Tim Johnson once had a vision of the Buddha in his kitchen in Newtown. “The moment after I saw it,” he told an interviewer in 1991, “it somehow took over my thoughts, said ‘Don’t be afraid’, and floated towards me very quickly, merged into my body, and then said ‘I’ll always be here.’”
Neither is the Buddha the only supernatural visitation Johnson has experienced. In 1976 Keith Relf, the singer from the Yardbirds appeared to him in a dream and pointed west. Years later he interpreted this meaning he would travel to Central Australia, where he would have a life-changing encounter with the Aboriginal artists of the Papunya settlement.
Yes, there may be something totally cosmic about Painting Ideas, a survey of almost forty years’ work by Tim Johnson at the Art Gallery of NSW, but there is also a more calculated aspect to this show. Johnson (b.1947) gives the impression that he has never made an artwork without a strategy. This is suggested by the title of the exhibition and borne out by the contents. So while Johnson may be into Buddhism and punk music; while he may collaborate with Aboriginal artists, American Indians and Tibetans, there is hardly a spontaneous moment in this entire collection.
Johnson says he has been painting since the age of six, but he began his exhibiting career as a maker of kinetic sculptures and installations. In 1970 he was one of the founders of Inhibodress, the ancestor of a long line of ‘alternative spaces’ where artists were free to experiment with conspicuously non-commercial forms of art. Like most of these spaces it had a relatively short life span, closing in 1972. There have been occasional attempts to romanticize Inhibodress, but it seems to have been an uphill struggle to get anyone to pay attention. This was not simply because of philistine indifference but because much of the art was derivative and dull.
If Johnson’s Out of the gallery – Installation as conceptual scheme (1970-71) is any indication, it must have been hard work for even the most sympathetic audiences. The piece consists of a series of non-descript black-and-white snapshots on sheets of A4 paper, with a few lines of description and a date. The ‘installations’ are the most minimal of interventions: a small piece of tape stuck on someone’s face, or a date stamped on a window.
Johnson has talked about “abandoning aesthetics as a measure of the success of an artwork,” but most viewers are wedded to the idea that a work of art must provide some sense of aesthetic satisfaction. Julie Ewington is correct when she writes in the catalogue that Out of the gallery is completely typical of its time, but it doesn’t make the piece any more interesting.
In retrospect, the era of Conceptual Art looks like a Modernist endgame in which the last items on an imaginary list of ‘Things Yet to Be Done’ were crossed off one by one. The grandiose idea that artists should stop making sellable commodities was undone by the fact that everyone had to pay the rent. Even at the time many artists were conscious that their photo documentation and lists of instructions had a potential cash value. Johnson was certainly aware of this: in one throwaway line in the catalogue he is described as a hippie capitalist.
A dedicated documenter of performances, Johnson also had an instinct for publicity and controversy. The actions he called Disclosures (1972) involved people rearranging each others’ clothing, or men and women lying motionless on the floor while the artist lifted their shirts or pulled down their pants. When some of the male participants resisted this was seen as an interesting twist.
One of the Disclosures events caused a stir at the University of Queensland, leading to lurid reports in the Courier Mail – how times have changed! – and questions in Parliament. Nowadays it all seems a bit silly and sordid. The same might be said about Public fitting (1972), a short film and a series of photos of girls accidentally showing their knickers as the wind lifts their mini skirts. In the catalogue Johnson is earnestly described as “exploring eroticism” in these works, but they are things that might amuse snickering teenage boys.
At the end of the seventies Johnson returned to painting. It was the era of punk rock and he was inspired by the D.I.Y., anti-capitalist attitude of bands who rejected both the music industry and society at large. It was like Conceptual Art all over again. His works of those days were small, amateurish, acrylic paintings mainly depicting Sydney band, Radio Birdman, along with other groups and scenes of punk life that he copied from magazines.
It is disconcerting to stand in front of these truly crummy paintings, and wonder where strategy ends and incompetence begins. Like all artists that public galleries accept as avant-garde geniuses, Johnson is presumed to have Leonardo-like skills as a painter that he chooses to deliberately conceal. This rejection is viewed as more brilliant than the most skilful painting. Johnson adds a little complexity to the mix by declaring: “painting was a record of my performance and this was constructed like a piece of music.”
This sounds like an excuse disguised as a strategy. Aesthetics have been dumped, yet again, by the simple expedient of painting badly. Because the punks rejected conventional ideas about what was ‘good’, Johnson makes a virtue out of the clumsiness of these canvases. What’s good is bad, and vice versa.
If Johnson had stuck with this style of work it’s unlikely we would be viewing a survey at the AGNSW. The next phase of his career set him on a path he is still exploring today. This began in 1980, when, intrigued by the Aboriginal paintings that were beginning to appear in Sydney galleries, he and his then-wife, Vivien, set off for Alice Springs. There they met the art advisor, Andrew Crocker, who took them to Papunya.
Johnson felt right at home and was greeted warmly by the artists. Tim Leura and Clifford Possum gave him the skin name ‘Tjapaltjarri’, making him their brother. Over the next decade, Tim and Vivien would make repeated visits to Papunya, getting to know the community and putting together a valuable collection of paintings. Johnson saw the artists as ‘masters’, like Tibetan lamas, from whom he could learn
Taking advantage of his close relationship with the Papunya painters he collaborated on works with artists such Turkey Tolson, Clifford Possum and Michael Nelson Jagamara. Years later this would generate much debate about Johnson’s motives. Was he taking a free ride on the fame and monetary value of Papunya painting? Was his ‘appropriation’ of the dotting technique no more than a form of exploitation?
Johnson argued, credibly enough, that his collaborations were attempts at cross-cultural dialogue. He made sure that his collaborators shared in the profits when paintings were sold, and always asked permission before using any Aboriginal motifs. He and Vivien would become prominent advocates for both Papunya painting and indigenous issues. It would be unreasonable to question his sincerity and commitment
The dots that appeared in Johnson’s painting at that time have become a permanent trademark, even as his cross-cultural borrowings have grown increasingly ambitious. Over the past two decades he has made large, multi-panelled paintings that draw not only on Aboriginal art, but Buddhist iconography, American Indian motifs, Christian symbolism and Japanese anime. He has worked in collaboration with artists from a range of cultural backgrounds, making paintings that resemble religious theme parks. These pictures proceed by accumulation rather than composition: objects and figures are scattered randomly across a canvas covered in thousands of tiny, rhythmic dots. Johnson sees the process of applying the dots as a form of meditation, beginning in the centre and working his way outwards.
At best these works have a kind of shimmering, ethereal beauty that encourages us to give ourselves up to the pleasures of letting our thoughts go floating across the canvas. Despite all their religious affiliations the paintings never let us get beyond the surface. They are as opaque as screens, as ungraspable as smoke.
If there is a structuring principle at work it is not Aboriginal but Buddhist in inspiration. Johnson became a practising Buddhist in 1989, but he has been fascinated by Buddhist teachings for most of his life. He has gone through no fewer than six initiations into different Buddhist sects, which suggests a religious dilettantism than matches his artistic dilettantism.
“I’ve kept a cerebral minimal quality in my work all the way through,” he says. Cerebral, minimal, deeply spiritual, eastern, western, post-colonial, non-materialistic but with a shrewd understanding of the value of his work – it is an unlikely but highly successful combination. Perhaps it’s true that Johnson is being looked after by supernatural forces.
Tim Johnson: Painting Ideas, Art Gallery of NSW, March 13- May 17, 2009
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, June 20 – October 11, 2009
Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, November 11 – February 14, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 2, 2009