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Collage and assemblages by Cletus Johnson at Nina Freudenheim

Perfected Constructions

"Oasis" by Cletus Johnson.

There are a number of compelling reasons to see the current Cletus Johnson exhibition at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery. First and foremost, the work is absolutely spectacular. On view are the most refined, exquisitely edited, and elegantly poetic expressions in the media of collage and assemblage that I have ever seen.

This should not come as a surprise when you learn that when his work first debuted in New York City in 1974 in a New Talent Festival hosted by several uptown Manhattan galleries, it was singled out and critically acclaimed by reviewers for the New York Times, ARTnews, and Art in America. That successful entry into the art world was followed by a string of solo and group exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Mexico City, among others. During the 1980s, Johnson was represented by the highly influential New York art dealer Leo Castelli, along with artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. Praise and appreciation for his work has continued unabated since then, and most recently, the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired his work for their collection. His current projects include a large-scale commission for a restaurant in Alba, Italy.

What may come as a surprise is the fact that for the last nearly 30 years of his widespread and vaulted career, Johnson has been quietly living and working in Chautauqua County, where he has family roots. Despite his presence in the area, opportunities to see his work in Buffalo are extremely rare. The last occasion was in 1991, when Nina Freudenheim mounted an exhibition of work that Johnson had done in collaboration with poet Robert Creeley. Two collages related to that collaboration are included in this exhibition, and a number of Johnson’s other collages include references to the spare use of language that characterizes Creeley’s poems. Inexplicably, Johnson is not represented in the collection of any Western New York art museums. Hopefully that will change as a result of this exhibition.

Johnson is perhaps most well known for his masterful “theater” assemblages—meticulously crafted shadowbox constructions of imaginary theater facades that glow from within due to internal illumination and miniature light bulb marquees. There are three exceptional examples of these in the exhibition, some of which were completed expressly for the occasion. These eloquent and vaguely haunting sculptural works have been described as “stage sets for the play of the spectator’s imagination” and Johnson has pointed out that his work often has an “isolated sensibility.” That sense of isolation is keenly expressed through the specter of uninhabited space and the deft play of shadows and light across the miniature architectural details.

Anecdotal biographical notes such as the Johnson’s lifelong interest in theater, his experience as a studio assistant to sculptor Louise Nevelson, and his brief stints as a production assistant on Broadway and set designer provide some insight into the creation and themes of the assemblages. These facts, however, fail to adequately express the subtle nuances embedded within the works that make them so captivating. They are works that must be closely examined and contemplated to fully appreciate their quiet power and attention to detail. Scale is just one tool that Johnson skillfully manipulates. Well under a few feet in any dimension, the pieces appear to be scale models for real structures. However, if that is true, then some of the elements of the façade are strangely out of proportion. For example, the truncated body of an eagle that is the central feature of “Aerie” appears as logical ornamentation at first glance, but its size in comparison to the theater doors below it would make the bird gargantuan when this “model” was enlarged to the scale of an actual building. This strategy, selectively used, heightens the fanciful nature of these architectural sites and positions them as locations that evoke dreamlike speculation. Johnson hints at his intended metaphors when he explains: “Theaters give me a great sense of anticipation; they seem to be entrances to the future.”

The numerous small collages and assemblages in the exhibition—many of which combine residue such as wood fragments from his theater constructions with other found materials, including printed or textured papers—are perfectly structured and expertly conceived compositions. The joy in viewing them individually and en masse is to see them as seemingly endless variations on a theme. In several, a small faded newspaper listing for a bygone film becomes a theater marquee when it is carefully placed upon a diminutive geometric composition of papers and wood molding that suggests the form of an art deco theater façade. The simplicity and precision of these jewel-like works that transform bits of ephemera into quasi-architectural forms is inspired.

A more lighthearted side of Johnson’s sensibility is expressed in a series of larger collages titled Prominences. The basis of these wry works is found, historic photo engravings of prominent American businessmen. Johnson subverts their decorum by artfully placing eyes and ears of cats and birds on their faces and skews their stilted poses by inserting thin strips of wood laminate into the composition. The effect ranges from amusing to hilarious. The addition of these elements is deceptively simple and firmly demonstrates Johnson’s ability to sensitively combine materials and his awareness of the ideas and feelings that will be invoked by those combinations.

Works by this renowned “hidden in plain sight” Western New York artist are on view through July 15.

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