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Eric Johnson: Legacy A 30 Retrospective

Main Gallery

Craig Kauffman, Dewain Valentine, John Paul Jones, Tony DeLap, Tom Jenkins

East Gallery

Lisa Barleson: 3M

Jewel Box

Jennifer Faist: The Deepest Tales Stay Etched

Well Fargo Gallery

Andrew Benson

Education Gallery

R.Nelson Parrish: Meditations on NorCal

Top of Stairs

Charles Dickson: Legacy A Lifetime Survey

South Gallery

Legacy  takes a close look at how artists spanning different generations influence each other and their communities. Legacy is defined as something passed down by a predecessor; in art, that “something” can range from material techniques to inner wisdom. Legacy is the fruit of passion and dedication that overflows from an individual into the lives of many—legacy is inspiring.

Eric Johnson: LEGACY A 30 Year Retrospective 

Science and engineering have become so complex, even fantastical, that sometimes I forget the very simple, seemingly miraculous, fact – that an equation of symbols can describe, even predict, the phenomena that define and shape the physical world; that there are underlying functions of some dark math waiting to be discovered. Yet, math is only an abstract construct we imposed on the surrounding world. Things are not actually as rigid and perfect as the models that describe them. There's always some deviation, deformity, some slight departure from perfect, however infinitesimal. The “grid” doesn’t really exist.

But this can be experienced and explored just as much through art. By looking at any of Eric Johnson’s sculptures individually, this is readily apparent. But looking through the sketches, studies, models, and fully-finished works spanning over thirty years, any visitor of Eric's retrospective will develop a heightened sensitivity to the breadth of ideas that influence an artist, and how they develop and coalesce into an interwoven body of work. How the nascent interest is reiterated and refined. The scope of what challenges and influences an artist in the making of an individual piece is not always apparent from a single work of art, maybe not even to the artist himself. However, stretching out an artist’s work over thirty years models the enormity of the subconscious process at any given moment in art-making. Because at any given moment, you don’t actually know everything you know.  

Eric's work is great for a retrospective for this very reason. From the first piece of the retrospective’s thirty-year span, Two Towers, you can see ideas that still recur in his most recent works. First, it introduces to the rigid, grid-conforming structures of math (i.e., the rectangular prism), the most minimal distortion to ordered form. It also prompts the viewer to ask about the material – how was this twist formed? Was it carved that way or was it shaped by torsion? Is the process the same for metal as it is for wood? Even early works that seem unrelated to his more recent and developed pieces share common threads or ideas. For example, his early drawings of tea cups, suspended mid-fall, demonstrate both Eric's interest in the laws of nature (in this case, gravity) and the properties of materials (fragility). As Eric became more eloquent with resin, wood and paint, his ability to interlock and weave multiple concepts through a single work bloomed as well. 

The more recent individual pieces in Eric's oeuvre evoke a variety of forms and ideas. In his composite resin "hearts," allusions range from weathered seashell to solar flare; they look sturdy as vertebra, but delicate as porcelain dish. You also get a fantastic sense of the material itself. As the disks narrow and taper, they reveal how the material behaves under varying thickness. And it takes a master of a material to enable a layman to explore it with commensurate depth. Other works, such as Pasopna, look ossified, yet wilted; organic, yet shaped by a grid; warped, yet structurally sound. Others have even more curious combinations: carapace and fluid-dynamic structures, horns and airplane spars.

MOAH’s proximity to the aerospace industry makes this a great place to contemplate these pairings of manufactured and organic, mathematical theory and physical surface. Southern California, too, is an appropriate place to watch Eric infuse

Southern California’s Light-and-Space and Finish Fetish movements with biology and deviation, almost like he’s moving backwards, stretching the immaculate surface over equation and bone.

-Andi Campognone, Curator

Craig Kauffman, Dewain Valentine, John Paul Jones, Tony DeLap, Tom Jenkins

Johnson’s exhibition is paired by a group exhibition showcasing work made by his artistic mentors, DeWain Valentine, Tony DeLap, Craig Kauffman, Tom Jenkins and John Paul Jones. DeWain Valentine is best known for using industrial materials such as fiberglass, Plexiglass, cast acrylic and polyester resin to produce large scale sculptures that reflect and distort the light around them. Tony DeLap’s work is known for its illusionistic qualities, influenced by his interest in magic. Craig Kauffman paintings are known for their openness and dynamic use of line and his sculptures are known for their experimental materials and vivid color. Tom Jenkins makes paintings that are drawn using spinning tops and various hand-made mechanical drawing devices. John Paul Jones was a painter, printmaker and sculptor widely recognized for both his figurative and abstract work. All these artists played an important role in the development of Johnson’s professional and personal life.

Lisa Bartleson: Q & A with Andi Campognone, MOAH Manager/Curator

What is your relationship with artist Eric Johnson? / How did you first meet?

