Field Notes: Bethany Johnson at Moody Gallery
In a strong showing, Austin-based artist Bethany Johnson’s (NAP #108) recent exhibition Field Notes at Moody Gallery in Houston explores her affinity for natural sciences and is a continuation of her interests in the “study of systems and the visual representation of information.” Field Notes is comprised of a variety of complex drawings detailing landscapes–both familiar and unfamiliar–that immediately call to mind a more electronic or mechanical means of production including computer printouts, maps, scans or 3D renderings. –Claude Smith, Albuquerque/Santa Fe Contributor
Johnson’s second solo offering with Moody Gallery reflects her “impulse to collect and preserve information about the complex natural world” through a series of impossibly precise, reductive line drawings. Comprised of 24 ink on paper drawings ranging in size from smaller, almost pocket-sized artifacts to larger, more contemplative showstoppers, Field Notes succeeds to impress. Using reductive yet complicated methods for interpreting and transforming somewhat quotidian imagery, Johnson shows great imagination and skill in her approach to image making.
Bethany Johnson | @NASA_Hubble: Globular cluster IC 4499 insists it doesn't feel a day over 12 billion years, 2014, ink on paper, 11" x 8 1/2"; image courtesy of the artist and Moody Gallery, Houston, Texas
Often beginning with prominent vertical and horizontal lines and grids–reminiscent of the ruled pages of scientific journals and notebooks–Johnson methodically builds her compositions line by line. Some lines are thicker, darker, more boundary defining, while others are more illusive, and in some cases seem to dissolve and disappear into the paper altogether. Drawing inspiration from a variety of sources, these observations and recordings often take the form of unexplored and uninhabited landscapes such as, the artic, space or other desolate terrestrial zones. More than half of the works on view measure 8 ½ x 11 inches and look as though they had been taken directly from a scientist’s archive and displayed as empirical evidence of experiments or expeditions. And yet, while referencing complex technological imaging and esoteric scientific processes, there is a transcendent quality about them, and there is something distinctly human visible in the painstakingly obsessive perfectionism.
In works such as, Heavens have you made the rover happy I (2013), and Lunar Reconnaissance II, Everything that ought to fly in the cosmos flies (2014), Johnson recreates images photographed by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Hubble Telescope. These much larger, more ambitious works attest to Johnson’s skill in translating and distilling visual imagery into aesthetically compelling moments. Other highlights include the more abstracted Apollo Stacks and Measuring Moonquakes which both appear as frenetic incarnations of Agnes Martin’s stark and exacting minimalist grids. Regardless of size, each work often demands a closer inspection and multiple perspectives to fully appreciate Johnson’s efforts. Field Notes is a fascinating body of work that is both full of conceptual high points and showcases Johnson’s superhuman knack for detail.
Bethany Johnson was born in La Porte, Indiana in 1985 and currently lives and works in Austin, Texas. She received her BA in studio art from the Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 2007 and MFA in Painting at The University of Texas at Austin in 2011. Her work was exhibited in a solo show entitled Forces, the Will & the Weather at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, Texas in 2013 as well as Shape Shifting: New Methods of Drawings in 2012, a two-person exhibition at the Austin Museum of Art / Art House, now The Contemporary Austin. She has also exhibited at King Street Gallery, Silver Street, Maryland, the Galveston Art Center, and the Creative Research Laboratory. Johnson is the 2011 recipient of the Art League of Austin Scholarship, and has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Denkmalschmiede Höfgen in Germany, and the Soaring Gardens Artist Retreat.
Claude Smith is an arts administrator and educator.