The chronology of Michael Johnson’s work over five decades is mapped by a sort of arc: from the flat surfaces in the 60s and 70s, to the textural impasto of oils in the 80s to mid 2000s and then returning, in the most recent works, to flat pure colour. As an artist he attributes the slow shift in the sensuality, indeed the tactility of his surfaces and grounds, to a growing boldness in his use of colour.
“I moved away from flat paint spontaneously, to be more direct - upon return to Australia in the late 70s I began to squirt pure colour onto canvas, working it and pulling it down with a palette knife. I had grown more confident. The idea of colour as an entity grew stronger as the dominance of geometry relaxed, the work and the gestures softened. But the same attention to a template was always there. Every painting and drawing has a structure and often that structure pivots on the energy of a diagonal.”
The kinetic journey of the eye, the energy and ricochet of lines and forms meeting at intersecting angles are all pleasures afforded by geometric abstract art. When discussing his most complex or impenetrable works, the artist is at pains to point out the difference between a composition and a ‘view’. “I am not” he states emphatically “punching a window through the square or asking you to look through one space into another. All the dynamics of the image are contained in the same plane and in so much of my work the diagonal holds the tension.”
Known as the consummate colourist, little has been said about the formal underpinnings of his abstraction. Yet when Johnson speaks about painting and drawing his ideas owe as much to architecture and mathematics as they do to animism and primal myths: “There is no composition without a diagonal and the movement of the body describes the dynamics of painting, the invisible tension of every image from Leonardo to Mondrian relies on a diagonal. The four corners of a square or rectangle reign in the visual tension, like a bow being drawn back before release“
The metaphor of the arrow suits the work well as so many of his compositions demand the eye to dive and return across contrasting zones of colour. His use of geometry is energised, and sometimes it feels unpredictable, like the darting swoop of a bird or a flying fish breaking the waterline. The tension between the workings of the natural world and the highly composed mathematical structure is Johnson’s plumb line. The large works on paper of the late 70s are harnessed by “hard” forms, the right angles of monuments and minimal scaffolding, yet their touch is sensuous and their palette resembles “soft” tactility: the patina of rust, the stain of a tide-line or the ephemeral sensuality of a cloud.
The work in this exhibition defines a bridging moment when the artist left a highly urbanised environment and returned to North Queensland then Sydney. Those shifts are critical to understanding the changes to his use of scale, colour and touch. Johnson is the first to point out that leaving New York opened up his sense of confined space and influenced his palette: “Suddenly I was working with raw southern hemisphere light and much larger work spaces. The grid of the city was replaced by less predictable terrains, long road trips, big sky and also a much more subtle sense of the seasons. It was an expansion on every level”.
When his large paintings gave way to far more gesture (in the early 80s) the tension of each work was held by his ongoing preoccupation with the line. As wild as the paint and colour became, the compositions still hinged upon the energy of right angles and diagonals. It’s a sensation the artist describes as a tangible presence “When I generate colour and form that is expanding and contracting, ascending and descending, moving in a perpetual cycle within the single picture plane, it is almost breathing, pulsing and resonating on the eye. Pushing beyond the static image.”
Often we don’t associate abstract art with living things. In formal terms it is an entity more closely attributed to spirit, pure thought or the void. But in the highly concentrated period when Michael Johnson’s work transitioned from flat forms to sensual tactility, the natural world was always there, beating beneath the skin.
“I have physical memories of diagonal lines. They go back to my childhood, getting the angle right to spear a crab and watching that line break through the water. Other memories resound like watching the random forms of driftwood moving on the surface of the Hawkesbury River or even just walking among fallen branches in a gum forest. The works I was making in the 70s emulated those dynamics, when I dropped timber onto raw canvas and spray painted around them. Through all my formal changes, the diagonal remained a major dynamic of movement, like the ray of light or the subtle bend of a river. I see compositional dynamics everywhere: inside the structure of a flower or smouldering inside a burning pile of timber. The diagonal in my work has always been a pathway for rhythm.”
In conversation with the artist, Sydney, July 2015