du 01/12/2009 au 31/12/2009
Joe Lamar Johnson has been living in Paris and developing his career as an artist there since 1998. We first became aware of his works at an exhibit held at the American Cathedral about six years ago, and have been fascinated by the development of his artistic vision ever since.
We recently interviewed Johnson at his studio in the Parisian suburb of Pantin, where his latest works, entitled Corsets, adorn the wall. He created these works for his most recent show, held at the 6th Afro-Caribbean Plastic Arts Salon of the city of Grigny in May 2009. He was the honored invité for this exhibit. Johnson is a portraitist whose works emphasize the face and the eyes. He says that he “loves expressions and loves eyes” and finds that eyes can be very communicative even when the rest of the face remains somewhat impassive. For this reason, he closely crops his portraits so that the viewer’s attention remains focused on the face. As a former athlete, Johnson also appreciates the human physique, and has portrayed the torso, limbs, and even the skull, embellished with paint and tattoos, in his paintings. He believes that tattoos and body paint serve as armor, and that although people so adorned might, in reality, be vulnerable, they feel protected. For his series Corsets, Johnson’s torsos are dressed in attire inspired by the beaded garments worn by the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan.
The palette that Johnson used for Corsets is bold, bright, and vibrant. This represents a departure from a long succession of paintings, for which Johnson favored the use of earth tones.He attributes this to the influence of his Arizona origins, saying he feels that he “is part of the earth, the dirt.” His finds that his infrequent trips home rejuvenate him because they allow him to reconnect with the desert. His love of the soil was evident even in the Sedona red dirt T-shirt that he wore during the interview.
While the colors of the Corsets series may represent a change in Johnson’s palette, the theme of the paintings does not. Johnson’s art is profoundly influenced by his heritage, which is a product of his African origins and facets of spiritualism and mysticism that he learned from his grandparents in his youth. Expressions of ethnicity are consistently present, whether in his portraits or in his depictions of body art. In painting indigenous peoples, Johnson wishes to preserve some of the customs and traditions of the world that he believes are being steadily eroded by the process of globalization.
Johnson was selected as the honoré for the Grigny salon partly because of publicity that he received from a unique project in which he participated in 2008. The French television station France 5 ran a program called Star Portraits, whose mission was to capture and broadcast the process of creating a work of art. Three artists were selected to paint the portrait of a French celebrity, and, at the end of the process, the celebrity selected the painting that he or she preferred over the others. The artists were recorded at work during the portrait sittings, working in their studios, and attending the final judgment of their
work. Johnson was one of three artists selected to paint the portrait of French singer and actress Dani. A friend of Andy Warhol, she was attuned to the artistic process, and was supportive and encouraging of Johnson as the project moved forward. While Dani did not choose Johnson’s painting at the final selection, the press coverage that he received from this televised event was invaluable.
As do most emerging artists, Johnson finds that he needs to work at a salaried job to pay the bills and support his craft. He teaches sculpture at the Atelier Hourdé of the Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques in Paris and also works at the sculpture studio at his alma mater, Parsons Paris School of Art and Design, where he received his BFA in 2002.
He loves sculpture as a form of artistic expression, and brings a sculptor’s sensibilities to his painting by emphasizing volume and form in these works. Yet he does not create sculptures to sell. When asked why, Johnson again invoked his bond with the soil, saying that when he sculpts, he is simply responding to the earthy materials and acting intuitively. He feels comfortable with the tools used by sculptors because they are similar to carpenter tools (Johnson’s father was a carpenter). In contrast, he finds painting to be a more intellectual exercise that requires him to use a different area of his brain. More practically, he mentioned that he prefers to sculpt large pieces, and that his studio is not spacious enough for this.
Michelangelo, Rodin, and Ousmane Sow are sculptors whose works inspire Johnson’s vision for his own work. He feels that the oeuvre of these artists represent force, power, and a commanding presence, which he seeks to achieve in his own sculptures. In addition, as a former football player, Johnson identifies with these artists because of their physical stature – he says that all three men were/are large. Painters whose works inspire Johnson include Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Lucian Freud – Douglas and Lawrence because of their choice of subject matter, and Freud because the skill with which he renders flesh in his paintings.
Johnson is fortunate that he has a French friend who acts as his public relations consultant. While Johnson is busy working or painting, his friend is uploading images of Johnson’s works tovarious Web sites and contacting the press on Johnson’s behalf. He has also created a “newsletter” though which he announces Johnson’s latest achievements and upcoming shows.
Because of his efforts, Johnson and his work have been covered by the Anglophone publication Paris Voice and the French publications Nouvel Obs and Cité Black. France 5 recruited Johnson for its Star Portraits show because of his presence on the Internet.
Born in Phoenix, Johnson learned that he had a talent for drawing at the age of four, when his mother would encourage him to sketch on church programs to keep him quiet during services. An older woman who sat next to his family told him that he was an artist, thus providing him with the first validation of this skill. In college, he thought that he would utilize this talent as an engineering student, but realized that engineering was not his calling. He explored architecture, industrial sciences, and drafting, before taking a drawing class and discovering that his true calling was fine arts. Because he was unsatisfied with the art program at the university, he left school and worked for several years, but was unable to deny the attraction that fine arts held for him. He moved to Paris in 1998 to pursue this field of study at Parsons.
Study abroad was important for Johnson at this point in his life. He felt that his life experience and perspective as an African-American male had been limited, and wanted to see how he would perceive the world once he stepped outside the cultural confines of the United States. He had visited Paris in 1990 and found that he felt very comfortable in the city, even though he could not speak French. He knew that if he graduated from Parsons, he would have an accredited degree that would be recognized in the U.S. He looked at schools in London and Barcelona as well, and was quite interested in a school in Barcelona. However, he was concerned that the effort that was required to learn Catalan might compel him to stay in school longer than the time he would need to complete an English-language program, so he chose Parsons.
Over the past ten years, Johnson has participated in several shows in Paris, including two expositions at UNESCO and one at the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library). Seven of these shows have been one-person expos. Johnson has sold numerous paintings to private collectors in the United States, Canada, Germany, and France.
Collectors who are interested in viewing Johnson’s works can visit his studio by appointment. He is currently accepting commissions for portraits. For further information, contact the artist at :
To read next month on the site discoverparis.net