Bau is Back in the Haus
Medford Johnston and Jim Waters at the High Museum
by Deanna Sirlin
There are two mid-career solo shows of Atlanta artists sitting next to each other on the fourth floor of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The fact that both of these artists have been living and working here for decades is significant. But even more appealing is the placement of these two bodies of work almost side by side by the curator Michael Rooks. Placing these two artists together in the Museum while still separating them in distinct exhibitions and spaces encourages the viewer to compare them with each other. Seeing one and then the other with the memory of the first still hanging in your brain brings you to a significant critical place to analyze and contemplate both.
Medford Johnston is absolutely a modernist, a very old school and last century modernist when these works were made (the two bodies of his work on display were made in1988 and 1990). These works reflect Johnson’s interest in form, geometric abstraction, and in particular reflect the work and teachings of Bauhaus artist and maestro Josef Albers. Johnston traveled to East Africa and was inspired by looking at figures of Masai shepherds holding their traditional walking staffs. The motifs in these paintings are angular zigzag patterns abstracted from images of Masai in profile. The vocabulary of linearly defined shapes remains the same across these vertical canvases, all the same size, both freeing and constricting the artist. Variations come in color, all of which have equal value, and in composition, the particular organization of the shapes on the canvas. Johnston’s hues are uniformly handsome, clean, saturated and solid.
In an earlier parallel to Johnston’s journey to Africa, Albers and his spouse, the artist Anni Albers, traveled to Mexico and there found abstraction in the quilts and textiles of the native people. “Mexico is truly the promised land for abstract art,” Anni and Josef Albers wrote in 1936 to Wassily Kandinsky, “for here it has existed for thousands of years.” Both Albers made artwork using geometric patterns, but it is particularly Josef’s Homage to the Square that has a relationship to Johnston’s work. Like Johnson, Albers intentionally limited the vocabulary of these works, restricting himself to a repeated and repainted composition of four or five squares placed inside one another, using different hues and degrees of saturation to produce the effect of a space receding away from the viewer. According to the Albers Foundation, he made well over 2500 versions of this composition. Whereas Albers used color as an expression of light (he was originally trained as a stain glass artist) Johnston uses color to maintain the composition and hold the surface of the painting. Among his materials Johnston lists modeling paste, which is a kind of textured glue. I believe the artist used this material to raise the surface of the works the tiniest bit, then engraved the composition into it before painting producing a container-like shape for each color. This lifts the color off the surface of the canvas and gives it a punch and verve it might not otherwise have had.
Jim Waters also is enamored of certain forms and shapes that he uses over and over again in his installations. I remember the first works I saw of his-- they were the typographic letter O cut out and placed in different ways on the wall as well as coated with different colors of glitter: one pink, one blue one green, and so on. The shape felt both found and delighted over and, of course, O is such a provocative letter. We express so many different emotions with O: curiosity, surprise, and both pleasure and displeasure.
Waters’s exhibition at the High is titled Splendor, a word that calls up many different things, but in a sly provocation, the artist refuses to reveal his associations since all of the works are Untitled. The large installation of 45 sixteen-point stars covers an entire wall in a three-line grid. These lovely and unusual stars refer to the compass star found in government buildings, often embedded in a terrazzo floor, as well as in quilts and ninja weapons. As you walk or sit by this wall you can see it change with the light of the museum; the colors move in and out of their spectral rainbow. While all the shapes are the same, they change with every movement.
Waters’s drawings are made with applied (poured) resin and glue mixed with colored glitter. They sit happily on the page in their glittery looseness. Each page features a single shape, here a plant there a gestural “O”. The drawing gallery is a terrific counterpoint to the installation; each page is different and offers a small peek into the artist’s thought process.
Splendor: The Work of Jim Waters
Medford Johnston: Counterpoise
Through June 8, 2014
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section. She was most recently invited by Pavel Althamer to participate in the Draftsmen's Congress at the New Museum in New York City.
All images courtesy of the artists and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.