LINE AND SPACE by DAVID PAGEL
Line and Space doesn’t have the same ring to it as Light and Space, but that’s probably because the latter is the first internationally recognized movement to emerge from Southern California, in the heady days of the 1960s, and the former, if it is a movement at all, is a movement of one: Dion Johnson. The abstract canvases the LA-based painter has been making over the past four years transform those two formal elements—line and space—into trippy, out-of-this-world journeys that each viewer’s eyes take in different ways, at different speeds, and for different durations. No matter which way, at what pace, and for how long, all leave your mind scrambling to catch up with experiences it’s never had the opportunity to make sense of, much less been compelled to come to terms with.
Sometimes your eyes move through Dion’s paintings swiftly, at something like warp speed, hot on the heels of the speed of light. At other times, your eyes move slowly, almost drifting, as if through something like infinite deep space, lighter than air and free of gravity’s tug. The trajectory of your imaginative transport also shifts significantly, sometimes rocketing along razor-sharp pathways being blazed in the moment, sometimes leaning into gentle curves (to counteract the g forces), and sometimes starting to spin, even spiral, as if space itself were bending and twisting and torquing, not so extremely as to get turned inside-out or tangled into knots, but just beginning to wrap around itself, in ways that create more space than could possibly fit into the actual dimensions of Dion’s paintings. If you can get your mind around the idea of something orbiting itself, you’re headed in the right direction of understanding what transpires in front of these precision-crafted abstractions when we open our eyes to their visual hijinks.
Such mind-bending, logic-defying dynamics have always been integral to what Dion does in the studio. They get amped up in his latest paintings, which are the most spatially complex he has made: animated by more gorgeously sprayed gradients and subtle, intensely sensuous fades than ever before. In Dion’s earlier paintings, 3D space was more contained by the 2D shapes that defined its parameters. And both were rooted in line: smooth, decisive divisions between one shape and another, some so thin that they seemed less like spindly, attenuated shapes than fat lines—plumped up versions of the invisible distance between two points, if you remember your high school geometry. Dion’s new painting go beyond—far beyond—the picture plane, transforming the flat surface of his acrylics on canvas into visual conundrums that beg exploration. Edward Ruscha’s commercially inspired skyscapes come to mind, as do David Reed’s sleazily elegant pictures of brushstrokes aglow with a kind of light that is anything but divine. Dion’s supple gradients split the difference between these two sources, fusing straightforward, everyday ordinariness with super-reality—which grounds viewers in the here-and-now, and, unlike experiences said to be surreal, never presumes that strangeness for its own sake is a goal worth pursuing, nor that the experiences that matter most belong to some other reality than the real one, which people share, every day of the week.
In Dion’s new paintings, shape gives way to space. The visual incidents, available the moment you lay your eyes on his smooth surfaces, multiply mathematically, if not exponentially. The compositional dynamics intensify, elements crossing paths without colliding, like some kind of perfectly orchestrated ballet of space itself. The painterly pyrotechnics draw you into the action, into spaces that open onto immense, if not infinite, possibility. And those expansive sections of Dion’s new paintings misbehave magnificently, twisting and bending around one another while thin, lengthy lines of solid, super-saturated color laser through them—like Barnett Newman’s legendary “zips,” updated and enhanced for the digital age. Amidst all that movement, chunky little tabs of similarly super-saturated colors pop up hither and yon, anchoring your eyes for a moment before they are off and running again, racing around the complex structures Dion has set up—out of nothing but line, space, and, of course, COLOR!!!, which is his artistic bread and butter.
Color has always been integral to what Dion does as an artist and his new paintings are no exception: They treat color as something so unique and powerful that words cannot come close to naming the peculiar, idiosyncratic colors he mixes in his studio, much less capturing the one-of-a-kind nature of each of his handcrafted shades, tones, and tints. What each evokes, suggests, and feels like creates even greater challenges for language. And the various ways Dion juxtaposes his colors, abutting otherwise incompatible tertiaries with one another in ways that should be distasteful but are actually beautiful, seals the deal: The emotional and psychological impact of his unnamable colors and their super-rational interactions highlights the difference between experience and knowledge. Before Dion’s giddy paintings, the nitty gritty physicality of reality and our capacity to translate that into words diverge.
Your eyes can see the differences in tint and tone, registering, in your body, the temperature and feel of what Dion has mixed, but your mouth cannot articulate the words that adequately capture or effectively convey those sensations. Think Baroque tertiaries on high-def monitors, so artificial and souped up that they give nature a run for its money while never pretending to be anything other than what they are: artifice employed to deepen our immersion in reality, to fortify our connection to it, to intensify our vision of it, and to enrich our relationship to it.
Back in 1982, when Lawrence Weschler published Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, he argued, beautifully and brilliantly, that Robert Irwin’s Light and Space works were beautiful and brilliant—and powerfully original—because they immersed viewers in experiences so intense that we forgot the words by which we ordinarily made sense of our surroundings. Dion’s paintings do something similar, but different. They let you forget about forgetting. You do not have to forget the name of anything to experience his paintings because what you see in his colors and in his shapes, in his compositions and their rhyming rhythms, in his overall Line and Space artistry, has not yet been named, much less categorized or codified. And Dion serves up that freedom generously and vigorously, playfully and pleasurably, inviting viewers of all shapes and stripes and from all walks of life into a world filled with unfathomable possibility. All you have to do is look. And see for yourself. And, if you’re up to it, to try to communicate that to someone else. Because it’s too moving to keep to yourself.
David Pagel is an art critic, curator, and professor of art theory and history at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont. A self-taught diorama builder and an avid cyclist, Pagel is a seven-time winner of the California Triple Crown.