Michael Johnson, Cormorant

Image courtesy of the artist

Michael Johnson

Cormorant, 2013
oil on canvas
101.5 x 329 cm (overall)

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"I wanted to evoke space through the tension between forms, using the energy of colour virtually straight from the manufacturer without mixing, but in the right proportions. Totally lose the surface. It falls away. You start with the experience of the bare gesso, the primed canvas, and that is sublime. That is meditation itself." (Michael Johnson in conversation with Terence Maloon, 'Michael Johnson: Paintings 1968-1988', Art Gallery of NSW, 1989.)

Johnson studied in Sydney at the Julian Ashton Art School and East Sydney Technical College through the 1950s and, at the Central School of Art, London in 1960. His earliest solo exhibitions were held in Sydney, Melbourne and New York during the 1960s and 70s, at Central Street Gallery, Gallery A, Max Hutchinson Gallery and direct from the studio.

In 1968 Johnson was included in 'The Field', National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and, in 1969 his work was included in the X Bienal Internacional de Sao Paolo, Brazil. In 1975 Johnson's first major survey was presented by the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, followed by surveys at the University of Melbourne in 1986 and at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney in 1989. In 2014 Johnson was awarded the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.

Michael Johnson's paintings, first constructed in London and New York in the 1960s and 70s, have continuously shifted in appearance to the present day, but have maintained the energy and impetus of meetings of grid, landscape and colour. Across his oeuvre, hard-edged qualities are paired with different styles of brushwork in joyously colour-washed canvases. There is an undeniable relationship to mid-late 20th century modernism where all of the big names, like a Greenbergian play of Art History, are influential on his work. Kandinsky's spiritual relationship to music and painting; Rothko's veils of colour; Mondrian's squares; Barnett Newman's lines; Frank Stella's minimalism all inhabit a space in his work.

The artist

Since the mid 1980s, one associates the paintings of Michael Johnson with large canvases that are roughly divided into three zones - air, land and sea - filled with layers of rich colourful oil paint, often with a calligraphic squeezed-from the-tube line dancing over a sea of colour. Then around 2012 something changed as Anna & Michael Johnson note "To those who missed a few solo shows, the shift from “soft” to “hard” might have resembled night and day. But the course is closer to a continuum. “The source of Oceania (the Wynne Prize winner in 2014) is not obvious at all … I had collected some images of cormorants diving and breaking the skin of the water to catch fish. I interpreted the movement of this by creating calligraphy drawings with large, thick brushes then making a collage from the drawings, cutting into them to exaggerate the space between the lines and the void.” This said, the leap from drawn line to flat plane seems a long one. Where does he sit with the constraints of change? “I don’t miss the touch or the gesture because the lineal rhythm of geometry is like a dance. Instead of a contour line drawing there is a planar tension between line and surface. Once upon a time people said that Pollock was just using line alone. I said NO, line has two contours and a plane in between. The line comes back on itself.” (Anna Johnson in discussion with Michael Johnson http://www.artistprofile.com.au/michael-johnson/, 30 May 2016)