Turning art inside out
J. Seward Johnson exhibition offers a chance to step through the canvas of some classic Impressionist works
Sunday, October 12, 2003BY DAN BISCHOFF
The fundamental fantasy in the sculpture of J. Seward Johnson Jr., is to pass through the frame of a famous painting and into the picture, like Alice through the looking glass, in order to walk around inside the perspective. Jerseyans who visit his 24-acre landscaped sculpture park in Hamilton, which is dotted with 3-D recreations of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in bronze, are by now quite familiar with the dreamy jokiness these works inspire.
It is a fantasy much older than Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" or Madame Tussaud's wax effigies, and certainly older than the quote from Vladimir Nabokov that introduces reproductions of Johnson's work in the catalogue for his new show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (the first Bulfinch art catalogue, by the way, to include a pop-up image).
"In an English fairy tale my mother had once read to me," Nabokov recalls in his "Speak, Memory," "a small boy stepped out of his bed into a picture and rode his hobbyhorse along a painted path between silent trees. While I knelt on my pillow in a mist of drowsiness and talc powdered well-being ... I imagined the motion of climbing into the picture above my bed and plunging into that enchanted beechwood."
The fantasy actually goes back nearly as far as single-point perspective itself, into the Renaissance and perhaps as far back as ancient Greece. It stems from the obvious flaw in Western illusionism that requires the viewer to find the correct position from which to view any two dimensional work that is feigning three dimensions in order to bring all the elements into readable alignment.
For the rest of this year the Corcoran Gallery is showing 18 tableaux based on famous Impressionist paintings that have been cast in bronze, aluminum or hydrocal (a kind of plaster) painted to look like the pictures by the Grounds for Sculpture impresario and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. If you've been to the Grounds, you have seen some of these paintings recreated in copses and along a man-made lake in arrangements that turn artfully bent trees and artificial hills into props.
Inside the neoclassical interior of the Corcoran, these settings have been recreated in plastic and painted fabrics. The landscapes that fill the backgrounds of the famous paintings chosen (Caillebotte's "Paris Street, Rainy Day," Van Gogh's "Bedroom at Arles," the rustic dance hall railing and littered tables of Renoir's "Dance in the Country," and so on) have been digitally reproduced in full life-size scale and placed behind the sculptures like theatrical backdrops.
Whether the weight of bronze can be made to look like paint is a question that leaves your mind when confronted with such elaborate scene settings. "On Poppied Hill," a Johnson combination of two paintings by Claude Monet, sits at the Grounds on a perfectly conical hill covered in red poppies. At the Corcoran, the hill is recreated -- at the same scale -- inside a marble-lined chamber just off the landing of the main staircase that is transformed into a pile of fake horticultural profusion on an invisible wooden frame topped by a statue of Mdme. Monet under her parasol, looking for all the world like a gigantic bronze angel on a huge Christmas tree.
Johnson goes even further in the galleries upstairs. For Edouard Manet's famously shocking indoor portrait of a Paris courtesan, the "Olympia," Johnson has not merely recreated the prostitute, her leering maid and the notoriously spitting cat on the foot of the bed in realistically patinated bronze, but also the entire room, complete with fake painted wallpaper, swags of Second Empire drapery, a coffered ceiling hung with a crystal chandelier and even a curtain of glass beads you must part, like a paying customer, to enter.
In other words, it's installation art, now an Establishment genre that can claim its origins in New Brunswick sculptor George Segal's life-cast plaster figures of the 1960s. Installation, needless to say, hardly existed when Johnson started making his photo-realist sculptures of everyday people in the 1970s.
"The whole thing is an effort to bring the experience of the park indoors," Johnson said from his farm in Hopewell, "to transmute an outdoors effect into a museum effect. And that's what's so interesting when you start to do this thing, start to digitize the backgrounds and so on. You learn how the artists all bent these lines to give a certain appearance, how all these paintings need to be viewed from a 'sweet spot' that is just so.
"I wanted to paint a pair of shoe prints on the gallery floor to show you where to stand," like the prints on a dance chart, Johnson says, chuckling. "But that's just me, you know. Museum designers aren't necessarily into that."
