Reverse Abstraction: Giving Form and Contour to Mental States

Art and a narrative by Michael Johnson

photo 1 (2).JPG

I remember when I was much younger I loved reading about mythical creatures. I was addicted to reading cryptozoological books, and I filled my sketchbooks cover to cover with depictions of those strange creatures. Yet for all the outlandish and fantastic beasts I read about, my favorite always was the lowly jackalope. Wyverns, sphynxes, the Loch Ness Monster; those were all well and good but I knew that they were just stories and myths, and I knew I would never have a chance of ever actually seeing one in real life. The jackalope, on the other hand had some promise. It seemed just real enough to maybe exist, and the idea of one day stumbling upon one filled me with the same giddy boyish hope one gets when planning out their future career as a firefighting astronaut who also plays professional football on the side. Eventually, as I got older, I of course went through the phase where one has to come to terms with the fact that most of their boyhood dreams would unfortunately remain as such. I learned that fires do not typically occur in space, I learned that astronaut training is prohibitively rigorous and does not leave much time for football practice in the off season. I learned that I wasn't really good at football anyway. And while this childhood disillusionment is perfectly natural, mine seemed to continue unendingly to new lows. I learned that people lie more often than they tell the truth, I learned that pain was a much more common force than pleasure. I learned that my parents hated each other, and that love could have just as well been a creature in one of my books. I learned that the most I could hope for in life was a vague discontentment, although more often then not my life felt like a painful and pointless burden I had to carry around with me forever and ever until I finally got to die. Then one day I learned something which had an unexpected effect on how I viewed everything. I learned that jackalopes were in fact real animals. The one fairy tale creature that I always had a hunch might actually be real turned out to be so. I was right after all. Yes, there are instances where rabbits grow horns or antler-like protrusions from their skulls, and it is because they are afflicted with cottontail papilloma virus, a type of cancer which causes uncontrollable keratinous growths. These growths eventually get so large that they interfere with the rabbits ability to eat, and the rabbit eventually dies a slow, pathetic, malformed death.

All of those saccharine promises that were made to me about life turned out to be thinly veiled cancers. Every conceivable thing about this world that I thought was positive ended up being a disease that results in an agonizing death. Life itself, from the second you come out of the womb, is just a long, drawn out process of dying. And as I grew older and older my life really did feel like a cancerous growth on my skull that was ever increasing in size, and I knew that one day the weight of it would crush my cranium and kill me. Around this time I also discovered I appreciated movies with sad endings. It was in middle school when I first made these connections, and these dismal beliefs have had an unfortunate permanence ever since.

If you can think of your life as a lens of perception, then depression is a film of soot on that lens that distorts and misshapes everything you come into contact with. Everything you see, hear, feel, or think is rendered ugly and pitiful. I have had to look out through these tarnished lenses for quite some time, and one of the few reprieves I have is through painting. The world may be unlovely and inhospitable, but when I'm in front of my canvas then at least for a little while, at least in a small amount of space, I can create something beautiful. It is in this way that I have played the world at it's own game. My subject matter is ugly, just like the rest this existence. My figures are disproportionate; they have odd protrusions erupting from their bodies. My animals are emaciated and sickly. Nearly everything I paint has empty, blind eyes. And just the same I give them saturated, vibrant colors, and I try and make them glow with a chromatic radiance that is in every sense not of this world. I do this because I really want the ugly things to be beautiful too.

Through painting I have, in my mind, closed the gap between the ugly and the beautiful, or between the happy and the sad. I've come to see that they are just two ends of a continuum that eventually wraps around itself and meets again, and the troughs of your deepest lows are a direct reflection of the crests of the soaring highs that are soon to follow. No rain, no rainbows is what I'm saying, essentially. I can see now that life is like one giant sad ending. A sad ending that has been written so elegantly that you are moved to tears at the sheer beauty. And I really like movies with sad endings


Check out more of Michael's work below and visit his site here.

Michael Johnson's artwork finds its home somewhere between the unnerving and the alluring, the decaying and the blossoming, the mythic and the biographical. His works can be seen as self-portraits, collectively making up the mindscapes of his consciousness. The process he uses is that of reverse abstraction: he seeks to flesh out those myriad mental states that accompany the human condition and give them form and contour. Anxieties are given hooves and snouts, sleepless nights are turned into sprawling landscapes, tendons and sinew are surgically connected to thoughts and memories until finally an aesthetic figure is born. In this way Michael is like Courbet, constantly pursuing that “Real Allegory” which can be used to outline his psyche. But to say that he is directly inspired by any artist would be a slight misstep. To Michael everything in life is his muse, whether it come in the form of his 10 month old son's scribbles or Mondrian's 10th composition. He subscribes to no set style nor movement, only holding onto his inspirations long enough for them to pass through his lens of perception before being projected onto his canvases and released.