Matt Johnson: 19 Sculptures

The Field

July 29-November 1, 2023

The Ranch is pleased to announce a solo exhibition of the contemporary sculptor Matt Johnson. Providing an overview of Johnson’s signature sculptural motifs and materials, 19 Sculptures comprises a broad selection of the artist practice. Presenting fourteen sculptures in the gallery and five large outdoor sculptures sited on the grounds, the show spans nearly a decade, featuring works from 2015 to 2023.

Matt Johnson’s sculptural lexicon grasps objects and ideas that hover beneath our noses. Often rummaging through the proverbial kitchen sink or borrowing from the heap of objects conscribed to the “common” or “taken for granted,” Johnson lodges these objects into alternate frameworks both conceptual and emotional––the art historical and subcultural, the comical and nostalgic. In the indoor gallery presentation, trompe l’oeil sculptures prick at the imagination, overturning items through incisive gestures like recombination, impossible arrangements, and symbolic resonances. In some works, Johnson builds out figurative or abstract forms by joining objects of divergent dispositions only to reveal their fundamental affinities and combinative force.

For instance, 11 Brick Reclining Figure with 1 bar and a Matisse book (2019) gives a languid body in repose out of polychromed wood facsimiles of red bricks, a construction rebar, and a 2006 monograph on Henri Matisse. Mixing the seemingly unrelated worlds of building and art historical scholarship, Johnson plays out latent linguistic and formal connections between book and brick. A lengthy book is often referred to as a “mattone”––Italian for brick. Matisse: Figure, Color, Space is an especially hefty tome. Replete with reproductions of Matisse drawings and paintings, it surveys the French master’s signature odalisques, a term originally applied to consorts of the Turkish court but expanded to encompass suggestive images of nude and semi-nude women throughout Western art. One can almost imagine Johnson perusing this book, picking up some bricks lying around, and quickly composing them into an approximate figurative recline. Another work incorporating texts is 3 Intersecting Books (Andy Goldsworthy, Animal Behabior, Leonardo da Vinci) (2020) in which three books literally pass through each other, inhabiting the same three-dimensional space as to be overlapping––a figuration that undoubtedly reflects the intersecting ideas within. An honest reference to the foundational texts of his library, these also present the viewer with the connective tissue that cognitively links these discourses.

Either obliquely or overtly, Johnson often touches on the sequential progress of the sculptural medium––its tiger’s leaps and regressions alike. But these citations are not heavy-handed; in fact, they normally function in tandem with subtler cultural messages and impish visual cues. A set of fruit sculptures Cosmic Crisp (2022) and Sliced Watermelon (2022) upend the idea of the “still life”––slicing and arranging with an impossible virtuosity that demonstrates sculpture’s underacknowledged ability to encode dynamism. To this point, these works conjure associations with Futurist sculpture and its rhetoric of revolutionary incitement. Perhaps more locally, they meet Claes Oldenburg’s injunction for an “art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” Another perishable-cum-sculpture, Bread Figure (Kouroi) (2022), assembles an ungendered body out of loaves of bread. Boule for the head, baguette for the appendages. For Johnson, this upright posture designates a pivotal moment in the history of sculpture when figural representation crossed the threshold from sculptural relief into three-dimensions. Directly referencing the free-standing Greek sculpture, Johnson’s figure executes the single step forward inaugurated by this schema. At the same time, Bread Figure (Kouroi) also motions towards the Catholic rite of the Eucharist and the theological concept of transubstantiation–– bread standing for the body of Christ as if to say: “eat me, I’m yours.”

Material metamorphosis is, of course, the abiding logic of Johnson’s sculptural idiom. In each case, Johnson resists the inescapable corrosion of matter by recreating objects in more durable materials. His ascension to a paradigm of eternal permanence is undertaken with a healthy dose of skepticism–– such object endurance he admits is, ultimately, “a trivial pursuit.” Nevertheless, the artist’s endeavor to work in wood, stone, and metal aspires to the historiographic condition of sculpture. Take, for example, the two large, luscious pink marble blocks that become a pair of popsicles laying on their sides with comic bites taken from their topsides in Large Creamsicle I and Large Creamsicle II sited in the field. Their fifteen-foot length and ten-ton weight dissipates easily into soft, frothy ice cream leaving one to ponder how this dense structure transformes into a substance that melts in your mouth. Johnson gives perpetuity to a dessert that if not rapidly consumed (its own kind of energy transference), literally disappears. Considering evanescence there arises an uneasy categorical ambiguity: the sculptures propose a parodic monument to any manner of passing pleasure.

Other large-scale sculptures on view circle around these eschatological conundrums with similarly disarming subject matter. Two ten-foot bronze sculptures painted matte white depict an abnormally large frog and swan. Made from seashells, familiar to the trinkets found in seaside tourist traps, these animals were constructed by the artist from found shells and enlarged to become deities or sentries of the terrestrial world. In 19 Picnic table stack (plus 3), nineteen picnic tables are arranged into an hourglass shaped poltergeist stack that reaches 17.5 feet. Three additional tables are scattered at the base of the tower allowing spectators to sit within the work. Interacting with the item from which the sculpture is made––in its original form and intended use––adds a new dimension of heightened contemplation. A self-reflexive gesture, the sculpture reifies the way Johnson’s art routinely gathers concepts and objects and places them within circles of understanding. Like self-replicating machines that mimic life’s evolutionary track, these works test, adopt, experiment, mutate, and fail. In the end, Johnson exhumes a sculptural mode that borrows from systems and processes of the ancient and modern––achieving an organic elegance that is undergirded by an enduring sense of object intelligence.

The exhibition falls on the heels of Johnson’s celebrated contribution to the most recent installment of Desert X. Sleeping Figure (2023), a monumental sculpture comprised of a dozen defunct shipping containers welded together to suggest a human body in repose, commanded the landscape of the Coachella Valley. It was recently announced that Johnson’s Sleeping Figure will be on permanent installation at the Marfa Invitational/Foundation. A Los Angeles Times article lauded the colossal work–– praising its jocular reimagining of the classic art historical motif of the odalisque to contend with pressing issues of the contemporary from the excessive consumerism of globalism to the avowed permanence of Land Art.

Matt Johnson (b. 1978, New York, NY) received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, MD and his MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles, CA. His work has been celebrated in recent group exhibitions such as The Artist is Present, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Yuz Museum, Shanghai, China (2018); 99 Cents or Less, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit, MI (2017); Wanderlust, High Line Art, New York, NY (2016); Funny, FLAG Art Foundation, New York, NY (2012); Lifelike, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; traveled to New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin, TX (2012); 11th Triennale Kleinplastik, Fellbach, Germany (2010); and Second Nature, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA (2009); among many others. His works are held in public collections worldwide including the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, Norway; Ekebergparken Sculpture Park, Oslo, Norway; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Pérez Art Museum, Miami, FL; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY. Johnson’s work is permanently on view as part of the collection at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA.

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