Chronicle arts reviews 2-6-98



Holy 8 Ball Studios,

through February 28


Two things are immediately apparent with James Johnson's paintings: They are executed by a man with exceptional talent as a painter, and they serve as an obvious metaphorical pressure valve for his highly charged emotions. Put these two components together and you get a complex web of expressionist images wrought with technical grace.

Johnson's intricately detailed, mechanically fine technique has earned him the deserved reputation as one of Texas' best figurative painters, and this show's amazingly lifelike paintings confirm his stature. He devotes as much fine-tuned attention to the shadows cast by a woman's mass of curly tendrils as to the etched lines formed by her pinched lips, achieving a remarkable realness that is at once hypnotic and disconcerting for the viewer.

The emotions and situations explored in the paintings are nothing new: love, betrayal, lust, fear. Yet Johnson achieves a rare, gut-wrenching earnestness that sets his work apart from the average collection of emotional-roller-coasters-on-canvas. Johnson's sentiments are real, believable, and in your face, as though you can hear these screaming scorned lovers and feel the seductive lure of the scantily clad women.

This is the stuff of Johnson's work: the timeless exploration of sensuous women and bitter exes. Women in various states of sentiment (and nakedness) appear in almost every work, sometimes with an air of disdain, as with the eye-rolling gal in Couched Women With Phone, and sometimes looking demonic, like the eyeless woman in Abandoned Church. Often they are sultry and inviting, as with the relaxed woman on a huge, brilliantly crimson couch in Couched Woman With Melon. The furniture's plush, velvet texture and the woman's warm, come-hither countenance make this a thoroughly sensual piece, rivaling any form of less sublime erotica.

Johnson has frequently been criticized over the years for his work – mainly by feminists, viewing his portrayal of women as bitchy sex objects or heartless vamps. These images undoubtedly exist in his paintings, but they are balanced by equal senses of awe of and reverence for the female psyche and, of course, a fascination with the female form. If anything, many of his pieces have a self-deprecating quality, with Johnson depicting himself as a mere simpleton among the complex workings of these women. --Cari Marshall