Heath Johnson: the art of the illusion
Tall, with unruly wavy hair, thick eyebrows, big, expressive eyes and a giddy laugh, Heath Johnson has some of the look of a mad scientist. And there is a kernel of truth behind the appearance. In his current series of paintings, the 34-year-old Basalt resident is creating artistic life from what was once refuse.Johnson’s paintings, currently being exhibited as part of the magnificent Aspen Valley Biennial at the Aspen Art Museum, begin with someone else’s bottom-of-the-barrel artwork. Johnson scours the virtual auction pages of eBay, in search of cheap, kitschy portraits that strike his eye in some way. (Johnson says there are hundreds, if not thousands of such disposed treasures for sale, at most popular prices.) He then creates a large-scale background and, with a material called Bondo, which he discovered while creating movie and advertising sets in Los Angeles, pastes the portrait into the background. In the five works hanging in the Art Museum, each of the backgrounds is in the Op Art style, a 1960s fad that elevated optical illusions to the status of art. So in Johnson’s creations, the borrowed portraits are now blown up to a large scale, and given a context – straight lines that appear wavy, spots that can be seen only in the periphery of one’s vision – that the unsuspecting portrait artist could not have imagined.To Johnson, his method does, indeed, create life – or at least, elevates woebegone discount-price paintings to a place of relative artistic prominence. He assesses “Mike,” a work involving a mediocre drawing of a smiling man in a suit and tie, placed against Johnson’s background of black-and-white squares that appear crooked but are actually straight. “He’s painted so crudely, I wanted to put something in the background that takes your attention away from how crude the portrait is,” said Johnson, a married father of one who has lived in the valley for three years. “An optical illusion seemed like a good way to do that. And you could still tell a story about the person – it’s a narrative to me that people aren’t who they appear to be, that they are deceptive.”
Johnson, who earned a bachelor of fine art degree from Colorado State University, has also constructed his own art-philosophy narrative to underlie his work. Op Art, he notes, was a movement largely discredited by critics – an evaluation Johnson agrees with. The portraits he purchases on eBay are, too, attempts at art, but don’t even rise to the level of being evaluated by critics. Take those two unappreciated elements, however, slap them together with a super-fast body putty called Bondo, and they achieve an artistic wholeness.”Going back to Op Art and adding another piece of unfinished art, I’m taking two halves of unfinished pieces, and suddenly it works,” said Johnson. “Adding two unfinished elements to each other makes them both complete to me.”The series began with a portrait Johnson bought for $10 at a flea market a decade ago. The 8-by-10 portrait of a little girl – “with the strangest expression on her face,” said Johnson – stayed with him for years. “I bought it because it was strange and quirky and had a kitsch factor,” he continued. “I kept it around because I always thought I wanted to do something with it, something with the background, to add a story to this girl.”Working in Los Angeles, painting large-scale backdrops for movie and ad sets, acquainted him with Bondo. And when he got out of the set-painting business three years ago, Johnson saw that Bondo could be used to incorporate the little-girl portrait into a larger piece.”That’s what I did with the little girl,” said Johnson, a native of Colorado Springs. “I put a burning trailer in the background, as if she had burned the home. I felt like I was completing an incomplete painting. The portrait – that wasn’t enough. With a portrait, you may have an artist who has an eye and a talent, but they don’t have the creativity to come up with an idea other than just painting someone else’s face. I wanted a narrative to complete the piece.
“And I wanted to hide the fact that I was adding on. You don’t see that they’re not one piece when you look at them.”Johnson made his local debut in last year’s Roaring Fork Open, the Aspen Art Museum’s nonjuried show of area talent. Visitors to the exhibit were welcomed by Johnson’s unforgettable “The Picnic” – someone else’s painting of a naked woman, with Johnson’s unsettling background of the Teletubbies wielding hatchets, knives and baseball bats. The work was prominently placed at the entrance to the exhibit.Johnson’s more recent works have more subtle narratives than “The Picnic” but, with the optical illusions, are just as visually striking. Seen against the baffling backgrounds, the portraits themselves tend to be almost bizarrely prosaic. But Johnson’s work is not intended to belittle the original portraits. He actually gives much credit to the anonymous original artists; he even keeps their signatures intact in the larger work if possible.”When I go looking for these portraits, it’s the other artist inspiring me,” he said. “Because there has to be something in the portrait that appeals to me.”
Johnson also likes the idea of a secret collaboration. “A lot of modern artists have done that,” he noted. “Warhol had a whole art factory, where other people made stuff and he just stamped his name on it.”Johnson is unconcerned about any potential ethical problems, reasoning that (a) the portraits have been practically thrown away (one of the purchased portraits went for $1); and (b) this is the only way these paintings would ever come near a museum wall.”It’s kind of fun to collaborate with people who don’t even know they’re collaborating with me,” he said. “I often wonder what one of these artists would think, to come across their work and see it’s now been put inside my work.”When Johnson was painting sets in Los Angeles, he was left with little energy to pursue his own work. His current day jobs, however – doing faux-finish painting, and working as an art installer for the Aspen Art Museum and for a company that handles private clients – don’t exhaust him as much and, for the first time since art school, Johnson is focused on his own creativity. But the work in L.A. has left its mark: Johnson’s work is still in the background. Sort of.”I was someone who painted backgrounds,” he said, “and that’s all I’m doing now. I’m still a background painter. But in L.A., I’d spend days painting a background for an advertisement, and them when the ad came out, nobody paid any attention to the background.
“Now I’m making the background at least as important as the foreground.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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A ski season surrounded with uncertainty kicks off on Wednesday. The six inches of new snowfall Tuesday will allow opening of an additional 62 acres on Aspen Mountain, bringing opening-day total to about 160 acres.