Claudette Johnson’s intimate studies of black men and women lend the portrayed figures a profound sense of character and presence. Addressing both the Black body and the subject’s interiority, two central concerns for her practice, Johnson complicates and challenges historical constructions and traditions of representation.
Featuring a reclining young man, Kind of Blue, 2020, explores the way a horizontal figure can inhabit the picture plane, while also recalling and subverting the iconography of the reclined (typically female) body in histories of representation. It is large in scale, as with much of Johnson’s work, such that her mark-making becomes gestural and bodily. Johnson typically builds up layers slowly, here alternating between pastel and gouache, progressively building her subject into a commanding figure. In the finished picture, remaining white spaces are contrasted with areas of vibrant blue gouache and dense pastel in an adept formal exploration of empty space, line, and pigment, which Johnson characterises as a ‘play between empty and full’.
Working from life using a mirror, Johnson’s self-studies explore the use of line in depicting the self, finding different ways to move across a familiar body. The gestural lines exude energy and speed, overlapping, criss-crossing, and blurring one another. Johnson notes that the multiplicity of lines, or ‘attempts’, are part of the journey of drawing, which involves ‘not erasing but retaining numerous re-sightings of the same form, each line taking us across the body’s terrain by a different route.’
I thought we’d stormed the citadel, but we hadn’t: Claudette Johnson on blazing the trail for Black artists
Interview by Tim Adams, The Observer, 24 September 2023
Painting a new pantheon: portrait series honours Black radicals
Feature by Lanre Bakare, The Guardian, 1 April 2023
An Artist Returns After a ‘Long Wilderness’
Questionnaire by Kadish Morris, T Magazine, The New York Times Style Magazine, 9 March 2023
Interview by Subin Anderson, Plus Magazine, Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2022
‘We were the AYBs – the angry young Blacks’: the art movement that rocked Thatcher’s Britain
Interview by Alex Mistlin, The Guardian, 4 January 2022
How to do Frieze week for free in London
Exhibition Round-up by Ben Luke, Evening Standard, 9 October 2021
Colouring Outside the Lines
Conversation between Claudette Johnson and Joy Labinjo, Frieze, No. 222, October 2021
Review: Claudette Johnson at Modern Art Oxford
Review by Rachel Spence, Financial Times, 9 July 2019
Review: Claudette Johnson at Hollybush Gardens
Review by Sonya Dyer, Frieze, No. 193, March 2018
Essay by Kate Mcfarlane, in Close: Drawn Portraits (Exhibition catalogue: Drawing Room, 2018)
Claudette Johnson: Portraits for a Small Room
Including a Closer Look An Education Through Exhibition Project (198 Gallery, London, 1995)
Pushing Back the Boundaries
With writings by Claudette Johnson, Lubaina Himid, and Maud Sulter (Exhibition catalogue: Rochdale Art Gallery, 1990)
From The Pan-Afrikan Connection, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, 1983
Claudette Johnson (b. 1959, Manchester, UK) lives and works in London. Johnson started her career as part of the newly formed BLK Art Group, which she joined in 1981 while a student at Wolverhampton University. In the 1980s Johnson showed her work in a number of significant shows including Five Black Women, Africa Centre, London,(1983); Black Women Time Now, Battersea Arts Centre, London,(1984); The Thin Black Line, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, (1985) and In This Skin: Drawings by Claudette Johnson, Black Art Gallery, London, (1992).
Presence, Johnson’s first monographic exhibition at a major public gallery in London is on view at The Courtauld Gallery until January 2024. In 2024 she will have a solo presentation at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, and will be included in group shows The Time of Our Lives, Drawing Room, London; The Time is Always Now, National Portrait Gallery, London and On Art and Motherhood, Arnolfini, Bristol. Recent solo exhibitions include Drawn Out, Ortuzar Projects, New York (2023); Still Here, Hollybush Gardens, London (2021); Claudette Johnson: I Came to Dance, Modern Art Oxford (2019); Claudette Johnson, Hollybush Gardens, London, (2017). She has participated in numerous group exhibitions including: Women in Revolt! Tate Britain, London; A Tall Order!: Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s, Touchstones Gallery, Rochdale (both 2023); Rock My Soul II (Stockholm), Galleri Futura, Stockholm; Courtauld Connections: Works from our National Partners, The Project Space, The Courtauld Gallery, London; Drawing Closer, RISD Museum, Rhode Island; On Love, HOME, London; Me, Myself and I: Artists’ Self-Portraits, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol (all 2022); Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 50s — Now, Tate Britain, London; Coventry Biennial 2021: HYPER-POSSIBLE, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry; Bodies in Space, MIRROR, Plymouth College of Art, Plymouth; From Hockney to Himid: Sixty Years of British Printmaking, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester; Am I Asking for Miracles Here?, The House of St. Barnabas, London; Landscape Portrait: Now and Then, Hestercombe Gallery, Somerset (all 2021); Close: Drawn Portraits, The Drawing Room, London, (2018); The Place Is Here, South London Gallery and Nottingham Contemporary, UK, (both 2017); No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990, Guildhall Art Gallery, London, (2015-16); and Thin Black Line(s), Tate Britain, (2012).
Johnson’s work is held in numerous public collections, including Tate, London, UK; British Council, UK; Arts Council England, UK; Manchester Art Gallery, UK; Wolverhampton Art Gallery, UK; Rugby Museum, UK and Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, UK.