PERFECTION BY CATHERINE WAGLEY
Dion Johnson’s work traffics in color, clarity and clean edges, but not in perfection. His paintings, while lush, seductive and well crafted, are about experience rather than showmanship. Performing perfection became fetish in art sometime before Jeff Koons started making balloon animals out of mirror-polished stainless steel and hired a specialist to spray paint his fake, aluminum inflatables. Takashi Murakami, who has a factory for art production called Kaikai Kiki, makes paintings indistinguishable from products. The unsurprising side effect of all this is that our eye has come to expect a factory-level flawlessness in contemporary art-galleries; such production value no longer catches us off-guard. Murakami is especially relevant here because he made a series of paintings in 2008 for his show, Davy Jones Tears. Inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean, the paintings had imitation pixilation on their pristine surfaces, and abstract streaks of vibrant color that flowed and dripped into each other. Because of their palette and motion, these streaks by Murakami came to mind the first time I saw a photograph of Dion Johnson’s “Chromatic Momentum,” his 2015 installation at the De Buck Gallery, where framed drawings of color moving up and down, expanding and then contracting, hung on a wall entirely covered with the same moving colors. But overlaps aside, the differences between Johnson and Murakami’s approach were most striking. Johnson’s precision isn’t plastic — he does not, after all, run a factory — and his touch noticeably human. This is a relief, because it makes space between refinement and vulnerability; we’re allowed, in looking, to at once want to be in control and in touch with all our foibles.
In Johnson’s Verve (2017), space opens up wide and then collapses. A curve of black leans into a swathe of blue that’s more violet at the bottom then at the top, its shifts reminiscent of morning light. From left to right, the vertical stripes of color that come one after the other become increasingly tighter and slimmer. It’s as if we’ve been gazing out the window of a high-speed train, looking at the still sunrise, when the train takes off. Everything suddenly starts wishing by: a sea green into a crisp blue, into a royal blue, into pink, yellow, black and white, gliding up and down, left to right. But the momentum in Verve is subtly interrupted by four small squares. Two sit against the top edge and two against the bottom, as if oblivious to the speed and flow around them, reminding us that all this is a composed image with a surface.
For centuries, color has been associated with surface. Jean August Dominique Ingres, the 19th century Neoclassicist, said that “[c]olor enhances a painting, but she is only a lady-in-waiting, because all she does is to make still more attractive the true perfections.” Color is nice, in other words, but in the same way a pretty necklace is. In his 2000 book Chromophobia, David Batchelor also talks about color as a kind of cosmetic, something you put onto the real substance, as if putting lipstick on before going out: “[It] is a double deception. It is a surface on a surface and thus even farther from substance than ‘true’ appearance.” It took just under a century after Ingres’ death for this cosmetic deception to become the whole point. Andy Warhol colored in the faces of celebrities as if filling in a coloring book; David Hockney painted his flat blue swimming pools. But even if colorful, surface-oriented pop seemed a critique of fleshy, ab-ex seriousness, there was also something grounding and populist in this embrace of color for its own sake. Also in Chromophobia, Batchelor recounts an angel’s fall to earth in the Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (1987). The angel cuts his head when he lands, sees blood and asks a passerby, “Is this red?”, then keeps going, asking if the pipes he sees are yellow and if a figure painted on the nearby Berlin Wall is indeed green. Color, in this instance, is especially earthly, human and hands-on.
Johnson’s process is hands-on. He mixes his own paints, basing them on the Photoshop sketches made up in advance. He has his own spray booth, built into a portable shed, in his studio. There is ample tape available, for when one of his lines or curves needs to be carefully delineated on panel. The two earliest paintings included in this exhibition, Edge (2008) and Frost (2009), are the most palpably hand-made and also the sparest. Three colors comprise Edge: the widest, a light and airy blue on the right, proceeds a slightly narrower bright orange in the middle; a curved stripe of sunny yellow holds down the right end. Brush strokes remain visible and the thickness and thinness of the paint varies, resulting in subtle fades. No color bleeds into the other, but still their relationship reads as informal. They’re all just sharing space, leaning into each other comfortably and unambiguously. Some of this casualness carries over into Frost, made one year later, but three colors have grown to seven and the opacity has increased while the edges have become more definite. There are also more curves. Half a pyramid of yellow angles into a vase-shaped grey, which leans into a rounded white stripe followed by a steeply curved, crisp blue-green and then a fuchsia and a seductively deep maroon. It all ends with an unassuming off-white rectangle. Each shape is autonomous and yet only compelling because of the others, like they’re siblings in denial about their codependency.
