The Times-Picayune, Arts and Events Section, 10/20/00

Behind the masks there lies. . . James Johnson's unsettling vision

By Doug MacCash Art critic

Texan James W. Johnson's paintings make us vaguely uncomfortable. There's something edgy and unsettling about them, but what?

Johnson says he began a series of portraits of children a few years ago while taking family photographs at a carnival. A young girl appeared out of the crowd and stood in front of him, obviously waiting to be photographed. She said nothing, just posed, until Johnson obliged by taking her picture. Then she scurried off. When he had the film developed, he was struck by the guilelessness of the child and the mystery of her sudden appearance. He transformed that snap shot into a large, photorealist painting. Then he went in search of other children, infants mostly, to photograph and paint.

He called that first group of subjects his "Human-Nature" series, and four such paintings are on display in his 17-piece exhibit at LeMieux Galleries. There are also several paintings from his subsequent "Dog-Nature" series which, as the name suggests, featured enlarged canines staring quizzically into the camera and thereby out of the canvas. There are two oversized cats and a handful of adults in Wonder Woman masks, clown masks and other disguises.

Part of the eeriness of Johnson's paintings is produced by the closeness of the subjects -- his huge babies, pets and maskers are way inside our personal space. There's also the odd twilight illumination of the bleak backgrounds. But mainly, the disquiet we feel is produced by a dichotomy that we as onlookers struggle to reconcile.

By enlarging his subjects 10 times their natural size, and painting them with as much detail, clarity and fidelity as possible, he gives us a huge amount of superficial visual information. Yet, his subjects remain clean slates. What is more inscrutable than the passive gaze of a cat or an infant? Yes, we can read anything we want to into their eyes, but the fact is we have no idea what's going on in their minds.

We say dogs are happy, proud, loyal, etc., but those are human conditions we project onto mute, animal behavior and appearance. And when we meet someone in a clown mask, should we assume they chose that particular disguise because it matched their buoyant personality or because it obscured their sadness? Looking at Johnson's portraits forces us to become fortunetellers. We strain to create a credible past, present and future out of a few visual clues and thin air.



Where: LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia St., 522-5988.

When: Mon-Sat, 10 a.m. to 5:30, through Oct 31.

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