The Drawers -  Ashley Johnson - Primal   Introduction by Julie Oakes

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VULTUREMAN II - Imperialist

 Modernity is overlaid with processes disguising our reliance upon the natural world.

The mysterious roots of animism, 'otherly' and unusual to contemporary western understanding, had logic behind it at one time. In order to survive, symbiotic relationships with the animals had to be fulfilled - practically and symbolically. The masks of the native west coast aboriginals for instance, often frightening, were used as a visual channel to understanding the spirit of the animal.

When an artist knows a truth and has a means to picture it, the result is often incredible; it seems so extraordinary as not to be possible. Historically, that incredulous understanding has been couched in allegory.

Connections between animal and human domains have long been used in art and religion as a way of understanding human existence. Sacred ceremonies used masks with costumes of hides and feathers, centaurs, Pan, Medusa, the Holy Spirit as a dove, Luke as a lion, winged angels, horned devils, Ganesha, the elephant headed deity, Hanuman with his monkey parts, Shiva as a snake, the Egyptian Nekhbet as vulture, Horus as hawk or Wadjet as cobra, Fenrisulfra as a wolf with Norse mythology, the Sphinx from Socrates, harpies, - the list of zoomorphic instances is a long one, historically.

Modern science has also drawn parallels to the animal world as in the study of psychological correlations between the human and animal states or the imaging of animal systems (pigs, rats, hamsters, dogs) for the study of the internal workings of the body in medicine.

Language utilises zoomorphism both directly (an ill kempt woman as a dog, an informer as a rat or a mole, a pretty girl as a chick, a sly person as a fox, or in contemporary clichés such as police as pig, hipster as cat, or female genitalia as pussy) and metaphorically (cute as a bug's ear).

Literature abounds with animals that communicate with humans or deities who use animal forms to further their ends, with Greek mythology being especially fecund. Leda, raped by Zeus begat Helen of Troy and then Zeus as a bull coupled with Europa, from which the word Europe originated. Demeter transformed herself into a mare to escape Poseidon but Poseidon counter-transformed himself into a stallion to pursue her, and succeeded in the rape. The white rabbit led a psychedelic chase, frogs became princes, Marvel Comics created Beastboy and Wolfsbane, and Harry Potter converses with owls. Even modern manufacturing has assimilated animals naming such products as Mustang, Pinto, and Greyhound after the beasts or the new BMW, simply called Shapeshifter.

We are accustomed to the transfiguration of human to animal (therianthropy) and yet Ashley Johnson's work contains a shock. A gestalt. A jolt. In a culture grown used to visual trauma through the wide range of imagery made available through the internet, global media and cinematic expertise, the power of a painting on paper can still hit a nerve and shock with the impact of visual depictions foreign to our knowledge. This jarring of sensibility, when executed in a manner that is readable, is a positive step towards wisdom. That the response felt might be one of repulsion rather than attraction, is not a negative reaction. It is simply, an intelligent awakening.

The reception for work from the Primal series might be compared to an imagined reaction to Hieronymus Bosch's work at the time that it was first presented. Johnson and Bosch each present a visualisation of the makings, members and happenings of an underworld. It is a nether land of phantasms that impacts the human psyche for it is recognised. It is virtually recognisable for Johnson uses a high realism with an admirable and adept painting style to further his revelations just as did Bosch. Bosch, however was using literal descriptions from the bible from which he patterned his creatures. It was a common narrative of the time.

Today the story is more complex. To bring about such a gestalt within our mechanised, technological, environment by using animals - and rather exotic and strange animals to which we may not have even been actually exposed - demonstrates that there is a reflection of self in the imagery. This gestalt is pertinent to our contemporary existence.

It is impossible to deconstruct the work into parts that add up to the whole impact of a Johnson painting because it is a realised gestalt, something that has not happened before and for which there is no preparation other than the personal potential to assimilate the work. Africa, to one who is not African, may be incomprehensible and the depiction of beasts interacting with humans strike chords that provoke a kind of fear, a horror. The unknown that is lurking beyond the periphery of knowledge is the cause of psychosis and Freud worked with this notion of recognizing and naming the areas of the consciousness that we have been socialized to ignore. With recognition, fear is allayed as the 'mysterious other' becomes an identifiable quotient. Once identified, it can be dealt with.

To use hyenas, nocturnal carnivores that feed primarily upon carrion, as the image of the predator upon a female human infant in order to describe the abhorrent practice of the rape of infants to cure AIDS, absolutely and effectively depicts the desperation of the disease. This confused and inadequate prescription of the shamans is counteracted by telling of the practice in order to stop it. Johnson is to be commended for his bravery.

Are these monsters that the artist is showing us? Is it monstrous to inflict such visions upon a world already saturated in disturbing ideas and images? Johnson takes absolute pains to describe his concepts through these visuals and engage. The ravenous, guttural, un-socialized instincts of raw incredulity are placed within a reasonable over-the-couch size painting for contemplation. The work is beautifully put together. The colors are lush and often harmonious. Each painting is industriously rendered, planned and composed. And in order to further the disambiguation, Johnson has written a piece inspired by his own life experience that is placed in juxtaposition to each visual (rather than as an explanation).

Johnson has placed conceptually difficult material in a form that is as accessible as he is able to make it. The gestalt arrives through a manipulation of elements that appeal to the higher aspects of the consciousness through a fine aesthetic. The subject matter becomes realisable, not so foreign, a bed for a seed of enlightenment on the nature of man.

Copyright © 2008,  Julie Oakes