Transcending Forms Brett Allen Johnson’s newest work at Maxwell Alexander Gallery pushes and pulls at the fabric between realism and abstraction. By Michael Clawson
The Italian painter Giorgio Morandi was a still life painter in the early 20th century who worked with an assemblage of models that included all the “usual suspects”—subjects such as a vase with a fluted neck, ceramic pitcher with large handle, tall narrow bottle, coffee cup, square bottle with wavy neck and an elusive teacup. Morandi would line his subjects up and paint them. When he was done, he would mix them up and paint them again under different light or different groupings. He did hundreds of these paintings, if not thousands. He would title every single one Natura morta, Italian for “dead nature,” the term used for still life.
Morandi’s name doesn’t come up a lot in Western circles, but he comes up when talking with Utah painter Brett Allen Johnson, who admires Morandi’s passion for his subjects. Where Morandi had bottles, vases and ceramic cups, Johnson has sandstone cliff faces, rocky spires jutting out from desert soil, vast mesas with white walls, and mountains creased
with shadows. Johnson has taken these key geologic components of the desert and filled his paintings with different combinations of them, as well as other subjects such as adobe buildings, massive cloud formations, cattle skulls, cowboys on horseback and cattle pens. The result is a stunning cross section of the Southwest from one of Western art’s rising new stars, who will be having a major new solo show at Maxwell Alexander Gallery starting on September 7.
“I paint my landscapes with a still life sensibility. I like the broad shapes and smooth surfaces. Most of my landscapes are not filled with an exceptional amount of vegetation, mostly because I’m really focusing on these big shapes that showcase the very best of this clear light we have here in the Southwest,” Johnson says. “I use a lot of photography when I’m gathering research. In fact I have a really expensive catalog of photos at this point, but when I get back to the studio I tend to paint more from memory, just really cropping in close so I can focus on the essential part of the painting. I like to distill things down to just the parts I want to show.”
This distillation of form yields stunning results in his color and composition. He pulls detail out of the picture and focuses on the shapes, and how they interact with the light, and, in turn, his pictures tend to have an abstract feel to them—a sort of Maynard Dixon meets Ed Mell mashup—that pushes and pulls against abstraction and realism. But even that aspect has some wiggle room: are these abstract paintings of reality, or realism rendered from nature that has abstract qualities? Johnson leaves room for both interpretations with his marvelous new paintings, works such as Ode to Arizona, with its red rock hills and layers of exposed strata, and Of Stone and Sand, which shows white-washed cliffs under a cobalt blue sky. “When I hear people say my work feels abstract, it does feel so validating. I don’t do a bunch of dropped edges or angular stuff, but I use abstraction to internalize the big shapes. I just see these big forms and want to recreate them in a unique way,” he says. “I don’t want to look at something and transcribe the shape. I want to get in deep and close and kind of conceptualize the best parts of it, which is why I draw from memory or imagination, that way I can really take something and rebuild it from the ground up.” Johnson arrived to this point by spending time outdoors in the desert. A lot of time.
After high school, the artist enrolled in a graphic design program at a nearby community college, but then quickly realized that he wanted to paint. In 2005 he dropped out and hit the road. “All my early trips were nearby, just so I could see what was out there to paint. If you go just west of me it looks a lot like the Great Basin—real flat and lots of sagebrush. Later I would end up in southern Utah and Arizona. I would go down to hike and I realized I loved those big solid forms and the strong light,” he says. “You could really make an impactful painting with these huge forms, but I wanted to not only paint these big subjects but help people understand how they could be shown in a painting, how their size could be worked into a piece. It was fun looking for those subjects.”
He kept at it and improved. By 2016, Beau Alexander, owner of Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Los Angeles, had seen his work and reached out. “Beau somehow stumbled onto some of my work on Instagram. I only had just a few followers then, and by no means was doing consistently good work. I guess he saw some potential, and he contacted me to see what I was doing. I had always been told to pick a local gallery for my first one, to avoid all the shipping expenses and associated hassles, but that was pretty much my dream gallery, so there’s no way I wasn’t gonna jump,” Johnson says. “It was my first experience with any gallery, and nothing I gave him sold at first, but he was patient. He’s always interested in the big picture. Honestly, he’s been the best thing I could ever have hoped for, an ally and confidante, a gentle coach and a friend. And he has a shared vision: that Western art has a lot of innovation left to give, that the West is a special place and it’s still relevant in the 21st century. Beau is the man.”
The gallery also brought Johnson into a unique fold of talent, including some of the top Western artists working: Logan Maxwell Hagege, Glenn Dean, Mark Maggiori, Jeremy Lipking, Eric Bowman and others. These young artists are carving their own path within Western art, and doing it on their own terms.
For Johnson’s newest works, the artist is taking classic views of the West and re-imagining them in his own abstracted- realist fusion of ideas. Consider In the Land of Mesas, with its massive rock formation that stands with shaded cliffs facing the viewer. The cliff face has been rendered in flat panels, almost like sheets of drywall plastered directly into the landscape. A layer of lighter-colored rock runs through the landmark, but in a simplified way, as if it’s a stripe on a T-shirt. These simplifications of the land are hallmarks of Johnson’s work. “I found this one while driving through Monument Valley. It’s not the one of the Mittens or Totem or anything, but it’s still wonderful. The rock has this orangish-pink color in the soil. It almost permeates through to the atmosphere,” he says, adding that he painted in horses and a rider to show the scale of the mesa. “Edgar Payne did that a lot, adding little figures to show the scale. If you were to look real close you’d see they aren’t painted in much detail. They are just there to show how big the rest of the scene is.”
Other works include the cloudscape Dust and Spirit and Morning Shadows, Ranchos de Taos, which is an image of one of the most iconic churches in the Southwest, if not the world. “I’ve developed a real love for Taos. I really love the adobe and pueblos...I just adore it all. The church in Taos, though, it’s the most perfect building in the United States. It makes it hard to paint it because it’s been photographed millions of time from every angle,” he says. “But it has everything I love, including those big smooth organic forms.”
The church may have been photographed millions of times, and painted just as many times, but Johnson’s painting of the Ranchos de Taos church gets to the heart of why he admires Morandi: both artists are using the building blocks around them to tell different kinds of stories. Whether its bottles and vases or adobe and desert, the art is in the arrangement.
“I guess I feel like I have two opposing egos— one that loves the really vast sense of space and mass, and the other which is moved by simplicity and intimacy—the privacy of a personal world. I enjoy Morandi’s quiet, contemplative objects and the gentle dither of his brush in sort of the
opposite way I am drawn to Robert Motherwell’s monolithic shapes and dramatic tones,” Johnson says. “Eventually, I would really love to be able to combine those elements in the same painting. Sometimes I’m able to, but not often. I think the one I’m working on right now, of a pueblo and a mud oven, might be able to pull that off a little. We’ll see. A couple artists who I think were fantastic at doing so were Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth, and I’m a big fan of both of them as well. I have diverse interests in art, which doesn’t always make things easy.”
Combining the vast and the intimate is no small feat, but Johnson has figured it out in his own unique way.