Thursday, 23 January 2014


Jasper Johns (1955) White Flag [Encaustic, oil, newsprint, and charcoal on canvas], 198.9 x 306.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns is an American painter, printmaker and sculptor whose close study and interest of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein infuses Johns’s work with a mode of mediation. Within Johns’s sculpture lies a silence, the objects are mute and the paintings are a language communicating with a melted wax surface which sets the past in the present to seal it for the future.

Johns’s canvases act almost as a soundboard for emotion to relay voices of former times, permeating the canvas to create a real-world dialogue. The restricted achromatic palette is a salient feature of Johns’s work adding to the pictorial language which battles with a conscious sense of control within the ambiguities inherent within abstraction. Johns’s engagement with memory serves almost as a recurrent motif working with an iconography highlighting a repressed sense of expression. However Johns’s work swerves away from Abstract Expressionism and into its antithesis, refracting Abstract Expressionisms sublime gestural brushstrokes derived from deep mediation to create a structured syntax of layers of found imagery.

There is a strong suggestion of a presence and absence embedded within the tangible objects which chart evidence of existence. Johns’s collaged newspaper surface serves to exist as a record of yesterday’s news as well as to delineate the surface to remould the canvas to form a backdrop and window to the past. Hiding the memory of images from the past, Johns describes the past and paints on top of it, to paint a picture of the present. The perceptual qualities of Johns’s painted and collaged surface raises questions about the very existence of painting, taking it out of its comfortable reign on a two dimensional surface and into the dimensions of an un-easy present day.

These ready-made or found newspaper clippings add a dimension to Johns’s work that an artist cannot physically create. The clippings offer snippets of history that simply can’t be falsified with paint. Johns’s paintings therefore don’t attempt to mimic, replace or even rejuvenate reality, it is reality, a window to yesterday’s news and yesterday’s world. Painting the past in a present day silence on a tactile surface set in an often restricted achromatic palette concurs with Bruce Nauman’s view that; “Thought is not coloured. Colour adds nothing to thought. Thought is black, white and gray.”

Jasper Johns (1960) Flashlight [Bronze and glass] actual size.  Walker Art Center, Minneapolis © Jasper Johns & Walker Art Center

Constructing sculptures of everyday objects in actual size, sets the objects into the appearance of verisimilitude. To further this sense of truth to form, Johns’s paintings of; flags, targets and numbers are “things the mind already knows” (Johns) and in a sense are ready-made. Numbers exist as philosophically abstract entities within compositions extracting imagery from its primary context and to recycle a context to exist now. 

Jasper Johns (1960) 0 through 9 [Lithograph] 62.2 x 48.1 cm © 2014 Jasper Johns

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