Bartleson: Eric is one of my dearest friends and confidants; he is family. Our first encounter was very funny – especially knowing Eric as well as I do now. The first thing he said to me was, “Looks like you swallowed a five dollar bill and it broke out in pennies,” and I thought, “Who is this crazy artist?” 

It wasn’t long after this encounter that I learned that this crazy artist was Eric Johnson well known for his mastery of resin and mold-making.  I was at a place in my career where I wanted to learn how to work with resin. I asked a mutual friend if she would introduce us. 

I arrived at Eric’s studio with a specific agenda, to learn how to create objects using resin.  My first lesson with Eric and likely most important was that there really isn’t room for agendas – particularly when you are learning a new material. I learned that there needed to be openness to the creating process, to surrender any expectations. 

As a mentor, Eric gave me just enough guidance so that I didn’t fall on my face too hard. For me, this was perfect. The real learning came from mistakes that I made – with the two of us trying to figure a path forward. 

After mentoring with Eric, I left the studio with far more skills and knowledge than when I started. More importantly, I was left with a better understanding of how to be an artist –what it means to be an artist and how to stand on two feet and be vulnerable in your thinking and strong in your practice at the same time.   

How has Johnson influenced your studio practice?   

Bartleson: Often times when I am sanding or having a problem with a piece, I think WWED (what would Eric do)?  The answer usually is that I have to pause, go back to 320 sandpaper and rework the surface until it is perfect and ready for the next level. 

Something that a lot of folks may not know about Eric is that he is fiercely driven. I always try to channel this energy while preparing for exhibitions.

Jennifer Faist: Q & A with Andi Campognone, MOAH Manager/Curator

What is your relationship with artist Eric Johnson? / How did you first meet?

Faist: Eric and I first met through another artist when I attended a show of his work at Simayspace in San Diego in 1996.  At the time, I was the gallery director for Susan Street Fine Art in Solano Beach and was working to bring a traveling group exhibition called, “The New Structuralists,” to the gallery.  Eric was one of the artists in that show, and I got to know him and his work.  We remained in touch and followed each other’s work in the ensuing years.  In 2004, I curated a group exhibition at ANDLAB, “Suspension,” which included his work, and in 2005, we were in a two-person show together in Palm Springs entitled, “Less a Thing...”  From August, 2006 to April, 2009, I shared Eric’s studio in San Pedro.  My husband and I were living in the loft, and I had half of the storefront area for studio space.  Eric was using the warehouse area for his studio space, and we shared the resin booth in the yard.

How has Johnson influenced your studio practice?

Faist: Eric’s studio was the largest space that I had ever worked in.  There was room to pin up color swatches and pattern studies.  I could hang finished paintings on the walls with room to stand back and look and still have plenty of room for my work table and drying racks.  It allowed me to think bigger and make some larger work.  Sharing a studio also meant having another artist to bounce ideas off of and get feedback on my paintings.  During my time there, Eric was working on “The Maize Project,” so I got to see his casting processes in person for an extended period of time.  The social aspect and personal connections made during casting parties and studio visits were also influential.  I even had the opportunity to meet some of the trailblazers of “California Light and Space” through Eric, like DeWain Valentine and Craig Kauffman.

How does this influence manifest itself in your work?

Faist: I think the reason we made good studio mates is that we shared an affinity for resin Finish Fetish artwork, painting/sculpture hybrids and an analogous layering process.  Eric exposed me to different kinds of pigments like those used in the automotive industry.  I think that allowed me to feel freer to use more metallic and interference pigments in my paint layering process than I had before.

Andrew Benson: Q & A with Andi Campognone, MOAH Manager/Curator

What is your relationship with artist Eric Johnson?

Benson: I worked for Eric as a studio assistant from roughly 1997 to 2000, starting in his Santa Monica studio through the build-out of his first San Pedro studio. At the time I was 17 and had run away from the desert to figure what my purpose was in the world. Eric was as much a mentor, surrogate father and friend as he was my boss --  I even slept on his couch for some time when my precarious living situations fell through. 

How has Johnson influenced your studio practice?

Benson: My time working with Eric impressed upon me a specific approach to materials and tools that I still carry through my practice even though my work is now primarily digital video and animation.  With resin, a synthetic material that carries with it a chemical background and accepted practice -- Eric developed a style of working that had little to do with the instruction labels but developed organically from years of handling, watching and feeling the material.  On any given piece, throughout the work, we would engineer makeshift jigs, contraptions and tools to make the work possible.  The way that Eric built surface color from the outside in was an approach I had never seen before and it was stunning. Every sculpture was the result of this process that was as much magic as it was chemistry, engineering and practical labor.  I learned the way that a radial sander feels in my hand when it's doing the right thing, how to hold steady a slippery piece of hard resin polished to a frosted glass surface while the spinning machine in my other hand removed any imperfections. The best comparison I can think of for the work is that of an artisanal bread maker, learning the art of kneading, fermentation, shaping the dough and knowing through practice what it needs to be absolutely amazing.

