Now showing at KHFA

Jeremiah Johnson, Job Johnson and Duyen Nguyen

May 11–June 15, 2024
Opening reception Saturday, May 11, 5:00-7:00 pm
Artists will be in attendance

Essay by Susie Kalil

Dragons, tigers and lucky carp. Evil demons, flying cranes and floating eyes. What does it all mean? Think mardi gras beads, buddhas, raccoons, fruits and flowers. Intestines, arteries and alien life forms. Jeremiah Johnson and Duyen Nguyen make work characterized by an unabashed pleasure in execution, paradoxical humor and thoroughly idiosyncratic spirit. Against the clamor of competing aesthetic modes and divergent sociopolitical realities, these artists establish their own reference points, creating works of provocative visceralness, singular clarity and tangible beauty.

Jeremiah Johnson, Butterfly, acrylic and ink on mylar, 36" x 48"

Walking into their exhibition at Kirk Hopper Fine Art is like tumbling into a theme park of the imagination. It is a vast stage-set like environment of frenetically disparate, playfully seductive pieces in slangy materials and eye-popping color. They convey a strong DIY character—the works are largely handmade and reflect a current tendency of artists to operate in the gaps between mediums. There are paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture; embroideries, indigenous textiles and fashion also mingle here. The show delineates a multiplicity of methods and subjects, running the gamut between tweaked cartoon pastiche to Outsider compulsivity, while also building on Pop Art, Pattern and Decoration fantasy, 70s Disco, as well as intimate folk healing and superstitions. Surreal excrescence bursts forth everywhere, inflecting an order dedicated to expressive zeal and an undeniable sense of personal conviction. Johnson and Nguyen turn the space into a tableau full of unexpected juxtapositions and ripe with deliciously subversive details.

Both artists create their own specific codes, languages and grammars. While offering an entertaining play of stories, signs and symbols embodied in a variety of material forms, they also summon darker subtexts about the American Dream, of how to be a person—how to be somebody—in a culture of manufactured truths and an unappeasable appetite for novelty that numb our capacity to believe anything. Johnson and Nguyen present a complexly interwoven series of narrative entanglements that stretch across time, alternate worlds and at least several multiple realities. They catch something in the air, addressing environmental fragilities and the current social malaise. Both formal and expressionistic, their works use unsettling imagery to underscore the idea that the forces bearing down on us are not just a matter of daily struggle to make ends meet, but also impact our bodies and souls. Here, life unfolds kaleidoscopically and pushes hot buttons galore: sex, faith, disease, rebellion and sheer willfulness.

At issue is the prominent theme of cultural loss—in particular, the transcending and redefining of those blurry territories that seem to become more rigid by the day. Rather, Johnson and Nguyen aim to show how separate strands of history might be diversely woven together from different perspectives and contexts.

Johnson was raised on a fruit and flower farm in the mountains of north central Pennsylvania, where his family roots have been traced to the early 1800s. Childhood was spent working on the farm, playing in the woods and drawing at night. According to Johnson, higher education was the only way out, so he moved to Philadelphia and went to Art School. Inspired by artists who aimed to blur the distinction between art and pop culture—Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, among others—Johnson also attempted to mix things up, only on an unusually personal level. He sourced Persian miniature painting as well as the art of Jim Nutt and the Hairy Who, which collapsed old master work and comic books, consumer advertisements and pinup magazines into luridly colored and psychosexual compositions.

Nguyen was born on a small commune in Vung Tau province, Vietnam. After the Vietnam War, her father became a tailor and taught her how to hand-sew in the centuries-old family tradition. Nguyen spent much of her childhood drawing; she also watched Korean and Chinese TV series and films that glorified past kingdoms. At the same time, she developed a strong interest in Asian history and folklore, inspiring personal symbols and visions of animals, plants and humans in otherworldly realms.

Married for seven years, the couple currently live and work amid the sugar cane fields and bayous of Thibodaux, Louisiana. The Cajun region stimulated both artists to excavate and blend distinct histories, even as they brought along their pasts with them. The cross-cultural integration acknowledges a global identity that is still grounded in personal consciousness and the flash points of community life.

