Featuring scenes from San Francisco to Monaco, his 30 paintings are on view through Aug. 3.

Interest in color and shape guide Mitchell Johnson’s art, as seen in works such as “Orange Boat.” Courtesy Mitchell Johnson.

Menlo Park artist Mitchell Johnson worked on the paintings in his latest exhibit, “It Takes Time,” over a span of four years from 2019 to 2023. But when Johnson’s planned gallery show in his hometown of New York City was unexpectedly canceled two weeks ago, he was left scrambling for another space to showcase his work.

“I couldn’t sleep that night because I was very distressed that nobody was going to see some of these large paintings anytime soon,” Johnson said. 

But Johnson realized there was one local gallery space that could serve as the perfect venue for his show: 229 Hamilton Avenue, home to the former Pace Gallery from 2016 until last summer, when Pace consolidated its West Coast operations to a Los Angeles gallery space. The space has remained vacant since September 2022.

“It Takes Time” alludes to Johnson’s drawn-out artistic process: Most of the large-scale paintings in the exhibit took him three to four years to complete. Courtesy Mitchell Johnson.

Johnson reached out to Elizabeth Sullivan, Pace Palo Alto and Los Angeles vice president. She pointed him in the direction of Stephanie Wansek, general manager of The Cardinal Hotel, which owns the gallery space. 

The Cardinal Hotel hopes to lease the former Pace Gallery space to a new gallery tenant. In the interim, Wansek said that The Cardinal is “happy to have the space used” by Johnson for this exhibition. 

Within a few days of connecting with Wansek, Johnson signed a monthlong lease for the three-room, 3,000-square-foot gallery space and began installing the 30 paintings for his show “It Takes Time,” which opened July 14 and runs through Aug. 3. In little time, everything fell into place.

While the bulk of the paintings in “It Takes Time” reference scenes in Maine, France, Monaco and elsewhere, Johnson’s work carries both a local and international sensibility. The intention is that gallery visitors can connect with his paintings by appreciating the painter’s technique and place within larger art history rather than identifying the specific locales in his paintings. 

In 1990, Johnson moved to California, working for San Mateo-born abstract expressionist artist Sam Francis, who is best known for introducing explosions of color and paint drippings to his canvases. Interest in color and shape also guide Johnson’s practice. A synthesis of many sources – reference photos of his own or from others, sketches or even previous paintings – serve as the inspiration for his paintings awash with vibrant hues.

Johnson took inspiration for “Ed’s Iceberg” from a photo he captured of a mountainous landscape in Newfoundland. Courtesy Mitchell Johnson.

“Ed’s Iceberg,” one of the exhibited paintings, features a sunshine yellow cabin and a billowing clothesline of white linens set in front of a towering iceberg. It was inspired by a photo Johnson took of a mountainous landscape in Newfoundland. He referenced additional photos of buildings he saw elsewhere, combining all of these elements and painting everything in his signature brushy style. 

Johnson sees his paintings as a “collage of different moments, different sources, all in the interest of getting to a place where the color is doing something really unexpected.”

He sometimes starts the painting process by visiting his location of interest and sketching out the defining shapes of the painting before finishing the piece in his Menlo Park studio. “It Takes Time” exhibits two of Johnson’s paintings that were sketched outdoors in San Francisco, a practice Johnson has adopted since he moved to Palo Alto in 1990 and painted en plein air at the Stanford Dish. 

Tufts of low-hanging fog float among the iconic red beams of the Golden Gate Bridge in “Presidio #4,” which Johnson sketched on an early morning in San Francisco’s Presidio neighborhood. The second nod to San Francisco in the show, “From 1750 Taylor,” is a colorful cityscape that Johnson prepared on the balcony of the towering 1750 Taylor St. apartment complex in North Beach with views of the Transamerica Pyramid and Salesforce Tower.

“It Takes Time” alludes to Johnson’s drawn-out artistic process – most of the large-scale paintings in the exhibit took him three to four years to complete. He paints works concurrently; he finds that while working on one piece, he might develop a color he wishes to use in another work. Some might consider this practice to be chaotic, but it’s not uncommon. Johnson notes that 19th-century cubist painter Georges Braque often had six easels up at a time, never working on just one painting but rather devoting equal time to all canvases. 

Johnson’s process is slow, and he hopes that visitors also take their time when viewing his paintings in the gallery. 

“These paintings didn’t happen quickly, and you won’t understand them quickly if you don’t look at them for more than a minute and pick up on what is going on,” Johnson said, emphasizing that each painting is “full of decisions,” including visible brushstrokes, layers of vibrant oil paint and other textures that illustrate the artist’s touch. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of Johnson’s practice is witnessing the response from those who have seen or purchased his paintings. With “It Takes Time,” Johnson aims to inspire others to “look at their surroundings with more patience” and pay attention to “color relationships” in nature, especially in an area as rich in natural beauty and sublime landscapes as the Peninsula. 

Exhibiting his works at the downtown Palo Alto gallery has an added personal significance for Johnson: 229 Hamilton Avenue faces Mexican restaurant Reposado, which used to be Cafe Verona, the restaurant where Johnson met his wife 30 years ago. It felt like a full-circle moment for the artist whose career first blossomed in this area. 

“I’m grateful. The Silicon Valley community has supported me for over 30 years and really empowered me,” Johnson said. 

“It Takes Time” is on view at 229 Hamilton Avenue, 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto, through Aug. 3. The gallery is open daily from noon to 6 p.m. Johnson will be giving an artist talk at the gallery from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 20. More information is available at mitchelljohnson.com.

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