The art world, which has for years rejected Johnson's work (Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik wrote of the Corcoran show, "this exhibition provides the most mind-numbing, head-spinning, belly-flipping experience you're likely to come across ... it's really, really bad"), is very much into questions of optics and perspective right now. British artist David Hockney recently published a popular book that details the way old masters "cheated" with technical tricks and optical devices to make their paintings more convincing. Illusionism -- whether aided by video projections or computer-generated graphics -- is a much-discussed topic, which kind of puts Johnson in a sweet spot all his own.
The Corcoran show is also the first major retrospective of the neo-Impressionist sculptures in an American museum, and a bit of a homecoming for Johnson. The artist held his first one-man show in a Washington hotel in 1970, the same year he took over the then- Washington-based International Sculpture Center and sponsored a sprawling sculpture invitational that dotted the Mall with modern statuary.
All the bells and whistles on "Beyond the Frame"-- the anamorphic backdrops, the bright patinas, the little 3-D additions Johnson makes to the parts of a painting you are not supposed to see (like the self-portrait and the figures of three other contemporary artists, including Red Grooms, that he put into the background of Renoir's multifigure "Luncheon of the Boating Party") -- tend to make people focus on how the sculptures are done, which winds up in a series of technical discussions about line of sight and the art of reproducing brushstrokes in bronze. But that misses the point of the work entirely.
Johnson is playing with artworks that have become so familiar to many of us that we cannot really see them anymore, in the same way that Rembrandt's "Syndics of the Drapers' Guild" became just another cigar box lid for many in the 1950s. Johnson wants viewers to walk into his Impressionist masterpieces and recapture the sense of a new experience the paintings once gave, and thereby bring you closer to the process of visualization that the artists were engaged in themselves.
And that is actually very close to the reason Johnson, scion of one of the most privileged and wealthy families in this country, became an artist in the first place.
"You make art to help you see," Johnson, 73, says. "Too many people think art is a formula that should teach you how to see art, but it is in fact a way to help you see life. It's life that is the real subject.
"You know, that's why people buy art," he says. "To try to see that part of life just the way the artist did, to see that street or figure the way Manet did, say. That is certainly why I buy art -- and I've got barns full of the stuff -- because you can look at art and can see why, not so much how, he made the shapes and colors. It puts you there, in life, where the artist was when he made the thing."
That doesn't preclude the main thing Johnson is after in his art as well as his life -- a little fun. At the Corcoran he is having quite a bit of fun, especially when the transpositions allow him room to play with barber-shop-mirror paradoxes.
One of the largest Impressionist recreations at the Grounds is "If It Were Time," a version of Claude Monet's "Garden at Sainte-Adresse," which uses a man-made lake as a stand-in for the sea (there is a little cut-out anchored in the lake that looks like the silhouette of the approaching boat in the painting). There's no room for a watery vista at the Corcoran's "If It Were Time," so Johnson has introduced a painted backdrop instead -- except instead of looking like Monet's seascape, it looks like the lake in Hamilton, even down to the Grounds' four-star restaurant, Rat's, that also borders the lake.
When all of us are gone, J. Seward Johnson's bronzes will still be here, and I'd wager that they will be seen quite differently then, and so will his sense of humor. After all, since the Impressionists you could argue that more than flatness or abstraction, the biggest change in art has been the injection of humor into the hallowed halls of art museums. Manet was not above it himself. After all, he painted a naked woman having lunch with two properly outfitted bourgeois in a city park in "Dejeuner sur l'herbe," and that was supposed to be funny as well as shocking.
Johnson has his own version of "Dejeuner sur l'herbe," called "Dejeuner Deja Vu," which is the work chosen for a pop-up reproduction in the catalogue. The painting caused a scandal back in 1863 because the naked woman could not be a nude goddess but a real, naked woman, given her surroundings.
"When they said they wanted to do a pop-up version of 'Dejeuner sur l'herbe,'" Johnson says, "my first question was, 'What's going to pop up?'"