Their densely packed, sharp-witted and fanciful mixed media works are about the retrieval of images in a culture overflowing with them. Accordingly, the primitive and the poetically polished rub together in ways that continually strike sparks. While the pace is breakneck, the compositions have a feeling of measured contemplation that balances gut appeal and practiced smartness. Throughout, Johnson and Nguyen counterpoise the vital, pulsating energy with an unmistakable eloquence of touch.

Johnson's multilayered paintings use all sorts of media and processes—relief printing, collage, spray paint, ink jet transfers and decal patterns on mylar—as a compelling language that forms a journey through the spiritual minefield of contemporary life. Covered with bold brushwork, diagrammatic notations, trance doodling psychedelia and mesmerizing horror vacui, the paintings convey an itchy, under the skin, haunting tension. Jammed to all four edges with incident, they are dominated by symbolic figures and images of nature drawn from Johnson's personal vernacular. A giant Southern oak tree is inhabited by silhouettes of ovoid heads with spooky eyes and throngs of cartoony swamp creatures. In "Nighttime," pulsing orange brushstrokes join rows of figures, who raise their hands in the air while hiding behind paper bags. Their gestures of ignorance toward the environment are heightened by the ghostly remnants of pine trees, interweaving and holding the entire surface in perpetual flux. They are familiar forms, but now with a cumulative pathos illustrating an undefined anxiety. Johnson's "critter" menagerie, along with the half-humans, half-tree creatures who live in forested areas or root in the ground, serve as repeated mantras that seem intended to lure us closer to abstract fields of seething marks. The work buzzes with artificial colors- acid yellow and green, hot pinks and blues. Most of the paintings, in fact, have a kind of savage incisiveness that borders on high camp, often using pop riffs to make visually demanding statements about the seeds of human nature. Moving from narratives of childhood experience to adolescence and adult repression, their implicit theme is the hard drop from bliss to tainted disillusionment.

For the past two decades, Johnson has suffered from the debilitating disease of ulcerative colitis. Sculpture became a means of coping with the realities of the disease, as well as the overinflated cost of medical care and endless hospital bills that are not paid. For "House of Worship," Johnson constructs a large-scale church from hundreds of his prescription pill bottles, its interior glowing with warm, amber light and base covered with scores of injection receipts. Here, both religion and medicine promise eternal life. But in post-crash America, we're closer to the edge than we realize—and it doesn't take much to slip. Johnson transforms the church as an object with its own yearning and logic, redeemable "leftovers" that conspire to form a wide range of human emotions.

Duyen Nguyen, Skin System, 2023, charcoal, acrylic, ink on paper, 16" x 20"

Similarly, Duyen Nguyen's paintings operate between exuberance and poignancy, muted outrage and humor. Each embroidered work is a fluid spiritual world, open to interpretation, but one that conveys her sturdy gifts as a storyteller. All are characterized by upbeat sweet-and-sour colors and unabashed flirtation with patterning. Nguyen's layered, natural forms and fantastic creatures—dragons, tigers, fish, lotus flowers, female Buddhas—transmit energy, movement, strangeness and light. Whereas Nguyen studied graphic design in Vietnam, it's important to note that her paintings and drawings do not reference art world practice or inroads. Rather, they derive a passionate fierceness and raw vitality from traditional Vietnamese embroidery skills combined with a keen interest in folklore and fashion.

In these, anxiousness is tempered by magnetic beauty. Nguyen treats the embroidered thread as line and brushstroke, sparking the forms into a kind of tender, kinesthetic dance. Her flora and fauna, real and imagined, from skulls and dragon turtles to multi-headed beasts, vibrate with tightly stitched tufts of color and contours as graceful as they are incisive. In her mixed media paintings at KHFA, the figures that occupy the evolving field are integral with it—below it, fused with it, immersed in it. Yet, as in dreams, everything seems ready to burst apart or collapse together. Nguyen's works are defined at each point by a tension between expressiveness and structure, between delicate lyricism and compulsive insistence. Her fearless sensuality and attention to process—to gesture and traces of the hand- give her works a tactile presence, while her imagery reaches down to the atavistic and primal. Evidence of the hand, of course, represents the personality and very soul of the artist. Nguyen re-empowers the hand, making it a seismographic recorder of the shocks, eruptions and tremors on the fitful paths of her nerve endings.

