Devin Johnson from Los Angeles, California is a Masters’ in Fine Arts Candidate at the Pratt Institute of Art and Architecture. Johnson held a prestigious internship at the Patrick Painter Gallery in Los Angeles, and derives inspiration from his cosmopolitan travels, his African American heritage, and a charismatic and courageous personality as a painter.
In “The Hangtime My Brother” painted in 2017, Johnson explores themes of time and desire. In the upper left corner of the painting, a rubbed-off image shows a young African American boy in a du-rag cap. Johnson said,
The piece is a commentary on the parallels of hair and hairstyles seen in pick-up games. The top right image is an image transfer of a young boy wearing a du-rag cap, as well as other smaller image transfers that mirror du-rags in contemporary culture, some captures from social media platforms and even reference to photographer John Edmonds. The du-rag is a symbol associated with hairstyles such as waves and cornrows. The term “hangtime” refers to the term how much air to the arm has over the net to enable a dunk (think of Michael Jordan). Also hangtime is an inside term that celebrates the hair growth from the back of the neck in the reference of cornrow growth.
The canvas at large is painted with a canary-yellow background, which pushes its largest image of a basketball player making a slammed dunk, and this basketball player is rendered also in black and white. The “hang time” is the player making the dunk, but also the idea that the moment was captured eternally as a photograph.
Here, Johnson questions basketball as a diversion, using the color yellow to communicate joy, pleasure, and love. The conflict emerges between the character’s ephemeral victory compared to his opponent, the ancient woman. This consideration of time is part of art and painting more generally, and a contemporary counterpart might be Nicole Eisenman’s “Coping” where that artist poses a coffee cup with Greco-Roman columns in the lower left corner. But Johnson is more kind and gentle because of his use of the color yellow, and his choice of what point of action to use his hero, that is, in the midst of a victory. In this way, this painting’s meaning resembles conclusions from President Obama’s Dreams from my Father, because Obama never stopped seeing basketball as a force for good, a force for fun, and pleasure. As if to ratify this perspective, Johnson put subtle neologism symbols in the upper right hand part o the painting, which appear as an afterword in a narrative of how the viewer’s eye moves. Johnson makes his own symbols here, and the audience feels empowered.
One corresponding story Johnson tells is of his time working at the Patrick Painter Gallery in Los Angeles. Johnson said one day a curator of the gallery pulled Johnson aside and told Johnson his paintings referenced art history and paintings without knowing or doing justice to those painters. In a story of what most people would call a point of severe discouragement – time to stop painting, Johnson took the criticism as an opportunity for introspection, and a reason to dive into art history and learn from it. About his career, Johnson said, “A lot of frustration happened, but I find myself to be ambitious.” This is the sign of an intelligent pragmatist.
In a second painting, “Garden of Deleted History,” Johnson again uses bright yellow to communicate joy and spirit. This time, it’s for a flower on a dark black background. Johnson commits the largest part of the painting to the face of a beautiful woman. Her face is mostly obscured, and her lips’ shine has been effaced to show dots as if from a comic strip, which has important citations of pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein. The heroine of this painting, with her sumptuous beauty is eclipsed by a black shadow that covers her eyes and forehead. This is a reference to hijabs and burkas in Islam and veils in Christian weddings. Here Johnson places the bright yellow flower opening with forced perspective over and through the beautiful veiled woman. Therefore, Johnson is quick to point out that while he knows this woman is beautiful, the viewer is nevertheless not merely interested in her looks, beauty, or even the sacred feminine aspects of fantasy and desire accessible as mystery and intrigue. The fatality of a “femme fatale” in this painting overlooks the flower of hope, and this painting might say as much about anyone who torpedoes love in the name of idiotic misanthropy.
Johnson’s “The Hang Time” is an excellent example of avant-garde art because they apply to art historian Clement Greenberg’s aesthetic theories. Greenberg makes a distinction between kitsch art and high art based on how derivative or original a work is. Johnson’s originality comes from a deeply personal place, and thus he is able to make original works. In “Hang Time” Johnson’s personal stakes make this painting more than some academic argument. Dreams come and go, which is as true for ancient civilizations as it is for young athletes, but Johnson creates his own meaning, and in the painting his own symbols, which means this isn’t some petty argument on CNN or Fox News. Johnson’s forgiveness by using gentle yellows and the true victory of the hero isn’t petty at all. This creates a punctum for the viewer Roland Barthes’ term for a sentimental and deeply personal meaning about a photograph of the universal. The photographic universal here is basketball, symbolic for any dream or goal, and the sentimentality is the viewer’s dreams. Johnson’s message of hope is part of this, and urges the viewer to move with her criticisms and to transcend her discouragements. The viewer isn’t allowed to wallow, but instead is implored and urged to follow her dreams again despite setbacks.
Talking about manifesting his own dreams and fantasies, Johnson referenced Hegel’s philosophy of aesthetics. Hegel’s theory states that the artist has conceptual thoughts and idealized notions that necessarily will be met with the material friction of putting the paint to canvas. Johnson said, “I surprise myself every time I make a painting. The first time I did this I said, ‘Holy Cow, I did this.’ It’s boom, it’s right there, it’s physical, it’s so exciting.” The thrill comes from doing the work and being in the midst of doing the work. Hegel’s theory gives compassion and pathos to those who can’t realize their dreams because the process is too hard or daunting, but for artists such as Johnson, the challenges of the medium are part of what make the creative process so exciting and thrilling.