Every once in a while, I see a group of work that stops me in my tracks. The first painting by London-based artist Nicholas Johnson's that I saw was Underfoot VI, and there was an audible, "Oh my," before I proceeded to try to unearth every painting he's made available online. At first, a riot of color, a kind of cosmic explosion. Then the title evokes a ground surface of some kind, and then the colors and forms begin to take a more earthly quality, like pine needles, a dusting of snow, or decaying leaves.
Some of Johnson's works are just shy of deliberate pattern, but this is a comment itself, on the paradoxical chaos of the natural pattern: so ordered, even geometric, and yet so continuously wild. In A Crazed Flowering a small canvas is placed atop a larger surface, which then is atop another surface, all sharing such similar imagery that the differentiation is blurred. What is the painting, then? this work asks. Is it the little canvas? Is it the little canvas on the second-largest canvas? At what point does the background become simple wallpaper? A complementary background? Perhaps the distinction is not as distinct as we imagine, as the influence of that small canvas emanates outward in potentially infinite repetition of backgrounds-that-are-not-backgrounds. A flower is in a bed of flowers, in a garden, in a forest, and so on.
I like that my first response to these paintings was to see something vast and cosmic in these works because with careful study they reveal themselves as studies of the microcosmic nature of earth itself. Palm Houses & Orangeries and Mildew Swoosh give a sense of decay, muddiness paired with the brilliance of full bloom, and an almost tactile sense of moisture dripping, as in a rainforest or a greenhouse. "Palm Houses + Orangeries" is scraped into the paint, as if in mud. Splotching, dripping, and bleeding color recall the process of life, death, and rebirth -- the endless, repetitive, natural phenomenon.
Nicholas Johnson has just earned his MA from the Royal College of Art, London. More images and information can be found on his website at nicholasjohnson.ca.
All paintings are 2013-14.