Wed 15 Nov 2023 to Sat 27 Jan 2024
Tue-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 11am-4pm
Artist: Eleanor Johnson
Looking both at contemporary sources and Old Master work, Johnson’s latest solo show explores the concepts of power and excess alongside the dichotomies of war and love, desire and disgust, conflict and sexuality.
Eleanor Johnson’s latest series of works exhibited in ‘The Feast of Fools’ explores the concepts of excess, power and overindulgence in contemporary society. Here, Johnson uses Marco Ferrari’s 1973 film 'La Grande Bouffe' as a point of departure for her artistic enquiry. Reflecting on the satirical and pungent nature of the movie, Johnson approaches profound and unsettling subjects through a soft humorous lens. This is achieved by incorporating into her complex and multilayered canvases elements of the ‘Carnivalesque’, a literary theory by Mikhail Bakhtin that often informs Johnson’s practice. The beautifully rendered compositions, reminiscent of a classical aesthetic, include eccentric details such as insects, phallic inferences, a boxing speed ball, a floating moon, or a bull’s head. Making use of this subtle expedient, Johnson amplifies the slow-looking feature of her works, for the viewer’s eye travels around the pictorial surface in the search of these delicately concealed items, getting lost in contemplation. Such Carnivalesque cues, also serve to put the audience slightly on edge and provoke thought, imbuing Johnson’s canvases with a confrontational quality that arises from the polarity between ambiguity and explicitness. While this attribute runs through the whole series, further, more specific dualities inform every canvas: desire and disgust, war and love, conflict and sexuality, beautiful and grotesque.
With a persistent eye on the Old Masters, Johnson draws this idea of dichotomy back to the work of Rubens. “I remember looking at paintings such as ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’ for the first time and thinking: how can something so dark be painted in such a beautiful way and become such a beautiful image?” (Eleanor Johnson). Intrigued by the notion of two such different worlds coexisting on the same pictorial surface, Johnson takes provocative and difficult subjects and makes them into aesthetically striking compositions. To attain this graceful and arresting virtue, the artist starts every canvas by breaking down and emulating the chromatic palette of a Renaissance work, including in this series, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the works of Annibale Carracci and Pontormo.
The delicate and alluring attribute that results from this technique is further enhanced by Johnson’s heavy use and treatment of oil paint, which she dilutes with linseed oil to amplify its liquidity and visceral properties. This process, inspired by that of Willem de Kooning, is particularly relevant to the representation of the fleshy limbs that appear regularly in Johnson’s work. While the dynamism and sensuous elegance of the Old Masters’ colour palette is evident in Johnson’s work, the artist also takes inspiration from a variety of contemporary sources such as digital images or magazine clippings, which serve to heighten the relevance of her painting today. Johnson deconstructs these images, repurposing them and creating intriguing and unexpected parallelisms between the older Renaissance compositions and more contemporary imagery, such as a rugby scrum. By bringing all these different elements together, Johnson produces vibrant, large-scale paintings that teeter on the edge between abstraction and figuration. Playing with presence and void, the artist creates a unique balance of positive and negative spaces where biomorphic forms are captured in the process of becoming.
Eleanor Johnson (b.1994, UK) has a BA in Art History from UCL, London, and an MA in Fine art from City & Guilds of London Art School. In 2019, she participated in a two-month residency at the Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy. Johnson's work is in private collections and institutions in the UK, US, Europe, West Africa, Asia and South America. Eleanor Johnson currently lives and works in Oxfordshire, UK and is represented by Gillian Jason Gallery.