I don’t entirely understand how it is that Toronto-based-painter Max Johnston and I could have careered around in the same quarter-century from which his mini-retrospective, Quarter Century Survey, has been drawn, and still know so little about one another. It had always been more or less lost on me, too, that Johnston has been a legendary graffiti artist (whose tag was “Ren”). I didn’t know beans about street art then, and still don’t.
As it was, I felt a double sense of both loss and delight when I visited the Johnston exhibition last February. Delight, because so much of it was so good. Loss, because I saw how a great deal of Johnston’s robust production of “legitimate art” (i.e. not graffiti) had somehow passed me by. Here I was now, catching up by means of the congested force-feeding that every survey inevitably must be.
Actually, I had written about Johnston before. I reviewed his exhibition at Cutts called When Two Arts Collide, in The Globe & Mail in the summer of 2009. There, I speculated about whether his “runaway graffiti energies” may have powered the paintings in some submerged way. I noted that the paintings seemed to come leaping from the walls, “thanks, in part, to an inventory of painterly effects that seem wholly original.”
The Quarter Century Survey begins strongly with perfect little grace-note of a painting, The Oasis, from 1991-92. It’s a purely ab-ex oil painting, and every squeeze and dab of it seems to be in the tight place and operating at just the right intensity: it would have killed them in New York in 1948 – and it’s still a pure and immensely pleasurable painting experience.
Shortly after that, from the mid 1990s until 2003-4, Johnston becomes increasingly engaged by the nature of pigment itself, its capabilities and limitations. His decision – prompted perhaps by his time as studio assistant to Ron Martin (see Martin’s brilliant To Foil Oils series of the late 1990s) – to squeeze long lengths of pure oil paint straight onto the canvas (like squeezing toothpaste from a tube) resulted in a series of works that were simultaneously brut and lyrical (see, in particular, his pure colour works – like Cadmium Red Deep and his Indian Yellow, both from 2003).
Sometimes, his accumulated, worm-like extrusions of pigment begin to get scraped, mushed and patched into expanded formats, as in the superb Multi-Bismuth from 2002. Here, in this masterful reading of chromatically-intensified horizontality, ribbon-like bands of bright, hot colour contend with – are shadowed by – short sharp vertical chunks of equally hot colour, like military ribbons in aggregate. What you get in the end is, first, the speeding horizontality of thin streams of colour confounded by the interference of the blocky, shunting, hesitancy of the vertical bits. The two set up a weave, a colouristic moiré of speedup and slowdown. The painting is only 20” x 16,” but it delivers more pure painterly Pow! than a big maplike sprawl of David Urban or a wall-sized cracked-plate Julian Schnabel.
In some of the most chancy yet most successful works in Johnston’s survey – paintings like The Cutting Edge (2008) and the swaggeringly assured Peering into the night (2009) – the artist appears almost to give up his blood-affiliation with strips and chunks of colour, reducing them, on a radically evacuated field, either to brief deposits of pigment, as authoritative as piles of doggy-do-do on your Persian carpet, or to line-ups of discreet buttons of pigment, like drops of sealing wax waiting for the impress of a seal.
Peering into the night, which is built on a black ground and looks a bit like a school blackboard, offers occasional bars, strips and buttons of colour, which contend energetically with a number of mathematical equations, carefully written (as if with white chalk) on the black ground – as if they had something urgent to do with today’s lesson.
I do wish the Johnston survey ended as strongly as it began, but for me, the later paintings – works like a series of Untitled compositions from 2014-2016 – are weakened by the artist’s recourse to coloured grounds, used to hold in place rather empty interior spaces (often simply white quadrilateral polygons) which are then “affixed” to the picture-plane by swatches of bright colour – which perform here like post-it notes.
These last works, while not deplorable, I suppose, are nevertheless a grievous step backwards from the euphoric solidity of the earlier works. Given the joyous belligerence of Johnston’s works up until 2012, these later paintings look weary and riddled with sad lack of conviction. How could this have happened?
Max Johnston, Quarter Century Survey. The Christopher Cutts Gallery (Toronto). February 6 — March 2, 2016.