At Claremont Graduate University, where Johnson graduated with an MFA in 2000, experiments with color fields and hard-edges were abundant. I attended Claremont seven years later and met a number of students who relied on their rolls of blue painter tape, a low-tech way to exert order. Karl Benjamin, a Claremont alum himself and a longtime faculty member, had been among the first artists labeled “hard-edge painters” by the critic Jules Langser. Langser included Benjamin in his 1959 show Four Abstract Classicists, along with painters Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin. Benjamin, whose capricious, bold merging of the geometric and organic could result in optical illusions, hated the term “hard-edge.” “It doesn’t mean anything. What’s a soft edge? Monet?” he said in a 2009 interview. It was good for your career, he added, to belong to a movement, but not good for much else. The California-based, perception-obsessed artist Robert Irwin felt similarly, and when the revered critic Clement Greenberg asked him to be in his Post-Painterly Abstraction show in 1964, Irwin “just wrote him a letter and told him how dumb I thought his ideas were.” Post-painterly like hard-edge came to connote a certain hands-off, detail-averse approach, in which colors appeared out of the can or perfectly mixed (no blurring or muddying could happen on canvas). Helen Lundenberg — not considered a hard-edge painter by Langser until 1963, after his all-male, movement-defining show — spoke in 1980 of how the colors in her painting Desert View (1963), were meant to be ambiguously relate to one another, color jutting across the white of her unprimed canvas like “a banner or part of a shield.” Even if hers tended to be clean and controlled, edges were really not her main interest.
Lundeberg’s luxurious, unhurried approach to shape could easily be a predecessor to Johnson’s 2010 painting Slide. Like she so often did, he privileges curve over the linear, and even the thinnest slivers of blue and yellow or violet look as though they have all the space they could ever need. This piece in particular has a retro mood, the pea green and oranges recalling couch and curtain colors from the 1970s and a laid back, pre-digital energy emanating from the whole painting.
Batchelor defines “digitalized” color as arriving in discreet units, without merging or blending. Analogic color, in contrast, exists more fluidly, on a spectrum. (Willem de Kooning, who said flesh was the reason oil paint was invented, ruled the analog realm.) Digitalized colors have a “stronger relationship to modernity,” he writes. They’re “more the colors of things than atmospheres.” The pop artists did a lot for championing, and flattening, colors of things. Lichtenstein’s paintings of paint strokes —cartoonish solid colors that drip but not really — proved even viscous gestures could be turned into slim, sexy surfaces. But Peter Halley is the most sympathetic, if also jaded, artist to embrace the digital approach to color. As he painted those perfectly placed, ominous blocks — in his The Cell and Conduit (1987), made with Day-Glo and acrylic, agile red rectangles interrupt two heavy black squares — he wrote about the tyranny of the cell and the formalism of “plugging-in”: “the patient in the hospital is hooked up to oxygen and to an I.V., while the office worker is hooked up to a computer terminal. At home, we plug in for everything that used to be natural, be it wind, light, heat, or water.” And all this he wrote before cell phones. For Halley, perhaps more genuinely a hard-edge painter than those for whom the term was invented, linear, formal shapes were the way to explore and portray an increasingly high-tech, isolating reality. His paintings are impenetrably well-executed, pessimistically perfect.
Johnson is circumstantially a digital painter, but free from the pessimism and the burden of perfection – endowed with an analog attitude, maybe. In Astra (2017), the most recent painting on view here, the composition announces itself as something that could only exist now, in an era in which artists can stretch and condense colors and shapes on computer screens. But the digital is a tool, not a fixation. A compression of warm and cool, straight and curved bands of color coexist, moving in and out of each other, at the center of Astra. The lines are clean, but matter-of-factly so; even if they were painstakingly produced, none read as obsessive. On either side is a spacious expanse of red – on the left, the red fades upwards toward pink and on the right, downward. Because the composition leaves breathing room, the mind feels free to ricochet out, to move back and forth between screen and landscape, surface and atmosphere.
 David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), 50.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 36.
 Interview with Karl Benjamin, Claremont Heritage, Sept. 21, 2009. http://www.claremontheritage.org/karl_benjamin.html.
 Lawrence Weschler, Seeing is Believing the Name of the Thing One Sees (University of California Press, 1982), 82.
 Oral history interview with Helen Lundeberg, 1980 July 19-Aug. 29, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-helen-lundeberg-12910.
 Batchelor, 105.
 Peter Halley, “On Line,” in Collected Essays (New York: Sonnabend Gallery, 1987), 154.