‘Although I don’t believe that there is an essential truth that artists can convey through representation, I do believe that the fiction of ‘blackness’ that is the legacy of colonialism, can be interrupted by an encounter with the stories that we have to tell about ourselves.”
For her solo exhibition at Hollybush Gardens Claudette Johnson has made a series of new works on paper. Working from a range of sources, including her own photographs and sitters, she maintains her focus on the black subject. In a new departure, Johnson’s new work includes large scale studies of young black men as well as drawings of women.
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Though often referred to as ‘portraits’ Johnson suggests that the drawings sit outside of portraiture as the figures inhabit an undefined space that makes no reference to the sitter’s personal history or location. Rather than the essentialist reading that accompanies the idea of portraiture, Johnson is more interested in the black figure as form and construct. A place where ideas about race, gender and belonging collide. Their scale ensures they cannot be contained within their allocated borders.
Johnson has previously been interested in painting her subjects as ‘monoliths’, larger than life versions of women staged in positions that occupy all the space, with a direct gaze that interrogates the viewer. In these new works we are presented with what feels like un-staged and intimate moments. Instead of performing for an audience the subject appears undisturbed, held in a private moment of contemplation.
The black male figures sit or stand with arms akimbo, the expanse of the chest open and dominating the picture plane. To open the chest is to open the heart, to open the heart is to be vulnerable. The figures exist in a place of hope. They exist in opposition to the colonising eye that insists their story has already been told.
Johnson’s work is inscribed with bold attempts to both counter widespread negative portrayals of black women and men and to combat what effectively amounts to their lack of visibility in assorted arenas. Correspondingly, Johnson’s work seeks to create a range of depictions of the black body that is free from, or resists, objectification.
Claudette Johnson lives and works in London. She was a member of the BLK Art Group as well as co-founder of the BLKArts Research Group with Marlene Smith and Keith Piper. Her work is included in the collections of Mappin Art Gallery, Arts Council England Collection, Manchester Art Gallery and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. In the 1980s Johnson showed her work in a number of seminal shows including Five Black Women, Africa Centre, London, 1983, Black Women Time Now, Battersea Arts Centre London,1984, The Thin Black Line, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London,1985, In This Skin: Drawings by Claudette Johnson, Black Art Gallery, London, 1992. And more recently she has participated in exhibitions such as, Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966 – 1986, Royal Festival Hall, London,1990, The Caribbean Cultural Centre, The Studio Museum Harlem and The Bronx Museum of Arts, New York,1997/98, Thin Black Line(s), Tate Britain, London, 2011/2012, No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960–1990, Guildhall Art Gallery, London, 2015. The 1980s Today’s Beginnings?, vanabbemuseum, 2016, The Place is Here, Nottingham Contemporary and South London Gallery, 2017. Johnson is currently in Meticulous Observations at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool curated by Lubaina Himid.
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