How does this influence manifest itself in your work?

Benson: For my own working process, I've primarily chosen video and animation created with digital tools, but the way I think of the materiality of digital media owes a great deal to the formative years with Eric.  I create my work by tweaking, adjusting and manipulating not just pixels, but the processes that generate and propagate them.  I spend a great deal of time thinking about and attempting to reimagine how a digital representation is put together, what are all the processes involved and how many times it gets translated along the way.  I've learned just enough hard graphics science to dig deeper into these processes, but the core of the work is in the intuitive chasing after the material, finding something that works even when I don't understand it and building tools around those magical results. The quest to feel and manipulate your mysterious medium and to communicate through these means is a rare approach for electronic media in an age of highly polished CGI and slick production, but it's in my veins at this point. 

R. Nelson Parrish: Q & A with Andi Campognone, MOAH Manager/Curator 

What is your relationship with artist Eric Johnson?

Nelson: My relationship with Eric Johnson is strictly through myth, legend and reputation. I first became aware of his work through the Maize Project when it exhibited at the Torrance Art Museum in 2008. I had recently completed my graduate program and was amazed at the modular production of the work contrasted with his ability to create stunning, unique pieces. I didn’t think it was possible to make stand-alone pieces, in multiples, using mold production. More importantly, I was impressed how the Maize Project was community based, as there is a key component of including all types of people to collaborate in the making of the work. Both the community of collaborators and the modular production, in my mind, are the hallmarks of the piece.

I again saw the Maize Project at William Turner Gallery 2012 and was reminded of modular production. It directly influenced me in creating #100 (1A – 20E) and #105 (Light Over the Pacific). Both pieces are comprised of over 90 smaller pieces that are modular and synergetic in nature.

How has Johnson influenced your studio practice?

Nelson: Possibly the biggest influence of Johnson’s work on my practice is the engineering of his work. I have never been that precise or mechanical in the fabrication of my work. In the past, my process has been more of a “cowboy up” mentality. Just do it then figure out how to do it better, later. The more and more I engage with Johnson’s work, the more I understand how well engineered and planned out his pieces are -- there is beauty in that. More importantly, I realize that while focusing equally on engineering and planning, as well as the art, one can make far superior pieces than just shooting from the hip and grinding it out. In the end, it is a much better system.

How does this influence manifest itself in your work? Conceptually? 

Nelson: This influence has affected the newest progression of my work immensely. As I switched to a bio based resin, have needed to fabricate molds and am now using aerospace aluminum as core material, all of this requires massive amounts of engineering and scheduling. Johnson and his means of production have influenced my workflow. Constantly pushing materials, tools and boundaries in order to get it all right and all done on time. One could say that it is artisanal fabrication and manufacturing, in the best way possible. To have an idea; how something should look and feel sometimes takes years before it is executed properly. That requires a lot of quiet tenacity and patience. I can see that in Eric’s work and it is inspirational.

Conceptually, I am a big color and motion guy. I love the way Johnson’s work takes simple pigment and hue yet while static, makes it flow through form and shape -- simple, elegant and stunning.

Charles Dickson: Legacy, A Lifetime Survey 

Charles Dickson is consumed with how things work in a mechanical, creative, spiritual and political context.  As a Sculptor he embraces many mediums, he explores the nature of the materials he uses in order to understand and challenge their properties in traditional and unique applications. At the core of this process Dickson inquires, “How do I learn to speak through the materials, to discover the truth about the materials and express the beauty of my artistic vision?”

Dickson’s obsession with finding the truth of a form has been documented in his 45 year homage to the African American woman.  Rather than work from an imagined form, he realized early in his career, that he had to undress it, to uncover the truth of its essence. Dickson’s work with black nudes was also the precursor for a much larger artistic dialogue on the politics of beauty and how the consequences of slavery reverberated in contemporary society that has extended throughout his entire career.

Dickson states, “This dialogue propelled me to immerse myself into the artistic heritage of Africa, searching for the language, tools and symbols, to recreate and recover the enormous spiritual influence and indigenous beauty this tradition has had on the world.  It has also encouraged me to develop works reflecting the unique circumstances of the African American experience that traces back to its African origins.”

Charles Dickson is a self-taught artist born in 1947 in Los Angeles, CA.  He has public works of art at the Watts Towers, Los Angeles Metro Rail Green Line in El Segundo, Hope and Faith Park in South Los Angeles and the City of Costa Mesa Performing Arts Complex, among others.  He is currently an artist in residence at the Watts Towers Arts Center Campus and the Caretaker of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia with LACMA’s preservation program.  He is also working with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust and Offices of The Trust in Public Land LA River Center to create sculptures within the community. Dickson lives and works in South Central Los Angeles, CA.

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