very life force of forming and unforming in his hands to make a certain sort of superreductive anti-sculpture. One might be tempted to say at this point that Johnson’s work is about entropy, but I sense no Smithson-style 60's end of the world glorying in entropy in his work. Rather, I was reminded of a cable TV guy who, on my first day in an apartment that was a significant coming down in the world for me, congratulated me for new carpeting having been installed before I moved in, so I did not have to live in  “other people’s grime” (embedded in the carpet? is he talking toenails?). Grime, not mess, not dirt, but grime, dirt compiled by contact or nasty habit over months, years, eons: a special zone of decrepitude which nonetheless has a weird sort of character (not to mention DNA), but one for which our civilization has with zest developed of late a deep fear. (The rupophobia (fear of filth) that sweeps our culture at present is possibly at the root of all recent drives to return to black and white thinking, to regain the white cube, to live in brand new houses, to banish body hair, to patrol public bathrooms, to reimagine government as business, to demand absolute cleanliness in our accommodations. But this is a hopeless mania: none of this stops the general, unseen crepitation of existence, everything, physical, mental, temporal, spatial, cultural, it is all always just wear and tearing, scratching away—so in a weird sort of way Johnson’s sculptures occultly made me think of the culture at large.) The fact that Johnson actually “goes there” by having rearranged the inner balances of his boundary marking herms as erosions of fictive into groundless space directly challenges our irrational defense against the natural erosion of life. For that, oddly, his work might make some viewers, though they will not know why, nervous, even antsy. At the same time, as the platforms also allow the assemblage as a whole to be read as a tableaux, vaguely reminding me of Giacometti’s The Palace at 3am, connections can be made on the surface (the bronze bar of bullion anecdotally refers to the promise of riches?), and they might amuse or make one pause. 

This is captured one more time in Outcropping (2016), the final piece in the show (by my left to back, to center, to back right rotation). In this sculpture, the ready-made platform is vertical, therefore directly resembling a pedestal, and more likely to be read as a comment on art versus deconstruction of it. And yet all Johnson has done as far as the pedestal part is concerned is place a polystyrene chunk of carved rock on the side, hanging unmoored over the edge and hanging on as if for dear life (for some reason, I thought of Goya’s dog; I also thought of how we all live now in tiny little placeholder spaces between one fix and another: for example, I currently let my phone signal a certain warning to me, and do not click on it, because I know this warning blocks a far more intrusive one, I’m literally living in the crack between the two). Most of the ‘art’ in this piece occurs in the bowels of the not-a-pedestal, there it is sculpturally “undermined” (but reinforced in makeshift ways) by an underlayer sandwiching of polystyrene and sheetrock. And then, even below that, well, this is the crawlspace par excellence of the exhibit, as Johnson has raised the pedestal on remnant pieces of window frame to create under the piece a dark nowhere, the entry into the underworld, the bottomless pit, a cloaca, a sewer (maybe a first for me in a gallery) who knows where it goes, maybe the deep access point to some sought after, never arriving, ever receding ground. For all this, then, at present (and, admittedly, I had to resign myself to using a formalist model here), I situate Johnson’s sculpture in the slack space off to the side of the back of the microspaces of the fictive space of sculpture (whew!), as it begins to crumble into, but never does quite reach, because it does not seem to believe in, ground. These are not easy sculptures, they will, for their carpentered look, be read in a constructivist way, but that to me is too easy -- they are not easy because they “take place” in a part of the universe not too many of us like to think about, far from the surface of life, deep in the backgrounds of our fictions, seeking some ground in creation that nonetheless keeps crumbling away. For that they also have the extra mysterious appeal of somehow, in such a wide open place as Nebraska, capturing the paradoxically turned-in nature of consciousness hereabouts, where you would think people would be more outgoing, under such big, open skies, but they are not.