"Lucky Carp," a mix of flowers, vines, fish and sprightly glyphs, symbolizes the full term energy of nature. The serpentine dragon in "Four Fengshui," with attendant medallions of calligraphy in each corner, refers to the first god of four in Vietnamese culture. Their intuitive elegance also puts one in mind of Buddhism's belief in the transitory nature of all things and that the world is made up of appearances. For Nguyen, however, these spirits infiltrate her dreams as protectors—or as mortal threats- thereby guiding and influencing her daily life.

Nguyen is studying to become a nurse, so it's not surprising that a number of paintings and works on paper reflect an interest in anatomy and physiology. "Systems" uses mardi gras beads and hand embroidery on a geometric quilted fabric to form loopy intestines and arteries, much like fanciful ribbons. Butterflies, horses and white tigers bump up against or are colonized by colorful spiny-amoeba shapes, primitive "talismans" and garlands of intestines. A shape seems recognizable only for an instant before transforming into another related form. Some paintings look like cosmological events; others display the gory details of operating-room dramas. Bold passages sweep before the eye with willful contrasts in textures. Like Johnson, personal symbolism is a way for Nguyen to create order out of a chaotic world.

Also on view at KHFA are several large collaborative paintings by Nguyen and Johnson—gridded compositions with highly charged motifs of formal and iconic richness whereby meanings proliferate and mundane things become multivalent. They draw a world in tension, forcing humor, compassion and ambiguity to collide. Matching swiftness of execution with deftness of physical control, Nguyen and Johnson imbue the works with powerful, emotionally excessive energy—they "let go" and have some fun. Aiming for an intensely personal language, Nguyen and Johnson employ abstraction as a form of representation, the transgression of media boundaries, fragmentation, layering and seeing one image through another.

In these, grand sweeps of paint, gnarly clusters of line, brushy strokes, relief printing and glow-in-the-dark pigment seemingly hover, at once defiantly confrontational and vulnerable. The more you look at their surfaces, filled with mesmerizing apparitions and hues, the more they reveal a dizzying dance of moody vertical or horizontal spatial disjunctions. Accordingly, they layer the flotsam and jetsam of their respective cultures, their marriage, as well as environmental related issues and other obsessions to evoke a world of joy, pain and whispered secrets, and perhaps a more acute awareness of the fortunes of this visual life.

Job Johnson, Ghost of the Dancing Cupboard

In addition to the works by Jeremiah Johnson, Duyen Nguyen and the Nguyen Johnson Collaborative, KHFA is proud to present several graphite drawings on handmade paper by Pennsylvania folk artist Job Johnson. According to Jeremiah Johnson, the project is based on the oral and written stories of life in central Pennsylvania told through the drawings created by an alter ego, Job Johnson, who lived at the beginning of the Industrial Era. Alarmed by the slow erosion of local heritage from consumption and land development, Jeremiah Johnson became interested in the preservation of history and nature throughout the region. "I spent many afternoons exploring historical sites and walking in the woods," he says. "The drawings are framed by branches collected from fallen trees in the Pennsylvania forest. My relatives told me stories about people and places that no longer exist. I started making pictures about this history and what I've heard—about legends of the landscape, the spiritual narratives associated with trees, animals, caves, rivers and mountains. My influence also comes from the writings of Henry W. Shoemaker, an early leader of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, folklorist, conservationist and family relative." Each work relates a specific narrative from early Pennsylvania Dutch settlements, establishing the tight bonds between humankind, nature and the spirit world. Evocative of Van Gogh's landscape drawings of energized mark-making, Johnson's thrusts of the pencil render a visionary imagination with unflinching acuity. The overall theme and resonant myths that connect all kinds of superstitions—hex symbols painted on barns to keep out evil spirits, pow-wows and the lost book of spells—may be construed as the search for truth in an environment of accelerating decline.

Viewed in the context of today's conflicts and injustices, climate emergencies, health crises and social divisions, Johnson and Nguyen suggest that stories and magic offer a means of survival, perhaps a way to connect one's heritage in making sense of an impossible reality. Overall, the power of their work comes as much from the sensual delights of their chosen media as from their generous natures. By continuing paths of exploration of personal and cultural histories, the rehabilitation of common materials in forms that speak of play and process, these artists signal a direction that more precisely explains our world.

Duyen Nguyen, Five Skulls, 2021, 21" x 18"
Jeremiah Johnson, Ghosts and Garlic, 2023, two-color digital laser photo engraved intaglio print