James W.Johnson
One man's searing visions of hell
exhibition review 12/19/97

By Mike Daniel / The Dallas Morning News

In this state, it must be hell painting what Lubbock artist James W. Johnson paints. But in essence, hell is precisely what he paints; the personal, erotic, emotional, physical hell that he says resides in most of us, though we hide it, deny it or suppress it.

Mr. Johnson's controversial mid- to large-scale canvases are on display at Dallas' newest contemporary space, gallery: untitled.

They escape below the conservative, orderly sheen of West Texas life (or most life, actually); the settings are simple and clean Americana, though the actions, sometimes conveyed with a dark but biting sense of humor, are anything but. The human-headed chicken carcasses; casually shy but suggestively lewd poses; looks of temptation and want; and mutated, ribbonesque body parts all look possible, and perhaps common, in Mr. Johnson's vision of Lubbock.

Heavenly they're not, but despite the subject matter, Mr. Johnson's works are definitely distinct, technically stunning and worth a viewing, if you check your inhibitions at the door.

The nudes, flat Texas neighborhoods and fanciful figurative aberrations are certainly not intellectually charged on the outside. Blatant sexual connotation and carnal tension practically punch viewers in the gut. But Mr. Johnson intends some very real lessons to be gleaned from the emotional and moral nakedness he assumes as the works' creator; modern artistic sensibility is completely abandoned.

His works are executed with a keen brush; the known workaholic is considered by some to be the state's best living figurative painter. Mr. Johnson, who collaborated with the late counterculture author Charles Bukowski, has a large West Coast following and has exhibited his works in more than 150 shows in the last decade.

But it's been almost seven years since his work has been seen by Dallas audiences. At the show's opening on Dec. 6, many looked, gagged and left, says gallery director Dina Light. But some laughter was heard, some jaws were slackened and some points were made as well.

It's Mr. Johnson's rebellion, his anti-romanticism, his hell that affects viewers' minds like that. Just make sure your gut is taut.

DETAILS: New work by James W. Johnson is on display through Jan. 11 at gallery: untitled, 3603 Parry. Hours: Wednesday through Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m. and by appointment. Free. Call (214) 821-1685.

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