Issue 168, Winter 2003
Bradford Johnson’s paintings ghost the photographic images beneath them. Johnson has long been an admirer of fellow New Englander Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose distinctive, moody canvases were achieved through excessive and lengthy reworking of his subjects in oil and glazes, almost to abstraction. Johnson’s work is similarly labor intensive (and similarly moody): First, he underpaints the image, based on a photograph, onto a panel; next, he applies anywhere from fifteen to thirty layers of clear acrylic over that surface, over and in between which he paints, finally, hundreds of hairbrush lines of various sizes and colors. These brushstrokes call attention to the painting’s surface, thus subverting the picture’s illusion; close-up, the images break down and verge on abstraction.
The painter Francis Bacon wrote that “an illustrational form tells you through its intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a nonillustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into face.” Johnson’s rich, alchemical paintings, like Bacon’s, provide both illustration and nonillustration simultaneously—the experiential depth of representation (the photographic source), and a sensuous (abstract) surface of wild, hairbrush lines; it’s an especially pleasing combination.
A Massachusetts native currently living in Boston, Johnson spent most of his childhood on Cape Cod, where he became interested in all things maritime, as can be seen in The Maine, Coast Guards/Signal Flags, and Dark Highlands, which pays tribute to his childhood obsession with the Loch Ness monster. The evocative Departure offers something of the view from what used to be Johnson’s backyard on Boston Harbor—Logan Airport—while watchers, the most recent of these paintings, depicts the guards who oversaw the execution of Abraham Lincoln’s assassins. But regardless of subject matter, Johnson has fashioned a unique style, which imbues his paintings with a depth and authority that endlessly teases the photographic images at their root.