The first thought people have when seeing Timothy Johnson’s October 2019 show at Touchstone Gallery is usually “Wow, this guy is really good,” followed quickly by “Where did that come from?” The exquisitely rendered acrylic portraits in Johnson’s Fables of Decapitation: I knew I would die long ago depict scenes from biblical, mythical and historical stories of beheadings. Does that sound gory? Perhaps, but the show is also witty and urbane.
“Whenever I am asked about how I approach a painting or my thoughts about it, I go back to Picasso, because he had the most magnificent line,” Johnson says. “Picasso said that he started with an idea and changed it to something different. As an artist, that is exactly how I work.”
It’s Not the Blood, It’s the Foreshortening
This particular series is rooted in Johnson’s interest in perspective and foreshortening. “It is just so fascinating as an artist to try and do foreshortening,” Johnson says, to capture the sense of the body in space. For example, in A Victorious David Perched on the Head of Goliath, the headless body of Goliath, somewhat obscured in the background, is foreshortened as is the sword arm of young David, who bears a striking resemblance to both Dennis the Menace and Johnson’s grandnephew. “I wanted the viewer to have the feeling of looking up at David,” he says.
In Hey Battah, Battah…Swing Battah, Battah, a muscular baseball player, the spitting image of Johnson himself, is a stand in for Perseus. He has just completed his swing as the head of Medusa and her blood sail merrily toward the viewer. The torso is seen from an angle and the back is bent. “I love the idea that everything on the body is foreshortened,” Johnson says.
Off with Their Heads
Foreshortening is less apparent in a half dozen headshots, paintings that might be conventional portraits save for the fact that the heads have been cut off at the neck and speared on pikes that extend beyond the frame. Johnson’s sense of humor is apparent in the titles, such as Laughing My Head Off, I Can’t Feel My Toes and A Little Off the Top.
Johnson considers the title to be an integral part of the artwork. “I do like to challenge people’s knowledge of history,” he says. “The title of a painting often provides a little more information to make sure the viewer gets the inside joke.”
“I wasn’t particularly interested in gruesomeness,” he says, “but I discovered with this series that painting blood and swords is not easy to do.” That, in most works, the touches of blood are more subtle than gruesome or are missing altogether is not an accident, but an artistic choice.
Johnson’s family and friends often serve as models for his work, but his favorite model is himself. “I like to say glibly that it is not really narcissism. From a certain perspective, it is a bit of procreation,” he says. “Being a single gay man with no kids, I get to pass myself along this way.” He notes that using oneself as a model is a time-honored tradition. “Rembrandt painted himself all the time,” he says. Plus, he’s always available, and perhaps closer to the truth, “I love painting me. I can be so much younger. I can be more muscular. I can be anything I like.”
Johnson collects ideas. “Images. Random things. A magazine ad or an image online. I’ll just see a particular turn of the head or a shadow, and I want to paint it, so I save it and wait,” he says. “I may never look at it again, but it has made an impression on me. I may not use it directly, but eventually it comes out in a painting as something else.”
Fun Art Fact
foreshorten – to reduce or distort parts of a represented object that are not parallel to the picture plane in order to convey the illusion of three dimensional space as perceived by the human eye, often done according to the rules of perspective. To abridge, reduce or contract; to make shorter.
Ideas Lead to Process
Johnson works from photographs, typically his own. That is a little tricky in the case of the self-portraits. He has tried having friends photograph him but finds it is easier to get what he wants by photographing himself. “I set the camera on auto and go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, in front of it. Set. Get in place. Go back. Move a little bit. Do it again. It takes a while to get what I want. You just can’t convey it to somebody else,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
This preliminary task is easier when he uses a friend as his model. He likes to photograph people in their homes with perhaps a few props. When he went to photograph the woman who would become Marie Antoinette (surrounded by people happily eating cake like folks in a ‘50s magazine ad for a Betty Crocker mix), he asked if she could wrap her head in a towel to suggest a wig. “Hmmm,” his friend said. “How about a white wig?” And she pulled a white wig that Marie herself would have coveted from a bag. “How many people have friends who can do that?” Johnson asks.
Otherwise, Johnson indulges in no preparation. He does no preliminary sketches or paintings. He just dives directly into the artwork. With the Marie Antoinette piece, for example, he knew he wanted to depict Marie, and he knew he wanted people eating cake. The rest of the painting evolved from there as he worked on it.
As with the titles, Johnson, who helps support his art habit by working in a frame shop, considers the framing to be an integral part of the artwork. He often creates the framing materials himself, but for this show he chose a commercial product. “I wanted something a little traditional, because that is how I see this work,” he says. With the traditional techniques, the artwork itself is both thoroughly modern and classic.
Once a Painter, Always a Painter
Johnson has always been a painter. Even as a young artist, he was good at it, and people told him he was good at it. The praise and recognition he received encouraged him to continue.
He also finds encouragement in the work of other artists who take an approach similar to his own. “I am most intrigued by artists who paint like me,” he says. “Sometimes I feel quite intimidated, and other times I say I can do that.”
Johnson has said in the past that words to convey what is in his mind do not come easily to him. Rather, his communication is visual, a dialog between his paintbrush and the viewer. It is not surprising, then, that he cannot articulate in words why he paints. “I can’t tell you why. I don’t know why,” he says. “I know I can’t stop. I can’t not create art.” For that, viewers are grateful.