By DAVID CAVE
The photo-realistic images in the invitation to Tracey Johnson’s latest exhibition, “I Took a Chance”, at Soft Box Studios in Port of Spain, was a powerful drawing card to witness the original artwork. As one formally trained in photography and drawing, I can confess to a soft spot for realistic drawing and painting. I know, first-hand, how time-consuming it can be to achieve this effect. And, I admire the genre of photorealism because it uses the medium of painting to interrogate the formal elements of the photographic image.
It is this painterly analysis and deconstruction of the typical journalism image that Johnson does extremely well. Through the use of her calculated, finessed brush strokes, details such as variations in skin tone, hair, folds in clothing and the sharp focus or blur of the camera lens are effectively conveyed to the viewer. There is no ambiguity or second-guessing. As a painter and artist, Johnson has a clear intention of depicting the unemotional and impartial, monocular singularity of the camera lens.
A work such as “Guru Plaster Dome”, where a police officer’s gloved hand is grabbing a hand-cuffed individual in a basketball vest highlight the fascinating detail of Johnson’s technique while also highlighting how the artist intervenes in this rigid and supposedly inflexible photographic space. “Guru Plaster Dome” is a tense scene. One feels, with the strained muscles depicted, that a conflict or struggle is about to start between the officer and the accused.
However, the absence of the faces, which thus leads to no facial expression, creates a sense of sterility and detachment. The viewer is a witness to an event, but is not a part of it. If this is the intention of the artist, then it would be safe to assume that Johnson is not only questioning the scene being depicted, but is also addressing the role of the viewer in the process of interpreting her art. Is the viewer of Johnson’s pieces likely to be of the same social class and pecking order as the young, African males being arrested or holding guns in the paintings? Most of the time, the answer will be no.
There is a definite distance created between the viewer and the art. Unlike the photorealism of American artists such as Richard Estes, where the large scale of the canvas is utilised to completely immerse the viewer into the painting, it appears that Johnson deliberately wants to create a paradoxical rift between the viewer and the art by using small canvases and paying attention to painting the frame.
Indeed, the viewer is drawn in by the realism of her painting technique, but the emphasis on painting the edge of the two-inch thick frame of each of the exhibition’s 25 paintings makes it clear that Johnson wants to remind the person that there is a frame between them and the art. Moreover, the painted frames of the paintings also reinforce that there are many divisions, not simply between the viewer and the art, but also between the viewer and the people depicted in the art. Johnson is making a heavy statement about mass media images of pain and hardship. The images are real, the people in the images are real, but the individuals who see these images in the mass media maintain an Us-versus-Them mentality for the most part. We like to read or watch the News, but (unless it’s good) we definitely do not want to be in the News.
Photographs of Johnson’s work do not do this art any justice. It is not enough just to stand directly in front of the piece. Instead, one has to walk around the art as if it were a sculpture, looking at all sides and admiring how Johnson has used her painting to creatively address the frame issue. In one work, the tip of a bullet bends over the corner of the canvas.
The stunning realism of Johnson’s work is unquestionably admirable and well-executed. After witnessing the exhibition, one only desires to see more. Johnson also creatively breaks the painting mould by painting different frames around the edge of the paintings. This play on formalism ought to be developed in future works, as the artist’s subtle use of the frame takes the art to new ground.
The images are both real and surreal. Everything is recognisable, but, as previously stated, there is a noticeable cleanliness and sanitisation of the scene that is communicated through the meticulous painting style. Further, the titles of the works stress this paradox. In many cases, the titles such as the aforementioned “Guru Plaster Dome”, seem to be completely random and idiosyncratic. However, these titles are what popped into the head of the artist based on free association. Again, this perplexing relationship between the artist and the titles of her paintings stresses the separation that exists between the artist, the figures in the paintings and the viewer.
The exhibition closed on July 2nd.