Bartley Johnson

Artist Statement

Johnson portrait
The world I dream inside my studio mirrors the world outside it--the sprawling twenty-first century chaos driven and dominated by irrational emotions. It strikes me sometimes as humorous, sometimes as terrifying. In looking over the evolution of my work over the last few years, it is increasingly coming to reflect a new Dark Ages viewed through a comic-apocalyptic lens. I sometimes reflect on Goya's etching, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Goya lived during the Age of Enlightenment, a time during which the Constitution of the United States was drafted. We are living at a time where our President talks to God for approval to make war and shreds that same Constitution. The Age of Enlightenment has passed.

I make prints, drawings, paintings, comic books, figures out of clay. Living just outside of Albuquerque I watch the cranes flying in for the winter while up above them I notice the jet trails of fighter bombers. If it were to secede from the Union, the state of the New Mexico would be the third largest nuclear power on earth. Yet most of the art plastered on every available gallery wall space reflects some kind of insipid fantasy of a sentimentalized nature or a sentimentalized culture. Most art seems designed just like corporate advertising--to flatter the viewer and collector or buttress their delusions. Art is something to harmonize with "contemporary lifestyles which could be more accurately described as a deathstyles.

My work derives from of my madness--a fever that drives me to make visible an internal world shaped by the fear and anxiety of the society I live in.

I don't make any artistic claims. I have no idea what art is. Some French guy named Duchamp elevated a urinal to iconic status a few years back. That about sums it up. Reading art criticism in a magazine is like reading some kind of exquisite Martian humor. What are those Martians going on about now? Try reading Donald Kuspit describing his religious ecstasy over a colored fluorescent light bulb if you want a good belly laugh. So much for contemporary art.

I just throw down whatever mess is in my head. I've picked up certain skills over the years that allow me to structure the mess. But I have little idea where the forms and creatures come from? Why do certain forms resonate or appeal to me? Why do certain characters breathe and live in my minds eye?

I watched a DVD recently of the 1961 Disney movie, Babes in Toyland. The story was typical Disneyesque childish nonsense--no doubt derived from early test marketing. But the sets, costumes, colors, facial gesticulations, etc., were mesmerizing even now. The impact of having my subconscious bathed in those strange surreal fantasy worlds is inescapable. Long before being shaped by the Vietnam war and the psychedelic drug culture, my visual world was being shaped by popular culture fever dreams. I remember being in my Uncles guest room when I was six years old or so and while everyone else was asleep I would watch the wallpaper metamorphose in all manner of bizarre forms. The earliest nightmare I recall was being escorted to Hell in an elevator operated by some corrupted version of the Tasmanian Devil.

I suppose my work could be viewed as The Utopian World of Sixties Comics and Animation Gone Bad. It would be nice to think it's just some kind of personal madness. But try taking a stroll through the late night animation Universe sometime--now that ain't no Walt Disney world. Or wander through some video hell where you blast heads into mincemeat. Or spin the dial of degeneracy-from COPS, many episodes filmed locally, to Fear Factor to every variety of humiliate the contestants. Hardly new but picking up speed. I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto.

At a gut level it feels to me like I'm recording the story of a culture entering a final stage of decay. But paradoxically, I labor mightily to make the work as compelling and well-crafted as possible. So deep within me there seems to be a belief or hope that there will be a future where the virtues of faith, hope, charity and such will emerge triumphant. I'm not particularly happy with the role of PROPHET OF DOOM. But you play the hand that's dealt you.

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