950 Gallery shows work of artist on the brink of the big time

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barry johnson (apparently, johnson has an e e cummings thing going on and eschews the use of capital letters in the spelling of his name) moved to the region as part of the tech industry and was making a comfortable living at it.

Then, as if a lightbulb were switched on, he decided to become a visual artist. With a powerful sense of determination, johnson made himself into an artist – working at it all day, every day, with energy and focus. From the start of the endeavor, johnson pursued art as a serious career, working simultaneously on both the creative side and the nuts and bolts side. He began to create work and seek out places willing to show the work with equal vigor. He works out of a studio in Federal Way.

johnson has come remarkably far in a remarkably short amount of time. In just a handful of years, he has built up an impressive list of shows and has made a name for himself.

A one-man show of johnson’s work is now running at Tacoma’s 950 Gallery. Called “I’m F.I.N.E.,” the exhibit runs through Dec. 20. The show is a display of johnson’s paintings, but the artist’s addition of accents and quotes and a mural painted directly onto the gallery’s walls and columns transform the space into a holistic installation. Thematically, the show is meant to capture the essence of the club scene of the 80s and 90s, in which johnson grew up.

There are large portraits of young African American men and women done in pastel tones. Many of the figures are dressed in razzle-dazzle coats-of-many-colors (which bear an unfortunate resemblance to the wild sweaters sported by Bill Cosby in his role as Dr. Huckstable on the Cosby show).

These portraits of club-goers are both dynamic and dignified and suggest a kinship to the monumental portraits of Kehinde Wiley, although johnson does not attempt the photorealistic quality of Wiley. Some of the paintings feature two or three figures clustered together in ways reminiscent of configurations by Paul Gauguin.

I especially enjoyed a group of paintings of busy, colorful, semi-abstract interiors that bring to mind the work of Henri Matisse. A similarly colorful, busy mural wall of cartoon slugs is painted in an alcove of the gallery. In front of this is a platform upon which gallery visitors can stand to take selfies and pictures. The mural serves as a brilliant backdrop.

Not all of the paintings in the show are so light-hearted, however. There are a number of paintings of black men in which parts of the face or head are cut off by the edge of the canvas. In others, a face has been deliberately obscured by the use of materials attached to the canvas: red tape, chunks of pressboard or cloth fans, for example. These speak of a loss or negation of identity and seem to be in dialogue with or in sync with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The show includes a couple of johnson’s sketch books that are available for browsing, like a magician that wants to show the mechanics of how the “magic” works. He wants others to see that there is no great mystery to being an artist. All you have to do is begin to explore and work out your own ideas and practice your skills. The sketchbooks show the good, the bad and the ugly. There are brilliant and inspired drawings in ink. There are silly doodles. And there are excursions down blind alleys. (There are also crayon scribblings by johnson’s kids.) The sketchbooks show a mind continually at play and at work: continually exploring ideas. It is part of johnson’s task to show that art is not a thing done by an elite group of “talented” and uniquely creative individuals. Art is something that anyone can do. “Talent” is actually effort and practice. And creativity is something that everyone has. People just need faith in the validity of their own ideas. The real secret is that one idea leads to another. Pursuit of an idea that may seem simple or silly or insignificant can lead to other ideas that are multifaceted, deep and insightful.

If johnson has come so far in so brief a span, we might be on the brink of witnessing something big. In just the past few days, johnson opened his show at the 950 gallery, delivered a Ted Talk and created an interactive shoe installation at MoPOP for their history of hip-hop showcase. If johnson has the power to sustain the drive, great things lay ahead.

For more on Johnson, visit www.barryjohnson.co. For more on the 950 gallery, visit www.spaceworkstacoma.com/gallery.

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