With his fifteen miniature oil paintings that form the better part of the “Small But Mighty” group show at Flatfile Galleries, Milwaukee-born Chicagoan Scott David Johnson continues his meditations on post-millennial American menace and dread (think DeLillo: “White Noise”’s “airborne toxic event,” “Mao II”’s “future belongs to crowds”). They are small—either a foot or eight inches square—with a spare, allusive economy of strokes, but still mightily unsettling. From four distinct but related series, these 2007-2008 works on canvas or linen (all on wood) depict the aftermaths or unfoldings of tragic disasters or civic disturbances, but with the main event—what would usually be the mass-mediated spectacle—“out of the frame.” For the most part, the real story—the spectacular crash, the chemical spill, the explosion, the demonstration, the sudden stunning show of force—is off-stage. We see, often from distant or helicopter-high perspectives, nearly abstracted scenes of emergency vehicles and workers (as in “Holiday Weekend”), hazmat-suited bomb squads, accident victims, cops in riot gear and, more reductively and suggestively, strewn orange-and-white-striped traffic barricades (as in “Presidential Motorcade”). All the figures and objects float context-less on monochromatic (sometimes just black) fields—almost exercises in form and pattern. Although we lack all the details, we know something has happened, is happening, or is about to, making us complicit as we invent dramas involving crowds and social control, mayhem and mob rule. Johnson’s paintings articulate our latent anxiety—nameless, faceless—with the new Security State. (Jeff Huebner)
Through April 11 at Flatfile Galleries, 217 N. Carpenter, (312)491-1190.