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-portrait drawings 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.’
Review: Claudette Johnson at Modern Art Oxford
By Rachel Spence, Financial Times, 9 July 2019
Review: Claudette Johnson at Hollybush Gardens
By Sonya Dyer, Frieze, Issue 193, March 2018
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 in Face Value: Portraits from the Arts Council Collection, The Burton at Bideford, 13 July – 26 September 2021
Claudette Johnson in Am I Asking for Miracles Here?, The House of St. Barnabas, 17 May – 20 December 2021
Claudette Johnson (born 1959, Manchester, UK) lives and works in London, UK. Johnson started her career as part of the newly formed BLK Art Group, which she joined in 1981 while she was 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); In This Skin: Drawings by Claudette Johnson, Black Art Gallery, London, (1992).
Johnson’s recent solo exhibitions include Claudette Johnson: I Came to Dance, Modern Art Oxford, (2019), and Claudette Johnson, Hollybush Gardens, London, (2017). She has participated in numerous group exhibition, including 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). Her work is held in numerous public collections, including Tate, British Council Collection, Arts Council Collection, Manchester Art Gallery, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Rugby Museum, and Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.