Two paintings neatly capture mundane suburban life.



Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard

Narrative painting has fallen out of vogue in recent decades, bulldozed into irrelevance by the puritan aesthetic of modernism on one hand and then politically dissected as little more than "text" by post-modernism on the other.

Two large paintings on display at DIVA make a good case that paintings done centuries after the Baroque can tell a story and still constitute good art.

"Santa Barbara Family" and "Three Sisters" are by Erik Johnson, a Eugene artist about whom you've probably never heard. He painted them at different times some four decades ago while living in Southern California.

While not strictly speaking a pair - the paintings are more like half-sisters than twins - the two canvases weave an intimate family tale that's at once visually interesting, emotionally engaging and savvy about art history.

Start with "Santa Barbara Family." Done in 1967, the painting is, at the most basic level, a simple informal family portrait of father, mother, children and the family dog. A horizontal composition of about five feet by four feet, the painting evokes the very soulless essence of upper-middle-class Southern California life in the '60s.

Bright, white David Hockney-like sunshine washes through a sliding glass door into a living area, where the father - dressed only in purple swim trunks - lounges in a blue butterfly chair. This paterfamilias is gray-haired, tan, trim and wearing back-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses. He could be a low-level Hollywood studio executive or a moderately successful oil man.

His wife - and, let's be clear, I'm talking a visual reading of the painting, not any knowledge of who the actual models were - sits in a bentwood rocker, facing into the room, but not toward her husband or her children. Her face is blank.

Behind, two girls, teens or tweens, stand by a bookcase, full of books with no titles. Another figure, perhaps a girl, perhaps a boy, slumps to one side.

The only figure actually engaged with anyone else in the room is a black-and-white dog - centuries ago, a symbol of fidelity. This Fido is locked outside the sliding glass door, looking at the father and hoping to get back into the family circle.

Finally, you can just glimpse, in a mirror at the back of the room, the figure of the young, bearded artist working at his easel, an artistic device that evokes everything from Diego Velazquez and his "Las Meninas" to Norman Rockwell's famous self portrait.

The painting's balanced composition and raking light - but especially its deep loneliness and alienation - make Johnson some kind of suburban Edward Hopper.

Now turn to your right, and look at "Three Sisters."

Five years have passed, according to the dates on the two paintings, and, according to Johnson himself, the parents have now been divorced.

Three girls inhabit a completely different world in the newer painting, which is set in a dark, wood-paneled living room with a fire in the fireplace. The composition is vertical, less laid-back, in a literal sense, than the earlier portrait. The three girls have actual faces, though they remain disengaged.

One lies, asleep, on a green throw rug in front of the fire. One is walking into the dark room through an open doorway, daylight flooding around her, a visitor from the real world. The third, wearing a short dress or nightgown, waits, next to the fireplace, as if hiding in ambush for the visitor.

Details here delight. A white plaster head, the kind you find in traditional art schools for drawing practice, sits on the mantel, looking down at the girl waiting in ambush. A painted portrait - is it her? - also peers down, next to a teapot.

The parents, you might say, are out of the picture. So is the artist. The dog is gone, too, replaced, perhaps symbolically, by the warm flames of the fire, which might be either hell fire or the flames of passion but is, in either case, ignored by the three players on stage.

Johnson made his career not as an easel painter but as an animator - a much more contemporary version of narrative art and one that's still allowed entrance into polite art company.

Cartoons are great, but these early paintings of his make me wish he'd told a few more stories on canvas.

ART REVIEW

Paintings by Erik Johnson

What: ``Santa Barbara Family'' and ``Three Sisters'' are two notable oil paintings in a larger show that includes sketches by the Eugene artist Erik Johnson

Where: DIVA, 110 W. Broadway

When: Through June 30

Hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

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