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Chris Johanson (continued)

As for subjects, exposing the nerve-endings of street life, especially those painfully close and reflective of his own life and artistic milieu, was Johanson’s grist, matching the grit and scrappy aspects of his literal raw material. Scrabbled faces, detached noses, hapless figures sleeping on threatening streets, and references to furtive sexual encounters in dark places, were set against an urban backdrop that echoes of dried-urine sidewalks and imminent violence.

From street life Johanson has expanded his interpretations of degradation and commonplace experience to embrace the more universal aspects of human existence in nature. Routine thoughts and actions are given larger context as the artist steps back from the immediate and reaches toward a greater conceptual continuum. From 1997, when he showed in Bay Area Now at the Yerba Buena

 Figs. 4 Totalities, 2008 mixed media installation Courtesy of the artist and Deitch Projects, NY
Fig. 3. Untitled (Row of People), 2002, acrylic on wood, 37-3/8 x 36-1/8 inches, Courtesy of the artist and Deitch Projects, NY
Center for the Arts, Johanson has formulated clustered groupings of two-dimensional works on paper and wood into three-dimensional installations that address larger life issues. His inclusion in Bay Area Now was met with great interest and was followed by invitations for solo installations at Alleged Gallery in New York in 1998 and 2000, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco in 1999, a solo installation at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in 2001, and pivotal inclusions in the Whitney Biennial of 2002 and SITE Sante Fe of 2003.

By the turn of the new millennium, a notable change was visibly occurring in Johanson’s work that allowed for slight glimpses of love, domesticity, escalating abstract color formations, and more precisely arranged multi-colored rows of heads or figures, all straight on or in profile and circumscribed by increasing detail (figs. 2-3). These images continue to magnify, through the artist’s astute social-realist lens, human alienation, actions, and interactions, while probing our relationship with the natural environment. At his first solo show at Deitch Projects in New York, Now Is Now (2002), Johanson’s interest in the modification of space emerged as a way to create interactive environments meant to be physically experienced to intensify the programmatic, psychological impact of his work.

Figs. 4,Totalities, 2008, mixed media installation Courtesy of the artist and Deitch Projects, NY

Figs. 5. Totalities, 2008, mixed media installation Courtesy of the artist and Deitch Projects, NY

Now Is Now emphasized “how greed and human/animal energy can destroy, how people screw up other people’s lives, how the sun is the main reason why we exist, how the sunlight of the spirit is the main positive force in life.”3 Expanding on that theme in a more recent Deitch show, Totalities (2008), Johanson focused on “the planet earth and its place in the universe [through] a meditation on the natural world of plants and animals, and how they are affected by humans.”4 Held within a scrap-wood cocoon,5 the installation required visitors to enter the space and be confronted by Johanson’s meditations on the precarious state of our globe, its ecosystems, and the disquieting fate of all its life forms (figs. 4-5).

Looming three-dimensional evergreen trees, appearing in the artist’s constructs by around 2003, figured prominently in Johanson’s SFMOMA installation at the time he was granted the museum’s prestigious SECA Award for contemporary art. In 2004 an extensive traveling show, Beautiful Losers, brought to an international audience the work of thirty artists associated with the 1990s Mission School movement. Johanson’s Losers installation incorporated a quixotic geodesic “modern art sculpture,” a womb-like form again to be entered, set off by an immense and vibrant wall-sized energy burst.

Fig. 6. Circular Energy Is Real, 2005, sugarlift aquatint etching, 11 1/2 x 10 inches, Edition of 20 Paulson Bott Press

Carrying through to Johanson’s work today are large-scale trees, the interplay of two- and three-dimensions, and the cyclical energy of the environment and universe (fig. 6). Whether his move from the urban Mission Street setting to Portland in 2004 nudged his artistic vision toward environmental concerns, or if his desire to connect with the earth and acknowledge its perilous state was there all along and leading him to the Northwest, the last decade demonstrates his increasing introspection and reverence for life and nature. Through understated, direct, or obfuscated images and sculptural installation, Johanson manifestly signals a wake-up call to pay close attention and take heed of our actions. Not an alarmist, Johanson articulates that he is not trying to be a negative manipulator but a positive communicator.

1 Arty Nelson, Totalities: Everyday People on the Brink of the Inevitable (New York: Deitch Projects, 2008), 7.
2 Printed Matter, Inc., Please Listen I Have Something to Tell You about What Is (Bologna: Damiani, 2007).
3 Deitch Projects, New York,
4 Deitch Projects, New York,
5 Nelson, Totalities, 5.
6 Paulson Bott Press, Berkeley, Calif., interview with the artist in OKTP, Nov. 1, 2007