Selections from throughout Mitchell Johnson’s career highlight his longtime love of color (and picnic chairs)
by Sheryl Nonnenberg
The current exhibition at the Pamela Walsh Gallery, “Mitchell Johnson, Color Continuum,” may be perfectly timed to usher in a hopeful, post-pandemic era. The survey show, which features selected paintings by the Menlo Park artist dating from 1988 to 2021, is a bright, colorful and uplifting experience with the added benefit of taking the viewer, vicariously, to scenic spots around the world.
The idea for the show came after Johnson visited Walsh’s Ramona Street gallery to see her Nathan Oliveira collection. A subsequent visit to Johnson’s light-filled studio inspired her to suggest an exhibition that would showcase his latest, large-scale works but also include paintings from earlier in his career.
“The dialogue between these pieces showed a remarkable progression in Mitchell’s evolution as a painter,” Walsh said. “A large survey exhibition tells the story of an artist in a way that words cannot, and Mitchell has arrived at a very important moment in his career.”
The show is a combination of new work, early paintings from Johnson’s private collection, as well as works borrowed from museums and private collectors.
“Mitchell and I spent quite a bit of time in his studio going through paintings and thinking about the narrative. We are showing the arc of 30 years and how his work has evolved, so we were careful to include paintings that illustrate different time periods,” Walsh said.
Born in 1964, Johnson’s childhood involved frequent relocations due to his father’s military career. In a recent email interview he explained, “I am sure I started painting and making things as a way to be grounded amidst the constant change. The interest in color was always there.” After graduating from Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, he found employment in the computer industry and took art classes in the evening. He saved enough money to attend Parsons School of Design in New York City, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1990. Although stimulating, New York was prohibitively expensive for a young artist. A call one day from his brother Ed in California would set him on a new life path.
Abstract expressionist painter Sam Francis, who lived in Palo Alto, needed a part-time assistant. Johnson moved west and continued to paint while working for Francis. It proved to be a transformative experience.
“Working for Sam made me realize that every artist decides what their work will look like and be about but also how they will build a career. Careers in the art world are cobbled together in unique ways; galleries don’t run people’s lives or careers and they certainly don’t provide consistency or stability.”
Johnson’s early work, expressionistic landscapes of California, soon found an audience. But, perhaps because of the transient quality of his upbringing, Johnson sought out other venues in order to explore his passion for color and shapes. Soon he was traveling to Cape Cod, Italy, France and Asia (often with wife Donia and son Luca) in order to find new inspiration. His works — sometimes done en plein air (outdoors), more often from memory in the studio — are not the stereotypical renditions of scenic locations. Two lawn chairs on a beach, the rooftops of Cape Cod cottages and a lone picnic table are more likely to draw his attention because they are opportunities to pursue his quest for “colors and shapes that feel complex and challenging.”
In the rear of the Walsh Gallery, a narrow corridor provides an intimate space in which to view very early examples of Johnson’s work. One can see that, as a student, he was working in a soft, impressionistic manner of representation, as in “Green Car, Palo Alto” from 1992. Moving around the gallery, the canvases become larger, brighter, with more attention to the geometry of shapes. Johnson said that he views the canvas as “a stage where shapes and colors perform together.”
These stages include places where we all have been, perhaps, or have wanted to go.
“I think the subjects of Mitchell’s paintings allow people to access the work and are universally pleasing, but that is why they are great,” Walsh said.
“North Truro” (2015) is an Edward Hopper-esque scene, a white clapboard cottage on the ocean’s edge. Strong lines define the architectural features of the corner of the house, its roofline, open screen door and paned window. But it is the color that draws our attention. Is the roof really green? Is the doorstep really purple and is the ocean ever that deep, deep blue? It doesn’t matter because it all works and the overall feeling is one of warmth and nostalgia. Walsh explained, “His true genius is his understanding of color; people are magnetically drawn to color.”
Color is a main component in “Race Point Chairs” (2020). Three ordinary canvas beach chairs, one blue, one green, one striped, are arranged on the sand. Large swaths of light and dark blue form the ocean and horizon beyond. With the empty chairs taking center stage, viewers can focus only on how their colors contrast and complement each other.
Johnson’s paintings also capture a moment in time, and they are usually not defined by having people as main characters. In “Yellow Table” from 2021, for example, the composition could not be simpler. A bright yellow picnic table sits solidly in the center canvas, resting on a ground of green grass. Horizontals of light and dark blue delineate the beach and sea behind it. It’s a compact composition but holds potential for so much meaning: We have been there, it was fun and we want to go there again.
Johnson could easily, perhaps, make a living out of such bucolic scenes but he has also tackled the more complex subject matter of cityscapes. In “Pine and Grant” (2019–21), the artist has started out depicting, in a realistic manner, a very specific location in San Francisco. It is probably possible to identify the various buildings, because of their architectural features. But this realism is obscured by large square, rectangle and oblong shapes of secondary colors superimposed upon the city backdrop. It is a conscious effort on the artist’s part to merge aspects of representation and abstraction in one canvas. This may not be everyone’s notion of a San Francisco city scene.
“Ultimately, what we’re getting at here is that paintings can be about looking and seeing better, which is not the same thing as identifying stuff or things because they are recognizable,” Johnson said.
The show also includes examples of Johnson’s purely abstract paintings, such as “Biarritz (Secret)” 2018–2020. Rectangles of flat, matte colors, applied with a hint of pentimento (traces of paint from previous layers), overlap and encourage the eye to travel in and around the canvas.
Johnson, who has long been his own publicity and business manager, has found a loyal following for his work here in California and, thanks to ads in the Wall Street Journal Magazine, around the world. One local collector is tech entrepreneur Donna Dubinsky, who commissioned him to paint the view from her home on Taylor Street in San Francisco. “For me, Mitchell’s work toggles between realism and abstraction in a very appealing way,” she said. “Yes, there are buildings and recognizable objects, but when you look carefully, you realize they are really shapes and colors. He assembles shapes and colors to create a mood and a vivid sense of place.”
As one collector said as she viewed the show, “I have such joy having his work in my house.”
The artist shared his personal feelings about seeing 30 years of his work on display locally.
“After all the years here, I have rarely exhibited in Palo Alto, but each time I do I think about how Ed found me the job with Sam Francis and how fun it was to live with him on Channing Avenue for about eight months. Ed passed away from multiple myeloma on Valentine’s Day 2020. I owe so much to him and think of his suffering every time I paint,” he said. “All of my paintings have been about color, but they are also about the bittersweetness of life.”
“Color Continuum’’ is on view at Pamela Walsh Gallery, 540 Ramona St., Palo Alto, through June 26. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Sunday and Monday by appointment). More information is available at pamelawalshgallery.com
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