Friday, March 13, 2015

Josh Johnson’s art needs to be read to be seen

"Unrest in the Park"

Artists need deadlines. Without them, they’ll keep making changes, always trying to live up to some hypothetical vision in their minds, never satisfied.

That’s why Josh Johnson is still working on pieces for his new show, “The Most Insufferable Miscreants and Nincompoops,” which will be unveiled Saturday night at the Barret Avenue art retailer Ultra Pop.

Unlike some, Johnson is happy for the deadline. A veteran of more than 20 shows since 2000, the 39-year-old New Albanian’s last show was almost a year ago. His latest, planned several months ago, is a departure, pairing his watercolors of recognizable but winningly absurd humans and animals with some of his limericks. The marriage of the visuals and the often bawdy form of poetry infuses the show with a rare example of cross-disciplinary freshness.

gherkin merkin
pickle beard
a brine-soaked wig
ain’t all that weird

Johnson’s response to the question “Are you all done?” is met with a nervous laugh. “No,” he admits. “But last night … I have it all worked out. I have a plan of what I need to do. I’m definitely in good shape.”

Johnson, whose day job is with The Courier-Journal, has a fondness for words, which he composes on a typewriter.

she stared at the sun for long hours
in hopes to gain magical powers
but after some days
fell into a haze
and expired while arranging some flowers

He studied studio art, focusing on graphic design, at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he also published a daily cartoon for four years. Johnson later spent nine years in Indianapolis before returning south. The past year has been one of his least productive, he says, another reason to be glad for the invitation to show at Ultra Pop.

It’s also the first time he’s found a way to incorporate his writing into an art show. “I write a lot — limericks, haikus, stuff like that. It’s the first time I’ve displayed them like they’re illustrated,” he says.

His writing method is more instinctual and subconscious than any way that could be taught, though he is also fond of flipping through well-worn dictionaries and a thesaurus he carries for inspiration.

“You’ve got to be careful, though,” he says. “There are some words that are just so arcane — really amazing — but if you used them, it would almost be, like, ‘What’s the point?’ But that’s the great thing about language. It keeps developing.”


Johnson also solicited limericks from three friends, for which he is also creating illustrations. While his own limericks are somewhat subversively adult in theme, he notes that younger eyes won’t be able to notice any obviously unseemly words. But, “I wouldn’t want to have to explain what it was to a kid.”

quite fond of reciting Hegel
whilst practicing her Kegels
the strained contractions
and mental abstractions
left Gertrude craving a bagel

“I’m a big fan of Edward Gorey,” he says, quickly clarifying: “Not because of the limericks. My work doesn’t look like his, but he’s the only artist people say, ‘Your work reminds me of him.’ To me, that’s an honor.”

Citing the recent lawsuit that declared musicians Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams guilty of intentionally copying a Marvin Gaye song, Johnson says he tries to avoid emulating his heroes so literally, though he has seen peers fall into that trap. “To me, it’s just heartbreaking,” he says. “But some don’t care.”

He calls his old home of Indianapolis “kind of an odd city,” saying its art scene is a bit different from Louisville’s. “Oddly, Indy’s a little more organized, but Louisville, there’s so much happening … It’s more disjointed. That’s not a negative criticism. I’ve felt a little out of sorts here, but that’s just my experience.” He adds that the many festivals during the year can often bump up against each other, potentially oversaturating the market, but at the same time showing how much interest there is in local art these days.

Johnson, who has shown in galleries as well as at comic book conventions, also works in letterpress and linoleum-cut printmaking, in addition to the watercolors he processes digitally. His future plans, once he can get through this weekend, also include a six-book series, following up on his 2006 title “The Spindletons.”

“I’ve got three lifetimes of projects in the works,” he says. “Left to my own devices, I tend to flounder and get overwhelmed by all the possibilities.”

“The Most Insufferable Miscreants and Nincompoops” runs at Ultra Pop, 960 Barret Ave., from March 14-April 3. The opening reception is Saturday, March 15, from 5-9 p.m. For more information, check out the Facebook page.

c. 2015 Insider Louisville

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