Lester Johnson at Edward Thorp
An interesting juxtaposition defined this exhibition of the 75-year-old painter. Large-scale oil paintings from the 1960s, when the artist worked in a studio on the Bowery, were set off by a very recent series of watercolors and one oil painting, done outdoors in Nice and Cannes. The contrast in locales couldn't be greater; nor could the contrast in the work. The oils are dark, claustrophobic, condensed depictions of figures. They are usually painted thickly in black or very dark tones, with lots of scratching and heavy impasto. The watercolors are light, airy, fresh and open, with vistas extending into the distance; they are also small and delicate.
Nighttime (1962) shows an Art Brut vitality and also an African influence: an impenetrable idol-like image stares out, nostrils flairing. The work has the feeling of an archeological artifact. The subjects of Two Men, Tall (1967) have more expression: with their lined eyes and scowls, their large crania and naked bodies, they look like thugs or skinheads. The extreme cropping makes these works from the '60s seem larger than they are.
For those already familiar with Johnson's output, the recent work is the most exciting. We see the artist breaking into really new territory, attitude and technique. Parc Messina (Nice) #4 (1992), an oil, exhibits lightly applied textures; canvas and ground are allowed to show through. Color relationships are also explored - the dress of the central female figure has five or six varieties of blue and purple, and her hair runs a similar gamut in reddish brown. The figures are the most effective spatial elements here; sky, earth and little hopping birds lose their depth somewhat.
The watercolors have interesting variations of hard edge and diffusion techniques. Johnson uses the white space of the paper to create an airy effect of beaches and moisture. Untitled (Cannes, February) (1993) features successful plotting of a large foreground figure reading a magazine, with highlights in oil; head and feet touch the frame. Dissolving figures stand in the background. Another watercolor (with an identical title) depicts the same reader, now slightly further back, though still in the foreground. The background figures are walking. Sharp tree-shapes stay in one's mind.