As high-end art is increasingly driven by brand recognition and market forces, it can become ever more difficult to distinguish it from low-end consumer products we call junk food. Both flourish on clever, innovative ideas; both are created and marketed for profit; yet neither are especially nourishing or satisfying. Playful pop artists like Wayne Thiebaud explored this conflation fifty years ago and, for the past decade, it has been pursued more earnestly, and somberly, by the paintings of Chicago artist Pamela Michelle Johnson. Relying more on the dynamics of graphic design than the luscious qualities of pigment, Johnson wants us to question, and presumably resist “a culture of complete and instant gratification while ignoring the consequences of our indulgences.” Her sugary treats are isolated against black or gray backgrounds, as lemons or apples were by the Spanish Baroque painters. Her work shares the severity of paintings by Zurbarán, for example, but not the luminosity and consequent faith in the miraculous. Her forms appear pixelated and her design has the attention-grabbing dynamics of effective propaganda or advertising rather than the satisfying stasis of Old Master painting.
Several smaller paintings of hard candy might be interpreted as melancholy reflections on failed romance, where remorse eventually follows the hard sell of flashy smiles and flirtatious eyes. She paints a bright-red heart-shaped box of Valentine chocolates. Who could reject such a gift? Yet we notice that almost all of the wrappers within are empty. Several other paintings depict sticks or strings of hard candy. These confections are marked by stripes or swirls of brilliant color, yet they also feel cold and lonely. Where the candy has been shattered and broken, there emerges hopeless despair, a feeling that also accompanies her depiction of an ice cream cone dumped head-first onto a table.
But like the immortal cockroach, all kinds of junk are here to stay, whether it’s in the kitchen, the bedroom, the art gallery, or even the Oval Office. That’s the economy of an industrialized nation. Will we always need to wring our hands about it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to cultivate alternatives of real value? Some might even get branded and marketed just as effectively as junk.
Johnson’s depiction of a box of Cracker Jack candy includes the text of its familiar challenge “Guess what’s inside”—and of course, the mystery prize is always very small, cheap and disappointing—but her largest paintings handle their size well and offer mysteries that are more satisfying. For me, her monumental close-up of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches is quite nostalgic. I no longer consume these childhood delicacies, but the close-up view of bread oozing jam got me to re-experience the bountiful world as a ravenous twelve-year-old. Another large painting depicts gummy bears. I was never tempted by them, but her painting makes their translucent ursine figures feel strangely unworldly as well as cute. It’s always refreshing to be hit with a sense of wonder. (Chris Miller)
Pamela Michelle Johnson’s “Overindulgence” shows through February 17 at The Saw Room, 1712 Sherman Avenue, Evanston.