Sally Porter's Web Log
Jasper Johns & Porter’s Meta Expressionism 
Thursday, July 1, 2010, 05:12 PM - General
When Jasper Johns began his career, he wished to separate himself from emotion based painting such as abstract expressionism, choosing flags, targets, numbers, etc. as his subjects. He supposed these objects void of expressive content. What he didn’t realize was all art is an artifact of the self. When the painter chooses an object as subject, the object becomes the person’s voice. Art is objectification of the self; you produce what you are. The work of Jasper Johns is no exception. Johns chose to depict his early subjects with reserve, logical contemplation, and codification. These early choices are as legitimate as his later ones in which the work is created with greater complexity, flamboyance, passion, and openness. His work was and is a reflection of his internal development, the meta expressionist culmination of will, idea, and soul.

While professing an aversion to expressionism, his art was saying something else. His early art was a huge, flashing billboard of self involving the depiction of a single object in which he poured every ounce of creativity into the image of one flag or one target or one type of pattern. He verbally denounced expression, soul and emotion, while visually revealing his true self in the work. Growing up in the South, his choice to exploit the flag image reflects his ever-present awareness of the American Civil War. He was even named after a relative who raised the American flag in the Revolutionary War. He professed his use of the flag as an object “the mind already knows”, but he had great emotional connection to this object.

In his earlier pieces, he also heavily engaged in a metaphysical discourse of self. His consistent choice of conceptually charged subjects such as the targets, numbers, patterns, and maps reveal his unnamed intuitive obsession with the Platonic idea of an underlying order.

Furthermore, when viewing the earlier work, one detects a tendency towards deception. Johns is always hiding things. He buries the printed word repeatedly using printed newspaper under layers of encaustic. In Target with Four Faces (1955), he refuses to reveal his entire face, disallowing the viewer access to his eyes, the window of the soul. In Drawer (1955), he creates a closed drawer, daring us to look at the contents. He plays cat and mouse, saying look at what you can’t see. This method tantalizes and keeps us wanting to know more.

While the early imagery is stark, the lush surfaces of his stencil and collage pieces reveal a rich, textural sensibility, even when done sans color as in White Numbers, 1958. When he does choose to use color, as in False Start (1959) it is a controlled riot of brilliant red, yellow, and blue, juxtaposing the loose splotches of color with the crisp edges of the stenciled words red, yellow and blue. His crosshatch paintings are just a sample of his various explorations in pattern. While intellectually engaging us on a search to formulize the pattern, we are beguiled by its decorative beauty. By simplifying the image, his pictures envelope the viewer alternately in multiverses of texture, color, and pattern. As his work progresses, he engages us with multiple subjects, multiple canvases, and multiple pictures, all within the same piece. The sense is one of infinite layers of self, waiting to be explored. Infinity is an important concept in meta expressionism. Reality does not exist in neat discrete bundles; existence is a continuum of infinities.

Although he claimed to take his art in a direction away from the abstract expressionists, he managed to expand rather than negate their process. His exploration of pattern in the cross hatch paintings such as in Dancers on a Plane (1980-81) and Between the Clock and the Bed (1981) are breathtaking. He carries out his exploration of self by presenting works such as Ventriloquist (1983), where he juxtaposes a rich variety of images, both blatant and obscured, side by side. His decision to pursue the Jungian shadow in his Seasons paintings done in 1985 and 1986 allow us to appreciate him through a prism of complex psychological references, the equivalent of waking dream analysis.

In his current work, he returns to a more purified approach, using simplified color (even gray) or geometric patterns. In his watercolor and pencil piece, Bushbaby, 2003, he is juxtaposing various patterns of harlequin diamonds of red, green, yellow, black and gray, with areas of polkadots in similar colors. On the left third of the painting, he separates passages with pure geometric triangles and rectangles of black with a thin, uneven outline of white. In the upper right corner, he includes a “picture in a picture”, a smaller variation of the larger painting. He throws the viewer off balance by including his own idiosyncratic images of wooden lattice strips, convincingly depicted with a string hanging from a small screw in the wood. The image of the string trails off the edge of the picture plane proper, taking us into a new space. This flourish is typical of the genius of Jasper Johns, who continues to amaze as an innovator who redefined the meaning of expressionistic painting, his disavowed father.

Sally Porter

Sally Porter Gallery ... ll/all/all

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