Essay of Eric Johnson
By: Jay Belloli, 2015
When an artist’s retrospective happens, you can look back and see if what you believed about the work is still valid. With Eric Johnson, it isn’t. It is more than I remembered or even knew.
Eric is often described as the most important second-generation Finish Fetish or even Light and Space artist. He is, but he is more than that. In his work, he unites two traditions in Southern California art: the one based on the use of perfectly finished twentieth century technology and materials, and – underneath – the one based on the old tradition of woodworking. This combination sets Eric’s work apart from any other artist associated with these two tendencies. And, at the outset, his work has a rich complexity just in terms of materials. At times, the wood structure – on which Eric applies layers of color impregnated and clear resin – declares itself. Almost always, the wood structure is just visible under Eric’s perfectly crafted surfaces.
How did this unification in Eric’s art happen? Eric talks about the influence of his fishing trips with his father and his awareness of the quality of light and transparency in areas of the nearby ocean where they fished. His father’s position as one of the leading Los Angeles experts in automotive body repair was very influential. Eric’s own car projects as a teenager were very important as well, including his creation of hot rods, one of the key fetish objects in Southern California going back to the 1940s. As so many artists from the late ‘50s on up, the young Eric was also a dedicated surfer and, like many teenagers, worked with resin on his own board. In addition, the architectural backgrounds on both sides of Eric’s family were influential; his grandfather on his father’s side worked on the stairs and dome of Pasadena City Hall.
In high school, Eric was deeply interested in mathematics, physics and philosophy, but his interests didn’t lead to good grades because of dyslexia. He was exposed to Larry Bell’s art during a field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and later was influenced by his understanding that “a contemporary artist can cut out a section of conceptual work and it’s theirs.” His world expanded immeasurably at Valley College in the classes of Fidel Danieli, an inspirational professor and critic, whose encouragement led to an influential visit with DeWain Valentine. Danieli’s recommendation also led Eric to a brief stint at Cal Arts. Unfortunately, he had to leave the study of art because of a severe neck injury.
After getting married and having two daughters, Eric eventually wanted more than working on automobiles and carpentry, and he ultimately received a Regent’s Scholarship to nearby U.C. Irvine. He had no idea what kind of art he wanted to create, but that was soon to change. Tom Jenkins, a faculty member, suggested to Eric that he draw on his family heritage, as well as his automotive skills, to make art. Since his family roots were Norwegian, Scottish, and Cree Native American (largely a woodland tribe), the wood of Scottish and Norwegian shipbuilding or woodworking implied that Eric should explore that material. Eric’s breakthrough series of simple square drawings led to his brainstorm to stack up squares in sculpture. The result was his series of mixed media high-rise building pieces, some of them with political commentary about the oil industry. To further activate these architectural sculptures, Eric soon attached them to the wall. But the building pieces still felt static to Eric, and he began to work in lacquer over wood.
Besides Tom Jenkins, three other highly respected Southern California artists were painting and sculpture professors at U.C. Irvine: Craig Kauffman, Tony DeLap, and John Paul Jones. Kauffman’s famous 1960s vacuum-formed and spray-painted wall pieces strongly appealed to Eric. He also had high respect for DeLap’s shaped paintings, which had elaborate wood support structures. In addition, Eric was well aware of the quality of Jones’ wood sculptures and prints.
In fact, after Craig Kauffman saw one of Eric’s lacquer on wood pieces, he asked Eric to help repair and fabricate some of Kauffman’s plastic works. Tony DeLap soon asked Eric to become his assistant and construct the wood frames for DeLap’s shaped canvases. And Eric became John Paul Jones’ assistant after he worked for DeLap. An even more beneficial event in Eric’s existence at UCI was that he met his wife, Carolyn.
After Eric left U.C. Irvine, the combination of influences from Jenkins, Kauffman, and DeLap inspired Eric to make his first mature works. These were the Diamonds, beginning in 1987, which were layers of color-pigmented resin over a wood frame. Their clear geometry stemmed from Eric’s strong interest in mathematics. He originally thought of these pieces as sketches for other works. But the positive response of artists and collectors to these pieces made Eric change his view of them.
