The busy, intersecting circles and lines of Milton Wilson paintings catch the eye first at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery — they are on the wall opposite the door after all and their hum is hard to ignore. But this isn’t about Milton Wilson. Take a few steps more and pivot to the right and the maneuver leads to a set of seven sweet prints by George Johanson.
Maybe they won’t read as Johansons to many of us who own Johanson prints — those great Portland night scenes, with the river below us full of rowers, the volcano erupting in the distance, a cat streaking across the frame, full of interesting textures and visual delights. The prints at Pulliam-Deffenbach date back to 1970 — no night scenes, no cats and, of course, no volcanoes. There are seven of them — part of the 10-part Juxtapositions series, that Johanson created on an Arts Advocates grant in London at the Birgit Skiold studios — consigned to the gallery by their owner. And, not to make too big a deal out of them, they make a great case all by themselves for what has made Johanson so much fun to follow during his career, namely, his skill with line, his happy refusal to allow any “school” to limit him, and his imagination, which we already know about from his later prints and paintings. (No one I can think of has re-imagined Portland to the extent Johanson has, a theatrical Portland, filled it with sensual mysteries and a taste of the surreal, where the carnival never stops, all staged on a deck somewhere in the hills above the city.)
Johanson was born in 1928, so he was 42 when he made Juxtapositions. He had begun as an abstract painter and printmaker in the early ’50s, spent three years in Mexico as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, returned to Portland (where he’d gone to the old Museum School, now PNCA) and continued in an Abstract Expressionism vein, at least in his paintings. But his drawing (I wrote the catalog essay for a Johanson drawing show at the University of Oregon in 1989) was always figurative, and by the time he went to London (wife and young son with him) in 1965 to continue his printmaking figures had begun to reappear in his paintings. In London, he found the work of David Hockney and Francis Bacon, among others, who helped confirm his decision to leave AE behind and embrace the figure. This is a very compressed biographical sketch, but maybe enough to set up the seven prints at Pulliam Deffenbach.
What strikes me first about them is the ambition they represent and the energy. Some are “full frame” (a single image), in others he has cut the canvas into rectangles (sometimes floating in the rest of the frame, sometimes in a grid). Into these spaces he has poured figures, mostly, some that resemble Matisse cut-outs, some straightforward drawings, some highly abstracted in a Henry Moore sort of way. Four Figures, above, combines the Matisse and the Moore (at least to my eye) with the deftest of line drawings (can you see it? it’s white on a black background in the upper right-hand corner and hard to see in reproduction), all exploring the curves of the female body, curves that Johanson has tracked innumerable times in his career, obviously, because they seem to come so easily to his surfaces. I should also mention: the shocking red and pink, white and black color scheme, so rich and jumpy and the irregularity of the shapes that contain the figures. Oh, and the embossing. I absolutely love that what I’m calling the Moore figure in the white shape is embossed. You want to touch so much, the grain of it resembling stone. Gracious! The embossing is the cherry on top, and Johanson has never denied us the cherry, for which we thank him!
I could go on about these prints — the blue and white striping and weirdly foreshortened figure in Egg, for example, the nude in Landscapes, etc. Each is remarkable in one way or another. I’ll simply add that they are wonderful objects, even now, some 38 years later: as crisp and pristine, fresh and delightful as they must have been coming off the press in 1970. One last note: Last year’s exhibition of Johanson’s work at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem was wonderful (if Art Scatter had been around then, we might have spent several days talking about it here), and Roger Hull’s long and thoughtful essay about George’s long and illustrious career is the best way to “catch up” with him — George Johanson: Image and Idea — distributed through the University of Washington Press. It’s beautiful. The show at Pulliam Deffenbaugh closes this weekend.