Medford Johnston: Counterpoise and Splendor: The Work of Jim Waters, at the High Museum of Art through June 8, place two distinctive bodies of locally made artwork in a broader historical context. Both these artists have been exhibited in Atlanta galleries but have never been properly situated in terms of the times in which they have lived and made their art. Like the majority of longtime Atlanta artists, neither has received the appropriate recognition.
Medford Johnston is professor emeritus in the Department of Art at Georgia State University, where he taught for 30 years and presented an ambitious program of exhibitions and visiting artists, with speakers including Lynda Benglis and the late Marcia Tucker (founder of New York’s New Museum) and artwork by Benglis, Robert Mangold, Joel Shapiro and many other national figures. A wrist injury led to Johnston’s complete retirement from painting in 2001.
Johnston receives the explanatory text his work almost requires for full viewer appreciation. The compositional energy and vividly counterbalanced palette of his Masai Portraits paintings, which date from 1987 to 1990, is self-evident, but what makes them Masai portraits is not.
The elegantly angular forms in Johnston’s artwork, which grew out of the artist’s travels in East Africa, derive from the general outlines of the staffs held by Masai herders and the outstretched arms of the herders themselves. The earth tones in his palette are drawn from the landscape. Brighter colors represent the play of light on textiles and jewelry worn by East Africans.
The body of work is full of concealed or coded allusions beyond these few examples. The stacked repetition of forms, for instance, refer to Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column. This doesn’t change the fact that the work stands or falls in this context by how well it fares when placed in juxtaposition with, say, the Elizabeth Murray or Ellsworth Kelly works in adjacent galleries. There is certainly no sense of discontinuity. Johnston belongs.
Johnston, whose studies for the paintings at the High are on exhibit through April 19 at Sandler Hudson Gallery, will give a gallery talk there at 2 p.m on March 22.
Jim Waters has been better known as the High Museum’s exhibitions designer than as an artist, even though solo exhibitions at the now defunct Kiang and at Sandler Hudson galleries some years ago brought considerable attention to his distinctive, glitter-covered shaped panels.
These works also have a certain kinship with Murray’s painting. But they relate far more with the immense, brightly reflective, untitled Anish Kapoor wall piece in the first Skyway gallery, where Waters’ artwork is visible through a doorway at the far end of the galleries.
Viewers approaching Waters’ two galleries of work from a different direction pass by Radcliffe Bailey’s velvet-and-glitter painting EW, SN, which also sets Waters’ work in a context that makes it fit comfortably into the dialogue of contemporary art. Again, the museum’s wall text helps the viewer see the connection between Waters’ starbursts and other shapes and a visionary type of spiritual experience — though one might also intuit as much from the scale and radiance of Waters’ site-specific installation, which creates a mildly vertiginous effect akin to the one induced by Kapoor’s dizzying sculpture.
As the wall text points out, the effects span the spectrum of visible light, aided and abetted by the orange glow of the reflective material on the backs of the multiple pieces spread across an entire wall of the gallery.
Waters’ works on paper are quite another matter, even when they include holographic vinyl forms mounted on rag paper alongside minimalist watercolors. Two opposing triangles might (again) suggest Brancusi’s Endless Column, or more likely the spare geometry of artists along the lines of Ellsworth Kelly, just as other pieces might equally suggest Kazimir Malevich or the minimal forms of half a century later. Waters’ actual sources of inspiration, we are told by wall text, are typographic.
Michael Rooks’ curatorial intelligence in assembling this particular configuration of the local and the global deserves to be praised alongside the achievements of Johnston and Waters. Those of us who have seen the work of both artists in previous exhibitions may well feel we have never before understood them quite so well.