Then Eric had an inspiration. Given his equal interest in mathematics, what if he combined sine wave forms into the simple geometry of the diamonds. The possibilities for variety would be endless, depending on the frequency of the wave. The pieces that Eric created were consequently twisted, and therefore became extraordinarily energized visually. At times, these sculptures were intended to be on the wall, at times on the floor, on occasion just leaning against the wall. And the quality of color and light in these works was remarkable. Eric would apply a layer of colored resin on the wood structure and then a number of clear coats of resin on top. The result was that light would enter the surface of the sculpture and bounce back, adding rich color to the wonderfully eccentric form. And Eric’s sense of color had become exceptional, making his art even more individual.
As his work progressed, Eric’s art became increasingly complex. His long interests in science, physics and mathematics began to take an even greater role in the forms of his sculptures. A 1994 exhibition presented works, such as Peltier’s Knee (1994), inspired by his interest in biology, Biblical sea creatures, and sometimes even more complex biological references. In some of the works, the interior wood structures are completely visible, in others almost completely enclosed. At this time, all of Eric’s works were unique; he introduced resin into each of his wood structures while turning it with his hands. Eric often placed personal memorabilia inside these sculptures, making them even more enigmatic.
By the late 1990s, Eric’s fascination with physics, and the related fields of astrophysics and cosmology, became a much stronger inspiration, and the forms of his sculptures became even more inspired by scientists who have changed our perception of how the universe operates, such as Bernhard Riemann and Stephen Hawking. The differences between the scale of Eric’s subjects and his sculptures was pulled almost to infinity. Some of these works even had holes at several locations, stressing the sense of mystery presented and evoked. Having created three-dimensional pieces implying astrophysical concepts, he began to produce sculptures that were negative spaces (2003-2005) and were installed through walls rather than on them. Most of these works, in part, conveyed his thoughts about the reality of black holes or the theory of wormholes.
As Eric’s work continued, he started to develop molds so he could make various sculptures with the same exterior shape. This new approach was in place when he made the Mesdames (or alternately named the Madame X's), created beginning about 1993. These vertical, regularly curved spiral works evoked the elegance of the thin female form, and they clearly referred to Brancusi’s endless column. They also conjured up the spiral of DNA, the self-replicating material in all living organisms. Again, holes suggested biological cavities as well as producing a sense of the enigmatic. It was about 2003, while he was still working on the Mesdames, that Eric stopped hand pouring resin and started using gimbals that he designed and built, as he has with so many of his tools. Gimbals are a contrivance of pivots for keeping objects in rotational motion so, in his work, the resin could catalyze evenly on the inside of the molds. Some of the Mesdames were so huge, as much as 16 feet long, that Eric often had to use as many as eight people just to pour the layers of resin and rotate the gimbal.
The very large Mesdames led to a number of monumental works, such as Skin and Bones (1996), which – appropriate to the title – may be Eric’s most open sculpture. And, in 2005, he created the Pearl Necklace, which was a series of large, connected resin spheres strung from both sides of a canal in the Los Angeles section of a Venice canal, with the center of the strand floating in the water.
Eric’s increasingly collaborative work ultimately led to The Maize Project, 2008, which was a true community work of art. A large number of individuals each were asked to create a single poured resin “kernel” and were invited to embed personal mementos inside. Consisting of more than 378 individual pieces, the resulting work stood almost 14 feet high, the largest work Eric has ever created. His reference was obviously to the corn grown by Native Americans, as well his awareness and concern that corn has been overly altered by genetic engineering. The brilliant riot of color implied that historic crop.
Thirty years of artmaking is a major achievement. And the trajectory of Eric’s art began with the formal complexity of traditions and materials. Combining the highly finished resin surfaces associated with Light and Space and Finish Fetish art, as his work progressed, it led to a unification of not only increasingly complicated form, but greater and greater richness of scale and thematic associations. And an art that is not like that of anyone else.
“The good thing about a retrospective,” Eric said in conversation, “is that I get to put all [my past art] behind me and move on….I can go back and pick up things that I didn’t resolve.” Given what Eric has accomplished, we can look forward to complex, beautiful, light-filled, and diverse art in the future.