If you stand with Mitchell Johnson in front of one of his paintings, and listen to him describe its colors, shapes and lines, and their interplay within the confines of the canvas' finite space, you just might believe that the rectangle before you is alive. And that's precisely what he wants.
Colors are "always talking to each other." A painting "has its own voice." Shapes, light and shade breathe in harmony or in contrast on their shared canvas, altering in unexpected ways what you see — if you're paying attention.
And as you let your eyes wander through the painting — stepping back, then shifting your position to the left or the right, and then moving in for a close-up view — Johnson might urge you to "see better. There's always a chance to see better."
That conviction is at the core of the artist's drive to take up his brushes every day in his warehouse studio a short distance from his Menlo Park home. He wants those who view his paintings, and art in general, to sharpen their way of seeing things — on the canvas and beyond.
But Johnson, 54, also aspires to continually develop his own ability, through the act of creating, to see acutely and expansively.
Johnson, whose works are in private collections and in museums across the country and abroad, opens an exhibition of what he calls "color- and shape-driven paintings" — 25 of them — on Wednesday, Jan. 30, in downtown Menlo Park. To do so, he's borrowing a friend's gallery at 883 Santa Cruz Ave. through Feb. 12.
The show, "Far Away So Close: Selected Paintings 1988-2018," will feature 10 early works that he is donating to museums in the United States and Europe, and 15 more recent paintings inspired by scenes of San Francisco, New York, New England, Europe and Asia, Johnson says.
It will be his first gallery exhibition in seven years. Up to now, locals have been able to see his work "in person" only by visiting Flea Street Cafe on Alameda de las Pulgas in Menlo Park, just blocks away from where Johnson lives with his wife, author and former restaurateur Donia Bijan, and their son, Luca.
Johnson says that Luca, a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School who is leaving for Tufts University in late summer, was one of the reasons he wanted to hold a local exhibition. "I really wanted to have a show before Luca moves away," Johnson said during an interview in his natural-light-filled Redwood City studio. "I just wanted to do something with him," he explained, adding that the two will take on hanging the paintings and tending to other details during the two-week event.
'Falling into' a painting
His other motive for staging the exhibit, Johnson says, is to showcase a painting he created in 2012-14, "Cape Porpoise-Cap Ferret," which he created based on impressions from visits to the village in Maine (Cape Porpoise) and Cap Ferret in western Bordeaux, France. It's a large work — a 78-by-120-inch oil on canvas that can be seen in miniature in Johnson's 2014 art book, "Color as Content."
The painting mingles figurative and nonrepresentational styles, with images of water, structures and a boat, for example, defying the norms of coloration and dimensional representation.
Why did he favor "Cape Porpoise-Cap Ferret" as the centerpiece for the new exhibit? "It's critical that people see the Cape Porpoise painting in person because the large scale of the color is what is making the painting interesting and profound," he responds. "The scale of (the painting) makes its colors and shapes something you fall into like a large abstract painting by Clifford Still or Rothko.
"Despite your attempts to recognize the scene or identify the place and time of day, the distilled colors and shapes at that scale refuse to behave and become picturesque and simply the components of the scene."
Looking back and ahead
Born in South Carolina and raised in New York and Virginia, Johnson earned a degree at Randolph-Macon College, where he studied with painter Ray Berry. After college, he continued his studies with important art-world figures, including Paul Resika, Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, and Leland Bell.
He had been painting for many years — one of a minority of artists who met with enough commercial success to earn a living at it — when in 2005 he saw an exhibit featuring works by Josef Albers and Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, Italy. He was struck by those artists' sense of color and composition, and considers this experience a turning point in his own work, he says.
In a statement about the Menlo Park exhibition opening this week, Johnson notes that what he saw in Bologna influenced changes in his own compositions and brushwork, representing a "shift away from European landscape and loose brushy paint application in favor of areas of flat color and distinct shapes."
So affected by the Bologna experience he was that he applied for, and won, a position as artist in residence at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut, in 2006-07.
In the same period, he also was influenced by painting trips to Truro on Cape Cod, where images of a number of his paintings in the Menlo Park exhibit originated.
Johnson travels widely for artistic inspiration, including to France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia. In 2015, he was accepted as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, where he painted and did research on another of his favorite painters, Camille Corot, he said in an earlier interview.
Johnson's 2005 turning point shouldn't be confused as a stopping point. As reflected in his work since that time, and in conversations about his artistic vision and explorations, he believes that stasis is antithetical to creative endeavor.
In a gallery catalog from a 2006 exhibition in Santa Monica, he included a quotation by artist Willem de Kooning: "We must change to remain ourselves." The quote, he said in a recent email, "is important because painting and drawing help you break down your own limitations and prejudices; it unravels your conditioning to certain answers.
"The goal is to see better and be more sensitive not to abandon yourself. So you inevitably change as you acquire insight, but you're not abandoning, you're expanding. It is still you."
Johnson referred to a demonstration he offered this writer a few days before in his studio, in which he placed a small piece of canvas with a gray splotch of paint next to another, more brightly colored fragment. Then, he placed the gray sample next to a more subtle color. The effect was eye-opening.
"The gray you saw in my studio that was completely different in two different contexts is a reminder that lots of questions have numerous answers," he said. "Truly realizing that means that you have changed, but you are still yourself."
Which brings us back to the imperative: See better.
"Seeing better is everything," Johnson insists. "And yes, I believe paying attention, extended looking, slow-looking in a museum and in your day-to-day life heightens your awareness that you are constantly defining and organizing your surroundings."
When we realize that a complex color in a painting can be gray next to one color, and green next to another, or a "dark" one moment and a "light" in another, we can understand that strict definitions can work against true understanding, Johnson explains.
"We assign meaning to space, color, scale all day long so that we can get out of the door, get things done and be at work on time," he says. "But we get things wrong all day — we misunderstand other people, we misjudge situations, we scale the moon and many things in different ways and different moments depending on context.
"Changing context leads to different interpretations in taste, lightness, value, temperature ... . Everything we taste, see, feel and touch is a product of context and comparison. The example that color fools us or deceives us so readily is a reminder that we are most likely being fooled and deceived by other moments in the day.
"A painting of 'Cape Cod' might be a commentary on how we see instead of a reminder of a fantastic vacation."
If you go
"Far Away So Close" opens Wednesday, Jan. 30, at 883 Santa Cruz Ave. in downtown Menlo Park. Doors are open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day through Feb. 12. Artist Mitchell Johnson will be present to discuss his work.