Sunday, April 29, 2007
GEORGE & PHYLLIS JOHANSON
“Black Cat--Mountain is characteristic of the work of George Johanson in its capacity to engross us in its range of imagery and implication, of questions asked but not entirely answered. The human form, the animals, the vista of reimagined Portland, and the image of fire and volcano are all “familiar” and yet mysterious and in flux; the world is transformed and transforming. It is a world of shadows and fitful light. It is a world of perilous still life-- the arrangement of things that will fall, break, or start burning in a moment or two. The egg balanced on the yardstick extending off the edge of the table is such a still life -- tiny, precarious. Johanson’s work, one could say, is combustible. Tensions build to the breaking point and sometimes are released: cats launch, volcanoes erupt, eggs will surely topple and break.
“Johanson is the painter of inside and outside; of rooms and porches overlooking the city and its natural environs. His perspective, in the various meanings of the term, is urban. His home and studio are near the Vista Bridge in the West Hills of Portland, and many of his views are more or less from there, down over the Rose City and out toward the Cascades. In numerous paintings, certainly in Black Cat-- Mountain, Johanson refers to the Renaissance convention of the window -- the surface of the painting as a window opening onto a room as well as the rendering of a window within the painting in order to separate foreground domesticity (with women and men, cats, tables, cigarettes, fruit) from the world at large (with cities, mountains, catastrophes). Johanson’s work is magical (at times related specifically to American Magic Realist painting), Surreal (in the manner of European Surrealism), “neo-regional” though not regionalist in the traditional sense. Drawing on many sources, most importantly his own imaginative interior, Johanson fuses image and idea in ways that are ambiguous, “edgy” (a word Johanson often uses in talking about his work), provocative, frequently thrilling.”
-- “George Johanson, Image and Idea” by Roger Hull. Published by the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University and distributed by the University of Washington Press. 2006.
The above material is from a book meant to accompany a major retrospective exhibit of George’s work. I admire Roger Hull’s very high quality writing in this book since I’m interested in writing about art, though not this kind of art. Part of my intense pleasure in reading about George and his wife Phyllis, is that they embody the kind of life I once thought I could live: stable, focused, embedded in a community, contributing service, constantly delighted and engrossed in work of value. I never really found my way to that community, but it was through my short animal control career that I became friends with Phyllis and was drawn into the borders of their life. By that time the Western art world had become a hunting ground.
The painting above is on the cover of the book and the subjects are known to me. Mt. St. Helens blew up the year I was in seminary and Bob’s granddaughter died in a car accident. They seem related somehow, so I understand that George is finding equivalences and relationships among the things in the painting: ecological disaster, the city along the river, his own house porch as both a refuge and a vantage point, “woman” (Phyllis, possibly) as a dependable guardian and anchor, the many cats she rescues -- always passing through.
Phyllis was so earnest and diligent about “responsible pet ownership” that we (a small community of dedicated common-sense people) really made a difference in Portland. She invited me to dinner at that house just up the arroyo from the Vista Bridge, and the events were always like the kind of artists’ gatherings one reads about in books: brainy talk, hairy jokes, much wine and food, friendships that stretched back to the Mexican Quaker work camp where George and Phyllis first met and recognized each other as kindred spirits, marrying in a matter of weeks. When the table had cleared at the end, they brought out a container of odd-shaped wooden blocks and we took turns adding them to a tower on the tablecloth with the only goal being height and the eventual excitement of collapse. When it was dark, a family of raccoons came, looking for leftovers.
Sometimes I was a lone guest, eating “Diet for a Small Planet” style, which is the sort of eating to which I’ve returned. There were so many small ways that I think about now, not the least being Phyllis’ early morning habit of walking up into the West Hills along a trail. The cats-in-residence always formed a line behind her -- I remember as many as a dozen of them -- all trotting along in single file with tails high as banners. I’ve never known anyone else who had an entourage like that except a mother cat.
George, I might have known, is Swedish and Finn, which gives him a kind of practical openness to experience that is often disconcerting to others. For instance, one morning early the phone rang while they were still abed. Phyllis answered. It was a dirty phone call. The fellow breathed, “I’m going to tell you exactly what your husband ought to do to you...” All Phyllis heard was “husband.” “It’s for you, George,” she said and handed him the receiver.
George listened carefully and asked, “Does that really work? Have you had success with it?” Click.
For the past decades the two of them have been rising early and going down to the Willamette River to scull. Frosty-headed and rosy-cheeked, there they are down at the docks in the mist with the gulls shrieking at them. They claim to be doing it for their good health, but I think they do it because it is beautiful and an adventure, and because they love being where they are, doing what they can to keep it all alive.
Their son Aaron lives just a bit along the hill with his wife Van Le and small daughter Sonja, who has her own easel next to George’s. The family life is so vital, so mutual, so related to other lives and places while being rooted in one place, that it cannot help but produce fine work, deep value, and joyful rewards. This CAN be done. It needs demonstrating, since we see so many opposite examples, so much art as an excuse for chaos and opportunism. This is not something George and Phyllis deny. They simply create an alternative. I'm hoisting my tail and following up the path.