Tim Johnson

A new show of Tim Johnson's paintings tracks the artist's shifting relationship to the form, moving between a multitude of aesthetic traditions from around the Asia-Pacific region.

The works in this survey show span the last three decades of the twentieth century; they function as an historical record of Johnson’s involvement in interdisciplinary arts and political movements of the period, as well as telling the story of his development as a thinker, painter, and arts worker. The earliest work in the show, Che, dates from 1969, and registers Johnson’s involvement with the globalist social and political thinking – and agitating – of the 1960s. The fervour of this work, and its earnest outlook at global politics, reveals an artist in the early dawn of his career: serious, oppositional, heartfelt.

This energy is tempered, if only  somewhat, by the stints as a graduate student and a high school art teacher which are documented by Johnson’s paintings and prints from the 1970s and 80s . Betty, from 1973, shows its presumably eponymous schoolgirl suspended in the second before kicking a soccer ball: legs bent back elastic, hair flying, and arms outstretched in search of stillness. This painting dates from Johnson’s period of involvement with a NSW Department of Education scheme to bring practicing artists into schools. Though short lived, the period evidently provided Johnson both a vivifying encounter with youthful dis-order, and an occasion to reflect on the seasonal shifts and professional progressions of his own life. The prints Radio Birdman and The Other Side, both 1982, emerged from Johnson’s time on the MFA program with the University of Sydney, during which he undertook a screenprinting program with Tin Sheds. Formally and in terms of ‘subject’ – so far as they can be separated – these works deal with the punk scene in and beyond Sydney through the late twentieth century. In these works, we can come to see Johnson as a painter situated within the varied arts institutions of Australia’s modern history: schools, universities, artist run initiatives and galleries, beyond the work with Inhibodress – a Sydney-based ARI – for which he is perhaps most known.

After his MFA, it would not be long before Johnson returned to painting proper, as a series of works created in, around, and in collaboration with Papunya artists attests. From Johnson’s work in this period emerge some of his most complex questions about cultural exchange, appropriation, and knowledge-sharing. His dot paintings, borrowing formally from the work of Papunya and other Indigenous painters, enact a kind of open-handedly cross-cultural work, not only documenting but experimenting with the practices Johnson observed on travels throughout central Australia. This interest in syncretism extends to cultures outside of Australia as well, as Hua Hin. Thailand (1976) demonstrates.

Johnson’s involvement in painting, this show claims, has been also an involvement in arts work more broadly: as a teacher, researcher, and even an administrator. The institution of the family also plays a role; the works are, mainly, from the collection of Johnson’s father-in-law, Sir Ronald Elliot, which had been passed on to his daughter, Johnson’s first wife. Johnson’s is a life lived in and through art as a social process and product, and the show’s situation of his work in institutional contexts opens up important conversations about the role of the artist as a maker and a worker.

Early Works – Tim Johnson 1969-1998
17 March – 24 April 2021
Annette Larkin Fine Art, Sydney

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